By Jeremy Ogul | Editor
Citizens concerned about rotunda building
Less than seven months after the death of patriarch Joseph Drew, the Drew family has sold their Ford and Hyundai dealerships to SoCal Penske Dealer Group, a private company that owns 11 automotive sales and service businesses in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
The new owners are in the process of rebranding the dealership as Penske Ford and Penske Hyundai.
“We admire the Drew family’s strong community ties and plan to strengthen community relations by making additional investments in the city of La Mesa and the surrounding area,” said Roger S. Penske, Jr., president of SoCal Penske, in a press release.
The sale has raised concerns among local residents about the future of the dealership’s Roundhouse of Values, the iconic modernist building that has stood next to Interstate 8 since 1967. Many describe it as a landmark that La Mesa cannot afford to lose.
Penske has not specifically addressed their plans for the building.
“We are still in the planning stages of the renovation, which will involve a combination of new construction, cosmetic enhancements and general facility improvements to comply with manufacturer brand identity requirements and to provide employees and guests with a comfortable environment and modern conveniences,” said Cynthia Thomas, general counsel for Penske.
Gregory May, a San Diego resident who catalogues historical images from around the region, started a Facebook page and a Change.org petition demanding that the Roundhouse be preserved. The petition had 273 supporters at press time.
“This fits under the modernism category,” May said. “The problem is that people don’t think modern architecture is historic. Well, I think it’s historic. It’s a landmark. People love it.”
May points out that the building is modeled after a rotunda that was part of Ford’s wildly popular exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. He cites an article on the Modern San Diego blog that describes how Elmer Drew — Joe Drew’s father — returned from the 1964 World’s Fair so inspired by the exhibit that he hired an architect to design something similar for the La Mesa dealership.
The 1964 rotunda itself was modeled after another building, designed by Albert Kahn for the 1933/1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. That rotunda was dismantled and reconstructed near Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, after the fair and remained a popular futuristic tourist attraction until it was destroyed in a fire in 1962.
Susan Myrland said she has a view of the Roundhouse of Values building from the backyard of her home on Alpine Avenue.
“It is graceful and eye-catching as well as being a piece of local history,” Myrland wrote in a comment on the petition. “Without it, Grossmont Boulevard would be a bland stretch of square boxes. This unique building would distinguish Penske from every other forgettable dealership and send the message that you want to be part of the community. Keep it!”
Others supporting the petition commented about sentimental memories they have of walking out of the rotunda with the keys to their first new car. One commenter described the building as a monument to the Drew family and their contributions to La Mesa’s identity.
Jim Newland, a La Mesa historian and member of the Planning Commission, said the building is not technically old enough to qualify as a historic resource under city guidelines, which set a threshold of 50 years or older. If the property owner wanted to register it as a historical resource, however, it would probably qualify for other reasons, he said.
If the property owner proposes changes that trigger a discretionary review by the city, an environmental impact report would probably have to include an evaluation of the building’s historical merit and possible alternatives, Newland said.
But that is all hypothetical at this point because no specific plans are yet on the table, he said.
As for the dealership’s employees, Penske’s attorney said most of them will remain on staff.
“The Drew family legacy is built in large part on the dedication and loyalty of its talented employees, and we are pleased to have been able to extend employment opportunities to a majority of Drew employees,” Thomas said. “Former Drew guests can expect to see many of the same great people behind the Penske name.”
Thomas also said Penske will continue to honor the terms of valid Drew Value Limited Warranties, Drew Limited Lifetime Parts Warranties, manufacturer warranties and service contracts.
—Reach Jeremy Ogul by email at email@example.com.