La Verne Magazine
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
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
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,"
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
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
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
"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.