An undignified end for a once grand building
La Verne’s Fruit Exchange faces an uncertain future.
by Alex Forbess
photography by Kelley Maggiulli
The building stands forlornly now, its better years just a memory of a once golden time in La Verne, of a citrus empire that had its heart within its walls. Now, it stands as an eyesore—chained up, beaten, surrounded by ivy vines. Nature is in control here, pulling it away. But the memory is there of this once proud headquarters of the co-op—the La Verne Fruit Exchange building. Until the mid 1900s, the structure was center stage for one of the most powerful citrus organizations in Southern California. Now, the University of La Verne plans to demolish the building in 2013, hoping for better use of the land on the corner of Arrow Highway and D Street. The plan, says ULV’s Clive Houston-Brown, associate vice president of the Facility and Technology Services Department, calls for recreational space plus landscape design that he says will make for a great entry way for downtown La Verne.
Although the city of La Verne granted the University permission to demolish the building in 2006—when the ULV Master Plan was approved—the building still stubbornly remains, surrounded by debris from the Vista La Verne Residence Hall construction. Students reside in their new home feet away, and Chip West, senior director of central services and capital planning, says, “The perfect use of the land is to repurpose it for recreation.” He cites consensual support from the Athletics, Movement and Sports Science and Student Affairs departments, including senior management. Proponents for the building’s demolition say the structure had a long run. Following its half century as the citrus headquarters, the University gained ownership, and it served as departmental headquarters for speech, organizational leadership and, most recently, as a construction hub for the residence hall. For them, the building now lacks a future purpose. “It is an old, disgusting building that should have been taken down years ago,” West says.
Nevertheless, the building has its friends. Galen Beery, president of the La Verne Historical Society, believes this building has a viable future and hopes the University reconsiders. “There are some buildings that are worth saving, and the LV Fruit Exchange is one of them,” Beery says. “It has class.” In principle, the city of La Verne agrees. When the University offered to sell it to them during a Council meeting, Oct. 17, 2011, Hal G. Frederickson, community development director, said he had evaluated the structure to see whether it was worth saving. His answer: “Yes, but it will be very costly. There are so many issues with this building.” Adds Frederickson, “There are ADA [American Disability Act] deficiencies, and the lead paint has to be removed if this building were in public use.” The director estimates the renovation cost to get the La Verne Fruit Exchange to a habitable form would center on $500,000.
Beery steps back from the emotions related to the Oct. 17 Council meeting and sighs. “Every time a building gets demolished is another loss for the history of La Verne.” He believes that the building would be great as the new city of La Verne Chamber of Commerce, let alone as a museum displaying La Verne’s many artifacts that showcase the city’s history. Those artifacts are collecting dust in his house—so much La Verne history, now crammed into his small house and a storage facility nearby. He is a one-man depository for the city’s history. Just one corner of his house displays four original smudge pots, a handmade wooden butter paddle, cups and saucers with the orange motif, four silver trophies awarded for agricultural displays from the Los Angeles County Fair dating back to the 1920s; there is much, much more. “If this building is torn, no one now will know what it was,” Beery says. “It will just be an old picture.” Defeated from negotiating, Beery walked out of that October 2011 Council meeting only imagining what the University’s future plans were for the La Verne Fruit Exchange. At first, he never assumed the worst. He recalls that Frederickson rushed toward him after the meeting, telling him the city wished this building could be saved. “I was surprised,” Beery says. “Hal met me after and said, ‘I agree with you, but there is no money.’” Beery sadly acknowledges that the city’s loss of redevelopment funds sealed the building’s fate. In 2009, the state faced more than $20 billion in budget problems—debt—that was addressed with Gov. Jerry Brown’s February 2012 disbanding of city redevelopment agencies. Even though the city leaders thought they could raise restoration money before Brown’s act took place, the effort ended with disappointment. “That was our funding source for historical preservation,” Frederickson says. “After that announcement was made, the details to save that building disappeared. If we had all the money needed, the project would have been a reality.” Frederickson says the alternative is to raise renovation money through the allocation of general funds that support public services such as the Police and Fire departments. Frederickson knew this was untenable. “It would have been wonderful to preserve as a companion piece,” Frederickson says. “I wish we could have saved it because it has a lot of history. We had every intention, and I am glad that we tried.”
The La Verne Fruit Exchange was slated to be demolished before the fall 2012 semester started. But the execution of that plan was postponed because of the Vista construction. “The construction of Vista bought that building another year or two,” Frederickson says. With the city helpless, the fate of the LV Fruit Exchange rests on the University. Early suggestions for reuse included renovation into a classroom structure as a companion to the old Peyton lemon packing house directly across the street, which was newly reborn in 2000 as the Arts and Communications Building. Precedent for renovation also includes another renovated orange packing house that holds the University’s Central Service and Regional Campus Administration headquarters on the corner of E and First streets. The University has restored many of its old buildings, including, most recently, its century old Hanawalt House, which served as a president’s house for early-era administrators.
ULV’s mission: out with the old
The University has wanted to expand for quite some time, which is captured in its city approved master plan. University administrators are focused on accommodating the growing needs of the University, which saw an enrollment spike to 2,400 plus undergraduate students fall semester 2012. “This plan shows our intent of what we will do with the land,” Houston-Brown says. Indeed, the University has been on a tear recently, replacing the old with the new as it looks to its future. Recent casualties include its old gym, razed for Campus Center construction in 2007, and its historic Ben Hines Baseball Field, bulldozed summer 2011 and paved over as parking lot “D.” Now its attention is focused on the LV Fruit Exchange. Tentative plans call for a basketball court on one corner, a volleyball court on another other, a few patches of grass and a barbecue pit. “Our vision was to have it [the land] as a recreational space for our students,” says Loretta Rahmani, dean of student affairs. “We were searching for a place where students can have a pick-up game.” The Movement and Sports Science Department endorses the idea of recreational space. “We are gridlocked, and we have to maximize with what we have,” says Paul Alvarez, athletic training and education program director, adding, “MSS is not just to be taught in class. The field is our laboratory.” Athletic Director Julie Kline believes also that having a general recreational space will bring several benefits to the University. “This can serve as a point of engagement for our students,” Kline says. “Students are into fitness and health now more than ever.”
West says the building is doomed for other reasons. “It is reinforced with unreinforced masonry block. If an earthquake were to occur, that building will be the first to go. It is not structurally safe.” He notes that the building contains high levels of asbestos, a common building material until 1989, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos can cause lung disease and ultimately cancer if inhaled over time. However, when properly contained, asbestos risk is reduced. Because of the heightened asbestos danger in the building, West says he advocated for the Educational Administration faculty and staff removal about two years ago to their new home in Leo Hall on the corner of D and Second streets.
Beery does not believe this is an excuse for the University to tear down a piece of history. From his experience, he says that asbestos can be contained with a flick from the wrist. “We can put a layer of sealant paint to further contain it,” Beery says. With the amount of asbestos in the La Verne Fruit Exchange, West says more extreme measures need to be taken by professionals. However, the University has used containment measures in its historical buildings, including Founders Hall. For example, the wall tile in the Founders Hall faculty office of Richard Gelm, professor of political science, is encapsulated with a thin coating that holds the asbestos in check. “Even with this coating, you can still see the tiles as if they are popping out,” he says. “I prefer the asbestos not being here, but I am not losing sleep over it,” Gelm says. Abatement, a treatment that rids or controls asbestos, is the norm in some University buildings. West says the University has continuously been removing asbestos from Founders Hall, which is costly.
As for possible building renovation of the La Verne Fruit Exchange Building, West says, “The University intends not to throw money on that dump. We want to maximize every dollar of the student’s tuition.” Plans call for the building’s demolition fall 2013. Just to raze the building is costly. West says asbestos removal before demolition is $30,000. Actual demolition will add another $50,000. Additional costs will come with other environmental fees.
Beery believes the structure still has potential and could be saved if the University deeded it to the Historical Society. He feels he could raise the funds and garner community support to resurrect it both as a museum and as a future Chamber of Commerce site. West’s response, “Has he actually stepped in that building?” Inside the building, one has to squint hard to see a future. Construction debris and hard helmets litter the floor. Copper from the exposed wires and the electrical circuits captures the eye. West utters disgust at the building’s condition and scuffs at any future use for the University, let alone for the city. To him, this is just an empty tomb. West says the University plans to move forward. He wonders why the University is thought of as a power-grabbing giant. “Why do people think, ‘Oh, [the University] has this power, and they will demolish everything,’” West says. “We have saved more buildings than demolished. Everyone had this dream that this would be a great building,” West says. “That will never be.”
‘Built to be a showplace’
Galen Beery, city of La Verne historian, in his heart has not given up his repurposing plans for the historic former Fruit Exchange structure. Where some may see an old failing building, he sees the vision of a 93-year-old structure capturing the glory years of the La Verne Orange Association and Lemon Growers Association. The city of La Verne was once a citrus utopia, the stage for one of the most successful and prestigious citrus industries in California. They wanted a headquarters building that matched that prestige. The organization’s initial leadership met and brainstormed on where the headquarters should be placed: ”somewhere convenient, nearby and prominent.” Historical records also note that the Fruit Exchange building was deliberately placed near a main entrance to downtown La Verne because this was to be a “showplace building.” They found their place on the north side of the rail tracks at Arrow Highway and D Street. In 1920, the La Verne Fruit Exchange Building was constructed. The book, “The History of Pomona Valley,” recounts a review of the building. “This building was built to the highest prestige. The [La Verne Fruit Exchange Building] contains four handsome rooms with a large directors room in connection. The mission style has been followed in the architecture, the building being constructed of brick, plastered covered over. In the interior the woodwork is of mahogany. D.G. Arbuthnot, manager of the La Verne Association, is highly pleased with the new building.”