‘Pomona A to Z’: B is for Becket’s Bold Buildings

So, onward to B. For this letter I considered writing about the Barbara Greenwood Kindergarten, mentioned in passing below, but decided it was too old. After adobes the previous week, I wanted to stake out more modern territory to give readers a jolt.

As I interviewed Mike Schowalter outside City Hall for this one, Councilman George Hunter approached, and that’s where we met. (I wasn’t going to council meetings yet.) He was friendly but skeptical of the Civic Center’s architectural value, being from the East Coast, where 40 years old is nothing, so I made sure to inject a note of skepticism late in the piece for those who shared his viewpoint.

This column was originally published July 25, 2004.

B is for Becket: ‘Pomona A to Z’ builds up famed architect

Week two of “Pomona A to Z,” my series highlighting the coolest parts of Pomona one letter at a time, brings us bouncing to B.

What will be B? Among the bounty:

B could be for Barbara Greenwood Kindergarten, the nation’s first standalone kindergarten, a 1908 building on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Blockbuster Concert Series in Ganesha Park, this year scheduled for Aug. 7, 14 and 21.

Boxing, after championship boxer “Sugar” Shane Mosley of Pomona and the respected Fist of Gold pugilism program.

Buffums’, the beloved department store downtown that’s now a medical school.

Or, for that matter, the store on Garey whose name sums up its philosophy: Buy Two, Get One Free. (Alas, the store wasn’t there the last time I checked. Perhaps Buy Two gave away too many One Frees.)

But our B isn’t any of those. Instead, B is for Becket’s Bold Buildings.

I’m referring to Welton Becket (1902-1969), one of L.A.’s most celebrated architects.

His firm was responsible for such mid-century icons as — take a deep breath — the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theater, UCLA’s Medical Center and Pauley Pavilion, Bullock’s department stores, the Capitol Records tower, LAPD’s Parker Center, the Cinerama Dome, the Sports Arena — still with me? — Century City Shopping Center and the Pan Pacific Auditorium.

And Pomona’s Civic Center!

In the 1960s, Becket’s firm designed seven buildings in downtown Pomona: six in the Civic Center, plus Buffum’s.

It’s the largest concentration of Becket’s work anywhere, according to the L.A. Conservancy, which sponsored a retrospective and tour, “Built By Becket,” in 2003.

Stroll around the Civic Center and you feel like you’re in “The Jetsons,” that other 1960s-era vision of the future.

There’s the Council Chambers, a round building similar to the Taper Forum that seems to float. City Hall with its thin vertical windows and glass pavilion entrance. The Library’s expansive interior without internal columns.

Other Becket buildings nearby are the Police Department, Superior Courts and Public Health Building.

With its parklike setting and broad walkways stamped with the Pomona logo, the Civic Center has a Utopian feel, like something out of the sci-fi film “Logan’s Run.”

“Those were buildings of the future, and that’s what Pomona wanted,” said Mike Schowalter, founder of the Pomona Modern Committee, which dotes on 1950s and ’60s architecture.

On Wednesday, Schowalter gave me a tour and the back-story.

You see, by the late 1950s Pomona was faced with a decaying downtown as shoppers fled to the glitzy Pomona Valley Center and its Sears on the outskirts of town.

In a bold stroke, the city decided to reinvent its core with a downtown pedestrian mall and a modern Civic Center.

Six of 12 buildings went up before the effort ground to a halt. But get a load of what else Pomona had on the boards: a monorail station, downtown heliport, civic auditorium, planetarium, art museum and residential high-rises.

Whoa!

The future would be so bright, Pomonans would be wearing shades.

“They were on the cutting edge,” Schowalter said fondly of the era’s leaders. “You’ve got to admire a city for doing some thing so out there.”

Speaking of out there, long-time residents may remember when — in a Mayberry-meets-”Blade Runner” moment — the reflecting pools were stocked with trout for fishing contests. The plaza was also the site of Easter sunrise services.

These days the Civic Center is the worse for wear, and the reflecting pools have been replaced with landscaping because the homeless population used the pools for bathing.

Still, most of the grandeur remains.

Hey, it’s not Victorian architecture. But if you can appreciate 1960s style, heavy on exposed aggregate concrete, the Civic Center’s got it in spades.

If restored, Schowalter asserted, Welton Becket’s Civic Center would easily compare to Frank Lloyd Wright’s modern buildings.

“This guy,” Schowalter said, “was pretty hot stuff.”

(David Allen, rather tepid stuff, writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.)

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  • Sue Andrus Chilberg

    I remember the pools and I also went to Easter sunrise services there every year. My parents would send me on my bicycle to city hall every month to pay the water bill and go to the library. How beautiful the grounds were around there back then. Oh, how times have changed.

  • dedication

    There was a heliport that was however short lived. When I was in kindergarten at Washington Elementary, I toured the site and was treated to a helicopter landing and taking off. The shuttle worked between Pomona and LA primarily. I saw it with my own eyes. Ed Macdonald

    [That's cool you saw it in action. I wrote a piece about three years ago on the helipad's history. A '60s rendering exists of a full-fledged heliport/monorail/bus station for downtown that must be seen to be believed! -- DA]