Buildings carry the stories of the city. Howard Hughes’s aircraft hangar is now creative space for Google; a streamlined gas station restored by Starbucks now offers a different kind of fuel. Los Angeles has had a preservation ordinance since 1962, before New York, Chicago, or San Francisco began their efforts. For the last 15 years, the city’s Office of Historic Resources has been headed up by Ken Bernstein, and in his new book Preserving Los Angeles: How Historic Places Can Transform America’s Cities (out via Angel City Press on April 20) he shows off some of L.A.’s 1,200 designated Historic-Cultural Monuments and explains how preservation has propelled the city forward while respecting its past.
Bernstein’s office teamed up with the Getty to survey almost 900,000 addresses, “We went down up and down every street in L.A.,” Bernstein says. “And looked at every one.” The effort revealed 50,000 pieces of astounding architecture and many hidden histories. With hundreds of photos, the book is also a treasure map of classic L.A. places you can get out and visit.
“Contrary to our image as a city that doesn’t care about its history,” he says, “we are now looked at as a national model of historic preservation.”
What are some of the unexpected places in the book?
Almost half the book is a field guide with 400 new photographs showcasing 35 communities and their places of deeper social and cultural history that had long been ignored or hidden in plain sight. We tell the story of the Black Cat in Silver Lake, which was out at the leading edge of LGBT activism, three years before the Stonewall riots. We talk about historic places being part of our housing solution like the 28th Street YMCA in South L.A. designed by Paul R. Williams that is now low income housing serving former foster youth. It’s eye-opening even for longtime Angelenos who think they know the city.
What was the scope of the city’s historic survey?
Los Angeles is 470 square miles so there’s plenty of stories to tell. The Getty started the program for a massive citywide survey in 2000. Chicago did one that took 12 years in the ’80s and ’90s, but this is the largest, most ambitious municipal survey of any city in the country. Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are currently working on surveys and I’m proud to say our methodology has become a model for other cities.
How did you find some of the lesser-known landmarks?
It involved a great deal of grassroots engagement. We would be out in the field for months before our historic survey program came through talking with community leaders to identify places that could be overlooked even by trained historians. We wanted to tap into that knowledge and crowdsource to find out what places matter and have deeper social and cultural meaning in the different communities. We hope the book will inspire more discoveries.
How did that affect your survey?
We researched the historic themes that shaped the development of the ethnic and cultural communities and geography. We did groundbreaking work with the first LGBT historic context statement for any large city in the nation, we did a Latino context, one for African Americans, and five Asian groups. This helped us identify the themes and forces that shaped those communities.
What is the future of preservation in Los Angeles?
We think we have an important story about how historic preservation has become a tool for community transformation. Downtown has seen so much change since the adaptive reuse ordinance was adopted in 1999. We talk about how a site like CBS Columbia Square has been preserved and reused as creative office space. Historic places can accommodate change and new growth.
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