A man walks by the Midas location on Fifth Street and Colorado Avenue. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL ¬ó Waldo Waterman may have made a dent in aviation history with his first-ever flying car, but buildings are not landmarked on reputation alone.

The Landmarks Commission knocked down a proposal to designate a building at Colorado Avenue and Fifth Street Monday night, removing an obstacle that could have sunk a mid-price hotel planned for the northwest corner of the intersection.

The building at 1554 Fifth St., which currently houses a Midas auto repair shop, was the site of Waterman’s flying car factory, where he designed and manufactured his Arrowbile between 1935 and 1938.

If all of the approvals go through, it’s also the future location for a $30 million Courtyard By Marriott hotel, one of two mid-priced hotels planned for the northwest and northeast corners of the intersection.

OTO Development, which intends to build the hotel, is dead set against the designation, which representatives claim will make the project too costly to proceed.

The decision was in line with a report by consultant PCR Services, which declared the building unfit for landmark status under any of the six criteria built into the Santa Monica Municipal Code.

A building or resource must only satisfy one of the six tests, which cover the look of the building, who built it, what was done there and whether or not it relates to a famous person.

According to the PCR Report, changes to the building’s original Spanish colonial revival-style architecture and the addition of shotcrete, a sprayable concrete material, to the outer walls are irreversible and compromise the historic character of the building.

Even the most ardent supporters of designation, like commissioner Nina Fresco, admit that the building has seen better days, but believe that Waterman’s time there and the Churriguresque detailing inside and on the exterior of the building warrant consideration.

“It’s not about what’s missing or what’s added,” Fresco said. “It’s about whether or not there’s enough of what there was to tell the story.”

And the story, she argued, is worth saving.

In the first half of the 20th century, Santa Monica was the center of the aviation industry.

The Douglas Aircraft Co. set up shop in town, building innovative aircraft that were widely used in military operations and paved the way for the modern jet airplane.

Against that backdrop of invention and exploration of the capabilities of flight, there was Waterman.

Waterman was inspired by the 1920s “flivver” movement, an attempt by the federal Bureau of Air Commerce Chief Eugene Vidal to inspire American companies to create an airplane that cost under $700 and was safe.

He’d already tinkered with a design the year prior, and from his previous work — called the Whatsit — he created the Arrowplane. A later model was called the Arrowbile, which Waterman manufactured at the Fifth Street site.

Two of Waterman’s devices hang in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., and his devices were flown by his friend, Amelia Earhart.

Still, Waterman’s devices never took off, at least commercially.

“He built six of them here, but he wanted to build 1,000,” said Ken Kutcher, a land-use attorney representing OTO Development. “He wanted to raise funds and he couldn’t.”

Kutcher argued that Waterman’s failure as a businessman made him a blip in aviation history books rather than a person deserving commemoration in a physical building.

If that was the case, there’s already a street in Van Nuys named after him, Kutcher said.

Ultimately, the commissioners’ decision hinged on whether or not Waterman’s contributions to aviation history outweighed the degradation to the building and its historical attributes.

The answer was no.

“This does not have the significant integrity for us to raise this to the level of a landmark in the city of Santa Monica,” said Chair John Berley.


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