The Los Angeles Conservancy recently filed a lawsuit to save a historic bank building at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights where a developer has proposed five new towers designed by Frank Gehry with 249 housing units above shops and restaurants. For more than 50 years the site has been home to a sleek modernist building—now under threat—designed by Swiss architect Kurt Meyer in 1960 to be the headquarters of Lytton Savings. It has since been converted into a Chase bank.
The location of the bank building was once the site of a glamorous hotel called the Garden of Allah. By the time Bart Lytton, a flamboyant financier, bought the hotel in the 1950s, though, it had fallen on hard times. Lytton tore the building down to build his financial headquarters and cultural center.
Lytton entered the world of Savings and Loans—banks that financed countless mid-century tract homes (remember Jimmy Stewart’s job in It’s a Wonderful Life ?)—in 1956 with the gimmickry of offering TVs, record players, and barbecues to new customers. Los Angeles magazine once described Lytton, a former communist who had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and written noir-era films like Spy Train and Hitler’s Madman, as “part genius, part clown, with an ego as big as the Hollywood Bowl.” When the man opened a new branch, “media were invited, bands played, pretty girls gave out free drinks, and Lytton himself would helicopter dramatically down to the site,” this magazine reported.
Lytton incorporated artwork throughout his buildings and became a cultural leader, helping lead the effort to build a Hollywood Museum and working to save Irving Gill’s Dodge house in West Hollywood. He showcased emerging artists and filmmakers at his Lytton Center for the Visual Arts, including female artists who were shunned by many other galleries at the time. Lytton spent just over a decade in banking before his empire collapsed and he suffered a heart attack at age 56. His bank building on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights remains.
A city report on the building notes that it melds Googie and New Formalist architectural influences. At the time it was built, it was just “ultra-modern.” “It is the finest expression of architectural and decorative arts,” said an opening day ad, “from the soaring roofline to the relaxed park-like setting.” Lytton even commissioned a miniature model of the Garden of Allah and placed it under a glass dome outside—though it has since been removed, and the park space is now a McDonald’s parking lot. That bleak sea of parking and adjacent Reagan-era mini mall are probably what give the corner a bad name with folks who would rather see the new Gehry-designed development on the site than another place to buy a McRib. But if the development is built without compromise, a historic and architectural treasure will be lost.
The Environmental Impact Report for the proposed towers outlined two scenarios in which the bank could be incorporated into the project, but developers rejected those ideas in favor of scraping the bank building altogether, prompting the lawsuit from the Los Angeles Conservancy, the largest local preservation organization in the country. The Conservancy has only filed suit six times in almost 40 years of advocating for historic buildings and believes that the city of Los Angeles violated the California Environmental Quality Act in approving the new construction. “Reusing this building meets 12 of the 15 project objectives in full,” said Adrian Scott Fine, the Conservancy’s Director of Advocacy. “And partially the other three. The EIR identified two alternatives for reuse that would integrate the building.”
The whole point of any environmental review is to minimize negative effects on the community. Traffic, pollution, and demolishing historic buildings are bad things that can be mitigated. Hopefully the parties can come to an agreement that enhances the gateway to the Sunset Strip and saves this special place.