A worker inspects the 'Chain Reaction' sculpture late last month. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL — The Landmarks Commission voted Monday night to start a landmarking process for public art piece “Chain Reaction,” a move which will set in motion a chain of events with uncertain consequences for both City Hall and the sculpture.

If the application is eventually accepted, “Chain Reaction,” a 26-foot monumental piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad that serves as a lurking warning against nuclear technology, would be the first public art piece in Santa Monica to win landmark status.

“It seems on the face of it that there’s credible evidence it should be landmarked,” said Commissioner Roger Genser on Tuesday. “There are a number of elements there to be considered. It was made by a notable artist, it’s in a site-specific location and it has cultural influence.”

The landmark designation provides protections and special process that makes it more difficult for structures and other landmarked things to be moved, demolished or altered.

That could make things difficult for officials that suspect the piece may be badly damaged by two decades of exposure to the elements, and may need to be taken from its location in the Civic Center, immediately across from the RAND Corp., to a museum or other place for repair and upkeep.

The extent of the damage is unknown, but the City Council has already agreed to allow staff to take the sculpture out of its public art collection if supporters of the sculpture haven’t raised enough money to save it by November.

Test results on its materials and a structural integrity report are expected within the next two weeks, which will give a more accurate picture of the cost to rehabilitate “Chain Reaction.”

No one is quite sure what a landmark designation for the piece would mean, said Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager with City Hall.

“If it were to become a landmark, (City Hall) would have to follow the landmark process,” Cusick said. “What course (City Hall) would take is too soon to know.”

It might have the side benefit of helping activists raise money to repair the piece, Cusick said.

They’ve currently accumulated roughly $2,000 of an estimated $200,000 to $420,000 needed to fix the piece.

The decision to move forward with the application came in spite of an early report by Peter Moruzzi, an architectural historian with consulting firm ICF International, which noted that public art rarely receives landmark status and the work’s cultural significance to Santa Monica wasn’t clear.

That didn’t deter supporters like perennial City Council candidate Jerry Rubin, who noted that there are six criteria under which the commission can designate a landmark, and cultural significance is only one.

The other five, which concentrate on aesthetics, history and the political meaning of a given structure or work of art, would also fit, Rubin said.

Santa Monica does have a history of giving landmark status to things outside the normal categories of buildings, monuments or statues.

In 1976, the Landmarks Commission voted to landmark the Moreton Bay fig tree, a colossal specimen on the Fairmont-Miramar Hotel property.

The commission also managed to landmark aspects of Palisades Park and took a shot at giving the special status to pieces of the lawn in front of City Hall before the City Council overturned that decision.

“We are innovators, not imitators,” Rubin said Tuesday. “We do things in keeping with Santa Monica.”

Consultants have 60 days to produce a full report examining “Chain Reaction” in relation to the six landmarking criteria, although Genser asked them to speed it up so that the commission could consider the application at its June meeting.

If the commission chooses to landmark the sculpture, officials can appeal the decision to City Hall, which ultimately casts the deciding vote on landmark designations.

“I hope everyone can work cooperatively to get the best analysis,” Rubin said. “This is a first for Santa Monica, but we pride ourselves in being first in a lot of things.”


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