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Hometown Hero: Tom Cleys Fight to Preserve Santa Monica:

The Santa Monica Conservancy held its annual meeting on Jan. 23 at the historic Church in Ocean Park. The sanctuary was filled, bringing together Santa Monicans of many interests and opinions, but with a shared commitment to historic preservation.

“The City of Santa Monica is a mix of historic architectural styles and new buildings. Our challenge is to respect the past and to build the city in a way that respects our history as we build the future,” said Tom Cleys, who was the founding president of the Conservancy in 2002. “We need the new energy that comes from integrating the new with the old.”

Cleys helped to shepherd the Conservancy in its beginning years. He served as president for the first two years and has been the organization’s treasurer every year since. “I was happy to be able to provide some leadership and to help solidify the organization in the beginning, but it is the energy and ideas of all involved that made it happen.”

Cleys had been living in West Los Angeles, but he wanted to replicate the sense of neighborhood he had experienced as a child. “What I liked about Santa Monica was that people seemed to really care and so many people were so involved.” His parents had set the example for him of what if meant to be part of a community. “You live in a community, you want it to be a good community, and you work to make it a good community and to make a difference.”

He decided Santa Monica was the right place for him. In 1998 he bought a two-bedroom, one-bath, 1926 bungalow on 23rd Street in Sunset Park. He spent four years renovating the house, doing as much of the work as he could himself, but hiring plumbers, electricians, and other craftsmen when he needed expert help. He’s still working on the house and is currently restoring original windows.

“Rehabbing my own home was my one opportunity to do a rehabilitation project and it was a heck of a learning experience and added another 50 or more years of life to my 1926 bungalow,” Cleys said.

Cleys’ appreciation for historic buildings started in his childhood home of Chicago. He grew up in a simple Queen Anne style house, originally built in the 1890s, in a neighborhood of old houses. Cleys remembers, “I grew up with the architecture in the neighborhood and I was fascinated with a beautiful building with a moss green, extraordinarily detailed, terra cotta façade. As an adult, I went back to visit Chicago and saw the building had been landmarked. On the landmark plaque it listed Louis Sullivan as the architect.

“Chicago is a great city for architecture,” said Cleys. “We lived in a great neighborhood and we went downtown to great parks and great buildings. I saw the John Hancock, the Sears, and the Standard Oil of Indiana Towers, being built.

“My view on architecture and good design is that it creates the stages for our lives. People may not know the architect, the architectural design style, or be educated in architecture, but they value well-designed, well-proportioned spaces. The job of the Conservancy is to help the community to understand what they intuitively know.”

When the 2011 Annual Conservancy meeting was over, Cleys helped to put away the chairs, to sweep the floor, and he talked with the people in the room while he was cleaning up. He was happy with the meeting and the success of the Conservancy.

“It will continue to be successful because it is a good fit with Santa Monica thinking and because there are so many good people committed to the Conservancy. It is interesting to be here over time and see the success of the Conservancy and of the Santa Monica History Museum and the California Heritage Museum. It bodes well for the future of historic preservation in Santa Monica.

“But there will always be people who think differently,” Cleys noted. “Yet I feel confident saying that the community as a whole has the right to keep historic buildings from being torn down by creating the opportunity for reasonable re-use and allowing owners to adapt and to upgrade, but with the integrity of the old structure and style. It creates such an interesting environment for the entire city. We’re a great city and we deserve great architecture.”

in Opinion
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