Tower remains dark; debate persists

Staff Writer

The 125-foot stucco-and-steel tower that stands on front of Pepperdine’s campus, the Phillips Theme Tower, has been the focus of a controversial issue since it was built in 1973. Three decades later, the University and Malibu communities still debate the reasons why the tower is not lit and whether it should be lit in the future.

When the tower was constructed, some members of the Malibu community were resistant to having such a large structure in plain view, especially one with the ultimate symbol of Christianity. For the community to allow the cross to be built, an agreement was made by then- president, William S. Banowsky.

“For the tower to be built in the first place, I said word for word, ‘I, William S. Banowsky, promise that the tower will not be lit as long as I am the president of Pepperdine,’” he said. 

The community members at the meeting accepted his agreement and, according to Banowsky, the tower’s construction began the next day. 

“I promised not to light it while I was president, but I built it with lights because I hoped that a later administration would light it,” Banowsky said.

Many people, including Pepperdine administrators, students and others who live in Malibu, have believed for years that Banowsky promised never to light the tower if it was completed. 

Pepperdine Public Relations officials said the Regional Planning Commission made a hand-written note on the planning that prohibited lighting the cross when it was built, after “receiving assurance” from university officials that the tower would not be lit.

“Why would I promise not to ever light the tower and then build it with lights the next day?” Banowsky said.

Several years after the tower was built, the cross was lit during the holiday season. It has been said that the neon light was so bright that it could be seen from Catalina Island and the Orange County coast. With a light so bright, some members of the Malibu community were not happy about its gleaming presence. Rumors still exist at Pepperdine that Barbara Streisand is to blame for complaining about the lights, but President Andrew K. Benton said those rumors are not true.

Rather, Pepperdine administrators did not seek a permit from L.A. County before lighting the tower, so when the L.A. County Planning Commission asked them to turn off the light, they agreed to do so. 

“We were new in town and did not want to upset the neighbors,” said Pepperdine Chancellor Emeritus Charles B. Runnels.  

In 2002, then-vice president of Seaver’s SGA, Giuseppe Nespoli, was dedicated to relighting the tower. Nespoli, along with a group of other students, obtained permission from L.A. County to light the tower as a part of a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony.  SGA did not seek approval from the administration before going to L.A. County. 

“We started working on the permit in the summer months leading up to September, and then we later met with the administration,” Nespoli said.

The students and administration compromised with a “modified-lighting” of the tower, in which it was illuminated by floodlights, shining upward toward the tower.

Within the past two years, the controversy has sprung up again. Senior Austin Maness created a Facebook group called “Light the Tower,” a group “for Pepperdine students interested in lighting the theme tower.” 

Maness, along with senior Jonathan Younger, received attention from the Los Angeles Times in July of 2006. 

“Campus morale is low.  Tuition is up, as well as class sizes … school spirit is almost nonexistent,” Maness told the Times.  “Those of us who really love Pepperdine want to not only relight the tower literally, but also figuratively; we want to have a principled, excellent university to take pride in.”

Dean of Student Affairs Mark Davis has clearly expressed a desire for Pepperdine’s legacy to be more than a brightly lit cross. However, this does not mean that he is opposed to lighting the tower. 

“If the Malibu Community supported it and the L.A. County approved it, I would personally be pleased to see the tower lit on special occasions,” Davis said.

Marca Kaufer led the homeowners’ organization in Malibu that opposed the tower’s original construction.

“Banowsky promised not to light the tower — ever,” she said. 

However, Banowsky tells a different story. 

“It was a strategic move,” he said.  “Tell me, how could I stand up at an informal meeting and establish an eternal policy for Pepperdine?

“I spoke for me personally. I was not there to make a university policy. I made no official commitment and did not have the right to speak on behalf of trustees.”

Banowsky, who has authored numerous books, is in the process of writing one titled “Malibu Miracle,” which describes the historic move  from Pepperdine’s Los Angeles campus to Malibu.  Banowsky said he is dedicating an entire chapter to the controversy surrounding the cross. The chapter is called “The Cross Theme Tower Saga.”  “It’s called a saga because it’s never ending,” he said. “Anytime you have a large cross in such visible view, you have a fire.”

If administration decides to light the tower in the way it was originally intended to be lit again, if only for special occasions, a permit would need to be obtained from L.A. County.

Also, the lights in the theme tower would likely need to be repaired, resulting in added expenses. Thus, as of now, lighting the tower is not the University’s top priority.

However, many people, including Banowsky, would like to see the tower lit. 

“I felt called by God to build the tower,” Banowsky said. “My hope was that someone would later feel called by God to light it.”