Southern California and Los Angeles have grown by leaps and bounds over the last 150 years, and the most urgent requirement during that time has been water. Unable to provide enough water for its residents in 1910, Los Angeles acquired a water source and land in Owens Valley to provide a steady and reliable drinking source. An aquifer was constructed by William Mulholland to deliver this manna to the masses. Beverly Hills was no different in the 1920s, growing so much that it required a large and reliable water source for its growing population.
To that end, city leaders put forward a bond measure in 1928 to build a water treatment plant, hiring architecture and design firm Salisbury, Bradshaw and Taylor to design the edifice. The firm came back with a gorgeous rendering in Moorish Romanesque style, a cathedral to water with an elegant tower. As the April 22, 1928, Los Angeles Times reported, “Beauty of architecture and landscaping make the new Beverly Hills water treatment plant, being completed at La Cienega Boulevard and Country Club Drive (now Olympic Boulevard), a public improvement project of unusual distinction. The structure calls for a cost of $147,882.73 and with site, machinery and verdurous adornment, the project represents an investment of about $350,000. …With its surrounding of trees, lawns, flowers and shrubs placed according to carefully devised landscaping plan, the place has the appearance of a beautiful park and, especially on the south side, lends itself to such purpose for visitors.”
Seymour Thomas, landscape architect, designed the layout. The city issued a $400,000 bond issue, passed earlier that week, to include a park across La Cienega featuring baseball diamond, tennis courts, wading pools, playgrounds, and other facilities. According to a May 1989 Daily Variety article, the building was the first West Coast water treatment plant constructed. Through a series of pipes and tanks, water was treated and purified, and then distributed to Beverly Hills residents.
The architects designed not only a beautiful, but a strong and safe building, one that could also tell of other significant events. The May 20, 1940, Los Angeles Times reported that Robert Morris, a 24-year- operator at the plant, “…noticed a strange movement on the surface of a 40-square foot tank. The water was rocking as though some monster hand were jarring the whole building. Because of the machinery vibration inside the substation, Morris had felt no earthquake. Convinced that an earthshock alone could cause such a phenomenon, however, he tried to telephone the deserted Cal tech laboratories. Later he called the Times.” He was the first to report the Imperial Valley earthquake, along with a man located in the Valley.
The Times included a report from the Rev. Joseph J. Lynch, a Fordham University seismographer, stating that his instruments recorded disturbances 46 hours before the quake, indicating they were 2,320 miles from New York. That placed the earthquake exactly in Imperial Valley.
The plant continued in steady operation for years, and worked to ensure that its water would be “equal to the queen of wines in quality,” per the September 23, 1962 Los Angeles Times. Displaying photographs of some of the filters and tanks at the plant, the paper described how the water came from wells, where it was then “serried, cleared, filtered, and softened” before heading to city reservoirs. The story claimed that Beverly Hills was one of the few cities ever to make an inquiry studying the taste of tap water.
In 1964, Beverly Hills put forward a $3 million bond issue to “finance renewal and improvement of the municipal water system,” as the Los Angeles Times reported on October 4, 1964. To ensure passage on October 6, the city strongly pushed the package, stating there would be no increase in taxes, as the bonds would be redeemed with Water Department charges for water. The city reiterated that without passage, they could be forced to cease operation as a separate municipality, as well as lose its top rating (only bettered by San Francisco and Bakersfield). As the report stated, water stored in the reservoir under the tennis courts in La Cienega Park north of plant was pumped to smaller reservoirs, then to facilities at higher elevations, before being distributed into homes. At that time, total water storage in Beverly Hills equaled 27 million gallons, but on a scorching hot day in 1963, the city consumed 19 million gallons. On an average day, the city consumed 12 million gallons.
The story went on to describe how the water was treated at the plant. Water “is aerated to get rid of the hydrogen sulfide. The aeration is accomplished by spraying the water through nozzles resembling lawn sprinklers. Next, hydrated lime and ferric chloride (a coagulant) are added to the water to induce flocculation (forming of clouds) of minerals held in suspension. Then the water flows into a series of settling tanks where the minerals contained in it are removed through precipitation. This clarifying process is repeated again before the water flows into a tank where carbon dioxide is added to reduce the pH (alkalinity) resulting from the lime treatment. This carbonation also caused additional precipitation of calcium as calcium carbonate. In the final stage the well water is filtered through sand and delivered by gravity to the 5-million gallon reservoir under the tennis courts on La Cienega Blvd. Chlorine is added before the final filtration.”
By 1965, the building appeared to possibly be suffering damage from the water treatment process. Water consultant James M. Montgomery reported to the Beverly Hills City Council that the way the city removed hydrogen sulfide from the well water allowed it to oxidize and “attack the concrete in the roof of the city’s La Cienega water treatment plant. Unless the city starts removing the hydrogen sulfide differently, perhaps by a chlorination process, the roof of the treatment plant may come down,” noted in the November 18, 1965 “Los Angeles Times.” The council thought the costs mentioned for changes seemed way too high, shooting them down.
The city abandoned the building soon thereafter, acquiring its water from Los Angeles Municipal Water District. Vandals moved in and graffitied the interior of the structure. A group of technology historians from UC Santa Barbara toured the state in 1979, inventorying finely engineered structures, hoping to eventually declare them historic landmarks. Besides the Beverly Hills Water Treatment Plant, other distinctive structures included the Golden Gate Bridge, Pasadena’s Colorado Street Bridge, and the Lord and Burnham conservancy, the glass prefabricated building shipped to San Francisco in 1876 to be constructed in Golden Gate Park.
By the late 1980s, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences entered into serious negotiations with Beverly Hills officials over acquiring the building after Executive Administrator Bruce Davis noticed the building. The library and archive, housed in the Academy building at 8949 Wilshire Blvd., was full, with collections stored in multiple facilities. A large space was required for storage, exhibition, and research, with plenty of room to grow. They rendered an agreement with the city of Los Angeles to receive $6 million to renovate the building, which they would enlarge to 40,000 square feet by adding a two story wing on the site of the tool shed. Even then the Academy would employ only about 40% of the structure. AMPAS prepaid the 55 year lease to the city of Beverly Hills for $1 million, which maintained the structure and grounds.
Variety thought the acquisition a great idea, reporting in a 1990 story that Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Will Rogers, and others forced the city to build the Waterworks, so that Los Angeles could not annex the area. Fairbanks was said to have spearheaded the project. The magazine threw out several versions of how they claimed Fairbanks came up with the design of the building. One story stated that he had toured the great Terrazas ranches in Mexico, and came back with the idea of a “large hacienda topped by a 130-foot-red-tile roof and an attached granary. The eight-story tower was possibly based on Seville’s Girlada tower, though its function was not to summon worshipers but to siphon off sulfur fumes involved in water purification. One source suggested the style stems from Andalusian farmhouses and Spanish missions, a form developed during the rebuilding of the Santa Barbara Mission after the 1925 earthquake. Another version: Spanish Revival.”
In May 1989, Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis accepted a plaque from the California Preservation Conference, recognizing the Academy’s commitment to preserve the architectural character of the building. Illig Construction was hired to conduct the renovation work, using the plan drawn by architect and historic preservationist Frances Offenhauser. Academy President Richard Kahn and Beverly Hills Mayor Maxwell Salter broke ground for the complex on July 18, 1989, which also kicked off the fundraising campaign. AMPAS hoped to raise $15 million endowment in perpetuity for the building. People such as Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Greer Garson, and Frank Sinatra gave donations, as well as Paramount, Columbia, Warner Bros., Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Universal Studios as part of the three year fundraising campaign. Newman’s Own donated $100,000. Cecilia DeMille Presley and her husband Randall contributed $1 million, much more than the Academy hoped for. Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas, and Steven Spielberg helped drum up support among the film community. Daily Variety reported on November 5, 1990 that the Academy had raised $6.4 million, about half of its goal. The center opened in January 1991 to patrons, and is now considered the world’s premier film library and archive.
AMPAS received several awards for saving and preserving the building, including Los Angeles Conservancy’s Preservation Award on April 18, 1991, and the California Governor’s Award on September 25, 1991.