"Penske fails to see the value in the roundhouse of values," said Gregory May, who started a petition and a Facebook page to bring attention to the planned demolition of the 1960s Drew Ford roundhouse.
The Drew family sold the dealership to Penske in 2014, so, technically, it's the Penske-Ford roundhouse now. Many locals have a soft spot for the unusual structure because it hosted community events for decades.
Betty (not her real name) has worked in the automotive industry for decades. As a child, she remembers seeing the Drew Ford roundhouse being constructed. She recalls Elmer Drew (Drew Ford’s founder) being very proud of his roundhouse even though it was mostly laughed at by locals.
She said Elmer had a deep love for history and community. "All we're asking is that Penske respect the principles of the man who built the roundhouse."
Roger Penske sounded like he was onboard in a 2014 San Diego Union-Tribune article shortly after buying Drew Ford: he said he admired the Drew family's strong community ties.
Jim Newland, a historian and cultural resources professional affiliated with the La Mesa Historical Society and chair of the city planning commission, said the building should have at least been considered for historical eligibility since it’s one of La Mesa's most recognizable landmarks. He said a procedural loophole made it possible for the city to issue the demolition permit about a year ago.
The loophole is an inventory list that hasn't been updated since the 1980s. The list has buildings and properties of at least 50 years old to be considered for historical designation. While the Drew Ford dealership goes back to the 1930s, the roundhouse only goes back to the 1960s, making it ineligible for the list in the 1980s. Newland said as he and others have tried to get the list updated for years, several historic buildings have been lost.
According to Newland, Elmer's daughter Esther, now in her 80s and living in Colorado, always understood the roundhouse was built to be disassembled. "When her dad bought the land in 1967, Caltrans was laying out plans for the freeway. They knew they might need some of his land so Elmer reportedly built the roundhouse so it could be taken apart easily and moved."
Newland admits with La Mesa mostly built up since the 1980s, finding a new home for the roundhouse would be a challenge. He's hoping someone might want to take it off Penske’s hands.
The inspiration for Drew Ford's roundhouse was Ford's pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. This was the same year that Ford unveiled the Mustang. It was a mood-lifter for a nation still in shock over president John F. Kennedy's assassination months before. Everyone who was anyone was at that Ford Pavilion — Martin Luther King was photographed with his children at Ford's "Magic Skyway" ride.
After Elmer Drew died in the 1990s, his son Joe took over the business. Months after Joe's death in 2014, his son Bill sold the dealership to Penske. The Drew family still owns the land.
Rick Garrett from Penske said the Drew family is "in total agreement" with the roundhouse being demolished. He said it won't be demolished until they move into their larger new digs currently under construction. He said this should happen mid-spring 2018.
Garrett confirmed the roundhouse was never retrofitted and that it can still be disassembled. He wasn't sure if there were any discussions of possible historic designation.
City senior planner Chris Jacobs said potential historic impacts were evaluated as required by the environmental process. He said there was a 20-day public review of the environmental document and that surrounding property owners were notified, as well as a notice being published in the East County Californian prior to the city council vote. As far as the permit applications, Jacobs said they were "reviewed in open public meetings and the agendas were posted on the city's website."
While I found the January 14, 2016, meeting notice published in the paper Jacobs mentioned, the February 8, 2016, public meeting mentioned in it was canceled.
On February 9, 2016, the city council voted in favor of the redevelopment and demolition without any discussion. It was mentioned the city council had discussed it previously. I searched for city council meeting notes for mention of the project between 2014 and 2017. The only mention found was on February 9.
I contacted La Mesa's mayor and city councilmembers to ask if they had heard from the community about the demolition. Councilmember Bill Baber was the only one to get back to me. He said he hadn't heard anything but said he bought three cars from the roundhouse. Baber abstained from voting at the February 9 meeting.
The Save Our Heritage Organisation sent a letter to the city in mid-November requesting the matter be returned to the city council to allow for public testimony before making a final decision on demolishing the roundhouse.
A few years before the Drew Ford jingle was retired circa 2012, Rick Garrett said one of Drew Ford's more high-profile promos called it quits.
"Elmer and Joe used to have a car pulled up in a crane for three to four days over the freeway, until they sold 100 to 150 cars. The [California Highway Patrol] made them move it back [from above the freeway] in the 1990s." Garrett said they always met their goal. "They had a porta-potty, they sent food up in a bucket, they literally slept up there."