LONG BEACH - Step into John Thomas' apartment on Molino Avenue in the Bluff Heights neighborhood and you instantly realize that art deco is no passing hobby for the 47-year-old.

It is a passion.

Maybe it's the clocks that are the tip-off.

On the walls, in cabinets, on counter and table tops on bedside stands they sit. Elegant three-piece clocks, small clocks peeking behind larger clocks, beautiful sleek clocks. All in the art deco style.

"I have 150 ... something," Thomas says, while calculating the number of timepieces in his head.

Maybe it's the individually and scrupulously themed rooms in the 1,600-square-foot condo Thomas shares with his partner Chris Launi. It begins with the entryway, where Thomas knocked out a large walk-in closet to make space for special furniture.

It could be the stacks of books on art deco building, art deco design, art deco art, history, trends and, yes, art deco clocks.

Squirreled amid the books are a number of copies of "Long Beach Art Deco," which Thomas co-wrote and Launi photographed.

Maybe it is that every light fixture, phone, knick-knack, toy and piece of furniture is true to the time period.

"Some call it a museum. I don't think it's that," Thomas says of his home, although he admits when his nieces and nephews visit they are told to have "museum hands" by their parents. "This is not a work in progress. I'm satisfied right now.


Advertisement

"

Satisfied says the guy who also jokes that he should join a 12-step program for art deco collection addicts. The guy who admits he should buy a house to better hold his stuff. The guy who considered ringing the living room with a bookcase for his overflow reading before realizing, "If I had more horizontal space, I would just fill it up with more stuff."

He mentions something about stuff he has in storage.

And yet, it's this kind of interest, deep knowledge, maybe even obsession, with history, that has made Thomas one of the city's leading voices in preservation.

To Thomas, historic neighborhoods "have a story to tell" about who we are and where we come from. And whether it is in well-preserved craftsman bungalows or skillfully crafted art deco structures or boxy, crowded cracker boxes, that story can be inspiring or cautionary. To Thomas, history points two ways, not only backward, but forward to where we should go and shouldn't go.

When the California Preservation Foundation comes to town today and Saturday to present its 25th annual Preservation Awards, it will have special meaning to Thomas.

The nonprofit organization will be recognizing the historic Villa Riviera, where Thomas owns a unit, and the awards presentation will be staged on the Queen Mary, Thomas' favorite ocean liner.

"It's an incredible doubleheader for me," Thomas said.

The event in Long Beach also occurs during an incredible run for Thomas.

Thomas, who amid his flurry to local causes also works as the manager of community development for Rancho Cucamonga, has been adding titles and lines to his resume like, well, clocks in his house.

Thomas was recently chosen as president of Long Beach Heritage, succeeding well-known preservationist Stan Poe. He is also president of the Bluff Heights Neighborhood Association, which he helped become the city's 17th officially designated historic district. And he's president of the La Virdene Homeowner's Association.

Thomas is vice president of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, secretary of the Historical Society of Long Beach and a member of the Villa Riviera Home Owners Association architectural review committee.

As a consultant and adviser, he is working with the Save The Queen group at the Queen Mary, the Long Beach Heritage Museum and the historic Art Theater on Fourth Street.

And maybe most important, he is a board member with the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency, where he hopes to bring his knowledge of architecture to discussions about redeveloping blighted neighborhoods.

"I think we'll be looking harder at what we do with our historical resources and managing them."

This weekend, preservationists will see examples of preservation, restoration, renovation and adaptive re-use at the Preservation Foundation's awards dinner.

One of the stars of the show will be the Villa Riviera, which is being feted with an award in the restoration category. It will also be highlighted when it plays host to a private cocktail reception tonight.

"As an owner at the Villa I'm very proud," Thomas says.

And this weekend's events close a circle. Thomas says when he was a boy living in Fullerton he came to Long Beach on a kind of field trip.

"I looked at the Villa and I remember thinking, `One day I'd like to live there."'

Of course, to do that now, Thomas would have to find space for his collection. And those clocks.

WANT TO GO

What: California Preservation Foundation's 25th annual Preservation Design Awards

Where: Queen Mary, 126 Queens Highway, Long Beach

When: Today and Saturday

Saturday schedule

4:30-5:30 p.m.: Behind the scenes Queen Mary tour

6-7 p.m.: Cocktail reception

7-9 p.m.: Dinner and awards

Price: Tickets available at door: $105 members, $140 nonmembers

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291