Economy Attacks the Last of the White Elephants

Around the corner from my office stands the largest unaccomplished project we have ever not finished (is that a triple negative?). The main contributor to the project’s degree of difficulty to be developed, in one way or another, has always been the economy.

The building is just less than 50,000 square feet, and has stood the test of all that Mother Nature has thrown at it. The earthquake in 1933 hardly affected it. It is one of the first reinforced concrete buildings. It is the Masonic Temple Building at the northwest corner of Fifth and Broadway. As usual, there is an interesting story regarding its recent, and more distant, history.

I had my first glimpse into the Masonic Lodge in 1987. The federal government had a mandate to consider the rehab of local historic buildings for the use of federal facilities. I did not know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse project. It was barely a gleam in the eye of “B-1 Bob,” the ex-congressman sometimes given the most credit for creating the forces in Washington that mounted the inertia in getting the big courthouse to Santa Ana.

A developer with whom we had constructed several bank projects contacted us. His interest was to visit the Masonic Temple Building and respond a federal agency to rehab the building for use as a federal court building.

I had worked on several court structures. I knew the needs of separating the bad guys from the good guys in the same building. This is one of the biggest planning issues in a court house, and I could see this was going to be no easy task. We did a plan and the response for the developer. We heard shortly thereafter that the courts had rejected all the proposals.

As this would have placed into service a great Santa Ana facility, this was a letdown for all concerned. The Masons had hoped to sell the building and move the sale money into their new facility. The City had hoped to save another contributing member of its newly created North Historic District. The developer lost a long-term lease with the Feds, the “sugar daddy” of all tenants. And our firm had lost a sizable commission and a hand in saving a building.

The greatest panic was that the City had published its list of buildings requiring seismic retrofit. The Masonic Temple needed to comply, or it could not be occupied. As time marched on, the occasional developer would call on us to show them the building, but the logistics of rehab and the asbestos abatement would always kill the deal.

This was the way things went until 1993, when we were contacted by an Australian developer with the idea of rehabbing the building and turning it into a vast private and exclusive club. This was a compatible use, considering the grand style of one of Santa Ana’s great private clubs, the Masons.

The idea went along for six months until the developer pulled some funds (all of them, as I remember) from the assets of the building and paid not us to do our work, or the Masons from whom he purchased the building, but himself, to go to Europe. The Masons finally got the building back, but not until after shaking an expensive legal stick at the developer. We did not do so well.

Now we hope that the new boom to the economy can help save the old building. We know the fabric of the building is still very much in place, and the grandness of its facade and entry and its great gathering hall really would be the greatest of spaces for a new user.

The economy started the first actions to save the building. Maybe this new roll we are all on will save the last of Santa Ana’s white elephants.

(Donald Krotee, “Architecturally Speaking,” Downtown Business News, March 1999)