The Central Tower building on Fourth Street moved closer to landmark status this week. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
The Central Tower building on Fourth Street moved closer to landmark status this week. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL — Landmarks commissioners moved Monday night to give special status to the Central Tower building on Fourth Street, a 102-foot-building that was dubbed Santa Monica’s first skyscraper.

The building, constructed on the eve of the Great Depression, met between three and four of the six criteria under the landmarks ordinance, according to the staff report and a third party write-up. A structure needs to qualify under just one to be eligible for landmark status.

Given that, city officials were “pretty sure” the commission would choose to designate the building, said Scott Albright, a senior planner who acts as liaison for the Landmarks Commission.

That gave Lesley Gordon pause.

Gordon’s family has owned the Central Tower building for over 40 years, and continues to lease its office space above Fourth Street to tenants and the storefronts below to retail shops.

A landmark designation puts restrictions on properties, forcing owners to come back to the commission for permission to make changes to the facade or other aspects considered important to the integrity of the historic elements.

There is a concern throughout the business community that if a building is landmarked, nothing can be done to change it, even for the better, Gordon said.

“We’re a little family that has worked hard,” she said. “We want the community to be able to enjoy it, but it has to work for us, too.”

The Art Deco building was constructed in 1929 and, according to the Evening Outlook newspaper, signaled the transition of Fourth Street from a predominantly residential use to business district.

The tower itself is eight stories high, the tallest in Santa Monica from 1929 until the construction of the Bay Cities Guaranty building a year later, according to a December 2001 report by PCR Services.

Although it was estimated to cost $160,000 to build, the developers ultimately shelled out $500,000 to erect the building. It debuted to a crowd of 5,000 to 10,000 people, according to the Evening Outlook, lit up with spotlights and serenaded by the municipal band.

The main entrance to the Central Tower building has a travertine and marble floor, black tile knee walls and a double wood door with side lights and a transom window.

That entrance and lobby area caught the imagination of the commissioners.

“My sense of the entryway is that it’s one of the most beautiful places in the Downtown,” said Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer.

Noted architect M. Eugene Durfee designed the building, which was financed by the Central Tower Investment Company and A.P. Creel, an investor who headed up the Santa Monica-Ocean Park Chamber of Commerce and was active in civic life.

Both men also took part in the creation of the Georgian Hotel on Ocean Avenue and the Bay Builders Exchange Building on Fourth Street at Broadway, according to the report.

Some pieces of the building have seen major changes over the last 80 years, including the storefronts that line Fourth Street, removing them from consideration under the landmark designation.

Gordon, backed up by architecture historian Robert Chattel, lobbied to exclude the rear of the building facing the west at the first and second floors before the tower as well so that it could be changed should a private party want to develop the building in the future.

“If the rear visage is left alone, I will not feel the need to contest that,” Gordon said.

Commissioners were loathe to exclude the rear of the building completely from the designation.

“I feel if this building did not have a back, it would fall down, so it’s part of the structure,” said Commissioner Nina Fresco.

Rather than leave the back of the building out, commissioners called it of “lesser importance” to the structure as a whole.

Whether or not that’s enough of a distinction will have to wait until officials draft the “statement of official action,” which clearly spells out the action of the commission, said William Delvac, an attorney with Armbruster Goldsmith and Delvac, the firm representing Gordon.

There are no plans to develop the building in the short run, Delvac said, although “it could accommodate additional development, which would support the preservation of the building.”

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