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September 1, 2014

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Would art’s gain be history’s loss?

THE PAST:

The Los Angeles Water and Power building, built in 1940, housed administrative offices of distributors of power from the Hoover Dam.

THE PRESENT:

Houses the code enforcement department, Emergency Aid of Boulder City and the Red Mountain Music Company.

THE PLAN:

The music company would like to cover and enclose the courtyard and knock down a wall to create space for a performing arts theater.

THE PROBLEM:

Historians object to remodeling a building thats part of a district on the National Register of Historic Places.

The off-white and slightly dirty building on Nevada Way in Boulder City is marked by a simple sign stating it is the Water Department.

But it's not.

Some windows facing an alley are cracked. The front door, leading to an octagonal space of historic significance, features stickers proving it is owned by Boulder City, which uses it for storage and as headquarters for the code enforcement department.

The outside is the premier feature, an intentional overstuffing of mortar that makes the bricks look like a wall of submarine sandwiches. The technique is called "weeping mortar," and it was considered cool in the 1930s.

Boulder City allows a pair of nonprofit groups to use space in the 67-year-old structure. One is Emergency Aid of Boulder City, the small town's food pantry. The other is the Red Mountain Music Company, a group that annually puts on dozens of performances.

Now, one wants to grow and flourish, with ambitious plans to turn the building into a 536-seat theater complete with VIP sections and a mezzanine.

The other just wants a place to do good deeds.

And in between lie concerns about the propriety of remodeling the former Los Angeles Water and Power building, part of a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was built in 1940 to house administrative offices of those distributing power from the Hoover Dam. A window in the foyer is now used as the box office for the Saturday night shows performed in a small theater by the Red Mountain group.

This week it will feature Christmas carols. But it could be so much more, said Wendy Randall, Red Mountain's executive director.

The group has had architectural drawings prepared and Randall said donors have pledged $1 million in construction costs, about one-tenth of the project's estimated cost.

Recently the City Council voted to support the plan, under which the new theater would be placed in a courtyard now being used to house city vehicles and old picnic tables.

Red Mountain wants to put a roof over the courtyard, calling the plan an "adaptive reuse."

And that's where some historians may enter the fray, believing the plans are more of a complete remodeling than a reuse of anything, except space.

"To roof the courtyard - that's too much," said Dennis McBride, a town historian who until last month served as curator of the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum. "That's not meant to be an enclosed space."

In addition, an iron gate used to enter the courtyard from the back alley would be removed and the courtyard would be fully enclosed. The music company then might knock down a back wall to create more stage space.

"That's a significant alteration that the building doesn't deserve," McBride said. "That's a major remodeling."

The State Historic Preservation Office would have to sign off on any significant changes to the building or the district it's in could lose its place on the register and the opportunity to qualify for federal grants.

"We have four or five projects that are doing this now," Mara Jones, an architectural historian with the preservation office, said of adding performance space to historical buildings. "It depends on the impact on the building. It's not out of the question."

The offices used by Emergency Aid would be turned into music company offices and practice spaces.

"We're going to try real hard to find them a new place," Randall vowed. "They are a really good organization."

But no one's sure where that space would be. That concerns Sue McCullough, president of Emergency Aid, which serves 300 families a month. The group is staffed entirely by volunteers, mostly senior citizens, and relies on the free space provided by the city.

"We would be concerned if we didn't have a city-provided spot," she said. "We wouldn't have the ability to find a new location, let alone pay for it."

It's not to say the new theater would not be welcome in the city. Boulder City already has a successful arts festival, and plays at the Boulder Theater, run by Desi Arnaz Jr., often are sold out.

A newer, bigger theater could draw people to the city, helping the small businesses and restaurants lining the main drag.

"We want something we can use today," Randall said. "Our donors and our board really favored something in the downtown. That's where the ambience of Boulder City is."

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