Space Savers: Meet the People Fighting to See the Past in L.A.’s Future

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Years before New York or Boston codified their commitment to saving old buildings Los Angeles already had a historic preservation ordinance and was designating landmarks. Our law dates back to the Kennedy years and the first property to win designation was the Leonis adobe, a Calabasas farm house built after the civil war that was almost replaced by a supermarket. More than 100 “Historic-Cultural Monuments”, including Union Station and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, were designated in that first decade and today the list numbers more than 1000. The proposed demolition of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1978 sparked the formation of the Los Angeles Conservancy. Today, that group has grown to become the largest local preservation group in the United States. The movement has matured in the 21st century as more cities consider it a vital part of their future. We gathered experts from all over Los Angeles County to give us a sense of preservation in 2015 and which historic places will still be around in the future.


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Ken Bernstein
Principal City Planner and manager, City of Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources

Most endangered building? “Two of the most significant issues of the moment are Norms Coffee Shop and Parker Center. They are both modernist icons and reflect different aspects of L.A.’s post WWII heritage in very different ways.”

How has preservation changed in recent years? “Both from a grassroots perspective and a business perspective preservation has gone mainstream in the last decade. Increasingly developers see the economic value of historic preservation. Programs such as the adaptive reuse ordinance have helped create more than 9,000 units of new housing. There is growing demand for preservation protection in neighborhoods that feel themselves under siege by mansionization pressures.“

What’s your biggest save? “I previously worked as the director of preservation at the Los Angeles Conservancy and one of the projects I’m most proud of is the La Plaza de Cultura y Artes. A 19th century commercial block was set to be leveled by L.A. County government but it was adaptively reused and today it’s a key cultural center and link between El Pueblo and the civic center.”

How does local government treat preservation? “As the head of the city of Los Angeles’s historic preservation program I’m personally very proud that we are seen as a national leader in historic preservation contrary to our longstanding image as a throwaway metropolis. Los Angeles is increasingly seen as a model for other citywide historic surveys across the nation and internationally. The National Heritage Board of Singapore is looking to replicate Survey L.A. That entire country is smaller than the city of Los Angeles.”

What is the future of preservation? “I hope the future of preservation begins to mirror the environmental movement where it becomes second nature to an entirely new generation and becomes an embedded ethic throughout our society. The greenest building is the one that’s already built.”

Favorite landmark: “I start each day commuting into Union Station. Walking through that waiting room is the way one is meant to enter Southern California. I exit through the garden patios and out into the historic founding of Los Angeles at El Pueblo across the street.”


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Adriene Biondo
Preservation consultant

Most endangered building? “I think because of the politics behind Parker Center it’s become the most endangered building. There’s not necessarily a fondness that surrounds a police station, but the architecture and cultural significance is tremendous.”

How has preservation changed in recent years? “There’s much more awareness and social media has made information much more accessible. Organizations like the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee have constant access to people via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where we used to rely on emails and personal phone calls to get the message out. It was a great challenge to rely on grassroots advocacy to get a topic up into the headlines. Nowadays one tweet can actually change the fate of a building.”

What’s your biggest save? “The Johnie’s Broiler drive-in restaurant in Downey was almost completely demolished illegally on a Sunday afternoon without the utilities even turned off. The Friends of Johnie’s group packed the city council and got a moratorium on construction at the site. That gave us time to find a new operator. Jim Louder, a franchisee for Bob’s Big Boy, rebuilt the restaurant according to the original 1958 blueprints.”

How does local government treat preservation? “They have come to treat it as less of an annoyance than they did 20 years ago. I can call any planning department and get their attention and make a difference. I think a big contributor was the Los Angeles Conservancy preservation report card in conjunction with all the awareness that’s been raised over the years.”

What is the future of preservation? “I think there’s an optimistic future. I think shows like Mad Men and installations like Cars Land at Disney California Adventure really go a long way towards exposing this generation to the world of the past, but without the authentic buildings the experience would be a very empty one.”

Favorite landmark: “The LAX Theme Building symbolizes everything phenomenal about Los Angeles. It’s the first place many encounter when they come here and it says you’ve arrived in a magical wonderland of visionary inventiveness. It’s an image of tomorrow that still rings true today.”


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Bryan Cooper
President, Hollywood Heritage

Most endangered building: “The two I think about are Yamashiro and the Warner Pacific Theater. Yamashiro just fell out of escrow so I’m less worried about it, but the theater’s owners just don’t want to play ball with anybody. It is the last theater on that row that has not had any preservation work done.”

How has preservation changed in recent years? “It’s more hands on. People come tell us what’s endangered and are very proactive with their concerns. They want to learn how to form coalitions and how to write landmark nominations.”

What’s your biggest save?Columbia Square is an awesome opportunity. It’s a good feeling when the developer listens to us. They will preserve the integrity of the building and reuse the old radio theater as a space where people can do high-tech presentations.”

How does local government treat preservation? “I don’t believe Mayor Garcetti makes preservation his top priority. Certain council districts make it a priority depending on how much public outcry there is.”

What is the future of preservation? “We have to pick and choose our battles and let some buildings go. It’s going to be hard to watch but we don’t want everything to come up against a lawsuit.”

Favorite landmark: “I spend so much time at the Egyptian Theatre. I always feel happy and at home there because they show classic films in a historic place.”


1Linda Dishman by Shari Belafonte

Linda Dishman
Executive Director, Los Angeles Conservancy

Most endangered building:Parker Center was built in 1955, is a great design by Welton Becket, and has a great connection to the history of the city but the Bureau of Engineering is proposing tearing it down for a new office building.”

How has preservation changed in recent years? “More cities have professionals doing preservation, so you are starting with a certain level of expertise. About 40 percent of cities in L.A. County have preservation ordinances.”

What’s your biggest save? “Our biggest recent save is the Century Plaza Hotel. It was built in 1966 from a design by Minoru Yamasaki and really heralds the westward expansion of Los Angeles.”

How does local government treat preservation? “There are cities that are very respectful of preservation like Santa Monica and Pasadena and other cities that are not so good. The Conservancy evaluates the 88 cities with a report card every five years. It’s a neutral way to get a grip on what’s happening all over the county.”

What is the future of preservation? “The future is good. A lot of people understand the value of historic buildings in our communities and with the backlash against mansionization we’ve seen people fight for their neighborhoods.”

Favorite landmark: “What child do you like the best? I’d say Vibiana because it was such an epic fight and it’s one of the oldest buildings in the city. If you’re not going to stand up for one of the oldest buildings, how could we be credible going forward?”


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Charles Fisher
Historian

Most endangered building: “They want to take out the Sports Arena for a new soccer stadium. It’s an important building from architect Welton Becket. Kennedy was nominated for president there.”

How has preservation changed in recent years? “Shifting preservation to the planning department made a big difference. Creating incentives like the Mills Act made a big difference.”

What’s your biggest save? “We did a preemptive strike on the 1896 Arroyo Seco bridge. If we hadn’t nominated it the MTA would have taken it out for the Gold Line. You have a much better chance of getting a nomination through when a building is not threatened.”

How does local government treat preservation? “It’s a mixed bag. Sometimes there is a lot of political pressure not to designate a building.”

What is the future of preservation? “I think the future is bright but there is a lot of pressure to build right now.”

Favorite landmark: “The Department of Water and Power Building has always been really special for me. My grandfather was the chief land officer for the DWP and purchased the property for that building and then my father worked there for 25 years.


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Louise Ivers
Member, Long Beach Cultural Heritage Commission

Most endangered building: “Long Beach wants to demolish the county courthouse and leave a hold in the ground. It’s a midcentury modern building designed by Kenneth Wing and Francis Heusel.”

How has preservation changed in recent years? “There has been more publicity, which generates more interest, and people have become more conscious about saving the buildings of notable architects. When I moved here in 1976 they tore down buildings illegally in the middle of the night. They don’t do that anymore.”

What’s your biggest save? “There’s a 1920s programmatic building called the Hot Cha Café that’s shaped like a coffee pot. A previous owner wanted to build a mini mall there. I’ve been talking to the new owner who is working on restoring it.”

How does local government treat preservation?  “The city of Long Beach passed a historic preservation element and an adaptive reuse ordinance in recent years but they don’t always pay attention to them.”

What is the future of preservation? “I think we’re rising upward. Things have gotten a lot better. More buildings have been preserved and in Los Angeles they are creating more Historic Preservation Overlay Zones. I think those historic districts are wonderful.”

Favorite landmark: “The Jergens Trust building was made a city landmark but was demolished anyway. The city saved two huge finials, which are ten feet high and covered with beautiful tiles, and recently put them up in the Willmore Heritage Garden.”


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Carol Lemlein
President, Santa Monica Conservancy

Most endangered building? “The Southwest Museum. It needs a huge amount of maintenance, its role as part of the Autry is not clear, and there’s a great amount of concern in the community about what should be done with it.”

How has preservation changed in recent years? “I think we have a significant amount of tension between the general public’s increasing awareness of historic preservation and the desire of developers not to be fettered by restrictions. As property values have increased that pressure has significantly increased.”

What’s your biggest save? “The Annenberg Beach House. We saved the Marion Davies estate, which was pretty much abandoned. The mansion was gone, the guesthouse was damaged in the earthquake, and the pool had been filled in. Neighbors were fearful about having a facility on the site and there was great concern that the Annenbergs might withdraw their offer of funding. The Conservancy rallied public support and today it’s a huge success.”

How does local government treat preservation?
 “We have an update to our zoning ordinance that pays a lot more attention to preservation. It makes clear what incentives are available and should greatly assist those looking to preserve these properties. The new code makes variances available and makes it easier to update a property without destroying its historic character.”

What is the future of preservation? “I think to be successful moving forward we have to broaden our tent and be much more sensitive about places of cultural significance and figure out ways to reach a younger and more diverse population.”

Favorite landmark: “The Gamble House captures a moment in time and embodies Greene and Greene and the arts and crafts legacy.”


1Christy McAvoy

Christy McAvoy
Preservation Consultant, Historic Resources Group

Most endangered building? “Some people are going to say Parker Center. Some people are going to say the Warner Theater in Hollywood. It’s hard to distinguish the threat level since both of these campaigns are ongoing. I’m going to say Parker Center since it’s so far ahead in the process.“

How has preservation changed in recent years? “I think it has changed for the better. The preservation community gets included in land use decisions in a way that didn’t happen a decade ago. Years ago people were not making the connection between land use and real estate and preserving the physical site where history happened.”

What’s your biggest save? “My biggest recent save was the Forum, because stadiums are hard to reuse. People think they are obsolete but this one was re-purposed into an entertainment venue and it’s working quite well.”

How does local government treat preservation?  “It depends on the local government. It’s all over the map from very reverential to absolutely dismissive and each of the 88 cities in L.A. county is on that spectrum somewhere.”

What is the future of preservation? “More people are better educated and understand there are things worth saving in Los Angeles.”

Favorite landmark: “The Biltmore Hotel is my favorite because it has been part of my personal and professional history for so long. There are lots of social and personal attachments outside of the architecture. I grew up in the Biltmore, like a Southern California Eloise story. I started going there for family occasions when I was six and I had my 60th birthday party in the lobby.”


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Laura Meyers
Board member, West Adams Heritage Association

Most endangered building? “This exact second it’s the Sports Arena, but in our neighborhood it’s the Fitzgerald Mansion. For years it was the notorious Elegant Manor and it was rented out for parties. The owner died and her son held raves there until he lost it to foreclosure. It has been vacant since 2007 and that’s demolition by neglect.”

How has preservation changed in recent years? “We have real estate flippers who buy these older homes and blow out all the character-defining features inside. They paint the woodwork and take out the interior fixtures and it’s very attractive to young couples. We are as interested in the details on the interior as we are on the exterior.”

What’s your biggest save? “The South Seas house was completely abandoned and I led a community-wide effort to save it. We raised $18,000 from people giving $10 and $20 and there was enough symbolism that the council office found $1.7 million to restore it and create a hugely active and lively park.”

How does local government treat preservation? “City government doesn’t treat preservation technically, it treats it politically. If a councilmember wants to save a building, it gets saved. It often doesn’t have anything to do with the merits.”

What is the future of preservation? “We need more young people and more diverse people involved. I’ve spent a lot of time focused on cultural heritage sites as opposed to pure architecture.”

Favorite landmark: “I would say Angelus Rosedale cemetery. I love Gothic cathedrals, I love pretty buildings, but I love L.A.’s cultural heritage as well.”


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Sue Mossman
Executive Director, Pasadena Heritage

Most endangered building: ”There are so many properties in the path of the 710 freeway that have remained on or near the top of our list since we were founded in 1977.”

How has preservation changed in recent years? “Preservation may be becoming a more individual activity, rather than a group one. That impacts membership in organizations like ours, but new audiences are attending events, joining walking tours, and taking an interest.”

What’s your biggest save? “Our biggest save ever is Old Pasadena. It was a shabby downtown full of vacant buildings, pawn shops, sex shops, and a colony of artists. We built a coalition and lobbied to save those historic buildings.”

How does local government treat preservation? “It’s become a stronger ethic even at government levels. It’s been institutionalized.”

What is the future of preservation? “Preservation will just get bigger and better and more important. It’s a constant pressure in achieving balance between necessary growth and preservation.”

Favorite landmark: “My personal favorite is the Colorado Street Bridge. It was completed in 1913 and was one of our first big efforts in the 1980s. We were victorious.”

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