La Verne Magazine
Spring 2003


Transforming a Piece of History

by Alexis Lahr
photography by Liz Lucsko


Still the "Pride of La Verne," as its lemon crate labels once attested, the former lemon-packing house at the northeast corner of Arrow Highway and D Street, now the home of the ULV departments of Art and Communications, sports an innovative renovation that kept its historical charm. Architects David Robinson (left) and Mark von Wodtke, from the Claremont Environ-mental Design Group, spent six months designing and contracting the project. The five-month construction and renovation period ended with the building's official opening Sept. 1, 2001.

The tart citrus scent of lemons no longer lingers in the air. The train still rumbles by regularly, but it no longer stops for its daily lemon pick-up. The sound of clicking computer keys fills the air in the journalism newsroom, while the nearby radio station studio, sports an on-air KULV student disc jockey in a dimmed room. An art student sits quietly on a bench outside, concentrating on drawing nearby flowers. Upstairs, a student production crew bustles in LVTV's new studio.

Past and present have successfully merged to form a functional combination with an exciting future. What was once a lemon-packing house has been carefully transformed into the University of La Verne Arts and Communications Building. It was originally built in the early 1900s during an era when the citrus industry thrived. Acres of lemon and orange groves filled La Verne and the surrounding cities, and the building served as a lemon-packing house for the La Verne Lemon Association. It was the second of three citrus packing houses built on land that is now used by the University. This lemon-packing house was torn down in 1931, and a new packing house was built in its place, with a refrigeration plant added four years later. The packing house continued to function successfully until the late 1950s, when the citrus industry declined, forcing all three locations to close.

The "lemon house" is one of the few enduring reminders of the citrus industry in La Verne. The packing houses were eventually used for other purposes. The University of La Verne owns the site of the first packing house, which has become a baseball field, and currently uses the third packing house, one block away, to accommodate various departments such as maintenance, the mail room and purchasing. An auto parts distribution company occupied the lemon house for about four years. An older brick walled section of the building was damaged in 1990 by a 5.5 earthquake, and was eventually demolished. The University bought the lemon house in the mid '90s, and it became home to several University departments during the next few years.

The area where lemons had been packed just 30 years earlier housed the University print shop and was used for art classes. Although a large studio space and natural lighting were valuable, the unrenovated building was largely open to the elements, and the lack of heat and air conditioning made working in it a challenge. "It was scorching at times," says Keith Lord, assistant professor of art. He remembers recording temperatures in the building that ranged from 46 to 114 degrees. He says the qualities of the building were "great, but the drawbacks were many."

The University wanted to free up more space, since its Communications Department had outgrown its home in the tent-like Student Center, and other departments needed more room too. The University felt it would be possible to create this space if the lemon house underwent renovation, says Brian Worley, director of facilities management at the University. He says it did not take long to visualize the potential the building had. Because it is a historical building, the University was not allowed to tear it down, nor did they plan to try, Worley says. The University worked with Claremont Environmental Design Group to draw up plans for the project. CEDG worked closely with the University's master plan and has also done two other recent renovations for the campus. This long-standing partnership made it easier to work together. "We really saw the same potential," Worley says. "You really have to understand what's there, and figure out how to take it apart, and how to put it back together again appropriately," says Mark von Wodtke, one of the founding principal landscape architects at CEDG.

CEDG is comprised of multidisciplinary design professionals who each bring a distinct perspective to every project. Von Wodtke says CEDG tries to work with the "natural environment and the cultural environment. You have to think about a holistic environment and how it's woven together," he adds.

Von Wodtke says he enjoys working with older buildings. He spends time traveling in Europe and has developed an appreciation for the rich cultural history that "makes the cities come alive." He feels that although we may not have a long history, it is important to preserve what we do have. Packing houses "represent an era of time here that's important to our cultural history," he says. They have "a richness that spans a period of time that you just don't find in a brand new building. There's a timelessness of it that starts to emerge."

The main goal of the lemon house renovation was not only to add space, but also to use the natural elements of the existing structure to create a space where the art and communications departments can work together, while preserving the historical aspect of the building.

Over time, the old building had become a "dreary, damp, unattractive industrial space," says Phil Hawkey, executive vice president of the University. It was like "an industrial no man's land," jokes von Wodtke.

Because the lemon house would be used to house entire academic departments, renovation while school was in session was impossible. It would have to be completed in a short time during the summer months. The Art Department was relocated to the Brown property, half a mile west of the University, toward the end of the spring semester in 2001, and the renovation project quickly got underway.

During the last three weeks of the construction, workers labored seven days a week and 14 hours each day to finish the building on time. All of the hard work paid off, and the renovation was complete in just a few months. The building was able to open on the first day of the 2001 fall semester.

Since the lemon house is designated a "heritage University building" under the city's specific plan, there were restrictions on what could be done during the renovation. Anything that compromised the characteristic features of the building was forbidden. This meant that window space and the mural painted on the south wall had to be preserved. The building had to retain the appearance of a citrus packing house, Worley says. "Being one of the last packing houses, it was not something ULV could just tear down," he adds. "Basically, they were asking us to do what we felt was right anyhow," von Wodtke says. "I didn't feel particularly hampered by any of their restrictions."

The result of the 2.7 million dollar renovation is what appears to be a brand new Arts and Communications Building on the inside, yet the same lemon-packing house on the outside. The basement area is opened up, and large, north-facing windows allow light to reach all levels. A tall wall stretches from the basement to the upper level, connecting the two floors and also provides a large, well-lit space for art exhibits.

The Art Department is housed in the upper level, in a large, uninterrupted work area that receives significant natural lighting from the windows. On the east end of the building, beneath the tin roof, is a state-of-the-art screening room with retractable shades to dim the area.

The Communications Department is housed in the basement level, which is complete with a computer lab, radio and television studios, a newsroom and editing rooms situated in the heart of the building. Students can easily travel between the two levels through an elevator, situated next to a wide cement staircase. Classrooms and faculty offices outline the space on both floors. The different departments are sectioned off, yet the large openness creates a connected feeling. A pedestrian walkway was built in front of the building, connecting it to the rest of the campus.

Despite the renovation of the building, many features were put in place to maintain its historical character. Industrial grade finishes were chosen, which fit the building and will be very serviceable, von Wodtke says. Older industrial buildings were designed for day lighting, so the large, north-facing windows were kept in an effort to preserve the historical aspect as well as to use the natural environment to the building's advantage. Much of the flooring in the main part of the building is cement, and the steel framing and piping is left exposed.

"When you look at an industrial building, everything was exposed," von Wodtke explains. "We chose to express everything that we were installing in the building. It fits and adds interest." There are even small "shipping" and "receiving" signs above the large windows that were once cargo bays.

In keeping with CEDG's philosophy, the building was built to be as energy efficient as possible. The group was able to come up with a design that allows the building to run 14 percent below code requirements. The shell of the building was not very energy efficient, but it had good features such as natural lighting to work with, von Wodtke says. CEDG worked with Southern California Edison's Savings by Design program, which encourages and rewards energy efficient buildings. Worley recently accepted a check for $14,000 made out to the University for operating below code requirements.

The feedback on the renovation has been overwhelmingly positive. "I view it as one of our great successes," says Worley. "I don't know that we could have done much better," he adds. "It's an attractive compliment to the campus, and we're very proud of the building," Hawkey agrees.

"I found it to be a very satisfying project," says von Wodtke. "I'm delighted with the results." He especially likes how the building has become "a little beacon at the end of D Street that draws people in." He enjoys how the large windows open the building up to the public and allow people to see what is going on. He hopes that it continues to draw people in for art exhibits and invite them to spend more time in old town La Verne.

The academic departments housed in the renovated building are quite satisfied with the project. Dr. George Keeler, chair of the Communications Department, is pleased that the department moved from a "one room school house in the Tents to a show place facility." It is "a workplace that is both comfortable and custom designed for our Communication Department needs," Keeler says. "It is a grand palace, and we're very fortunate to be here." Lord agrees that the building is "totally phenomenal. It serves as a symbol of what La Verne was."

Many other people were delighted with the renovation as well. The project received a merit award for sustainability in design from the American Institute of Architects. It also received an award from the city of La Verne for excellence in design within the categories of institutional and adaptive reuse.

For von Wodtke and CEDG, the lemon-packing house project is about more than just the success the University of La Verne has achieved. It is also about "demonstrating what can be done in preserving this kind of thing," he stresses. Von Wodtke is using this message to battle another issue. He, along with the rest of CEDG and other Claremont preservationists, has been fighting to save the Claremont Heights lemon-packing house located along the railroad tracks near Indian Hill Boulevard in Claremont. The Claremont packing house played a large role in the history and development of the city, although it is currently unoccupied and lacks necessities such as plumbing and electricity.

Von Wodtke has been a Claremont resident for more than 30 years and has raised his family there, so he has a special interest in preserving this particular packing house. Previously, the city of Claremont wished to build a hotel in the packing house's space. Building a hotel near railroad tracks would prove unfruitful, however, so the city is currently allotting more time to find an alternative way to use the packing house. Von Wodtke argued that turning the packing house into a hotel would not be good use of the space.

Members of CEDG put together a conceptual plan of how the packing house could be saved. The plan, called the "Packing House Park," includes features allowing tenants to lease areas of the structure for office space or residential lofts and also provides space for a potential art school.

Von Wodtke also sees potential to house the weekly Farmer's Market in the packing house. He has spent several months fighting to save the Claremont packing house by writing letters to the local paper, circulating a petition and holding an exhibit that explored potential ideas for the packing house. He has even taken Claremont leaders on tours through the University of La Verne packing house as an example of what can be done.

Von Wodtke and CEDG are hopeful that the Claremont packing house will become another success story of adaptive reuse. He hopes people look at the University of La Verne packing house to see how a project can successfully preserve a city's heritage.

"It's not always easy, but it's worthwhile," von Wodtke says.