Esotouric’s Los Angeles Historic Preservation “25 for 2014” report

Gentle reader…

As we slam the door on 2014, it’s time for that annual Esotouric tradition: our very opinionated list of the past year’s Top Los Angeles Historic Preservation Stories. Because preservation is never as simple as buildings being lost forever or rescued from the brink, the list is split into three sections: the Gains, the Losses, and those Bittersweet moments that hover somewhere in the middle, and keep us up nights. We hope you find the list by turns thought-provoking, infuriating and inspiring, and that 2015 will see a much bigger Gains section than 2014’s meager showing.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Gains of 2014:

G1. Tower Records finds a Simpatico Tenant: When Sacramento-based independent retail chain Tower Records filed for bankruptcy in 2006, it spelled the end for the beloved Sunset Strip record store, a Mecca for several generations of L.A. music fiends. An attempt to landmark the otherwise nondescript structure failed, as did a campaign to turn it into a music history museum, and it seemed inevitable that the low-rise structure would be demolished for yet another WeHo hotel development. So what a cool surprise to hear that guitar company Gibson had signed on to lease the site, with plans to turn it into a musical showcase venue celebrating the history and culture of the Strip.

G2. Don’t Dunk Our Donut: After international chain Dunkin Donuts announced its plans to compete in the Long Beach market with a takeover of the independent Daily Grind coffee shop on PCH, locals lamented the loss of the enormous pink glazed donut that had towered above the little stand since the 1950s. But thanks to vocal community activists from nearby Retro Row and a lively social media campaign, the big guy blinked, not just retaining the beloved giant donut, but giving it a chocolate and sprinkle-dipped makeover.

G3. Kenton Nelson’s Lost Mural Found: We’re big fans of Pasadena painter and muralist Kenton Nelson’s WPA-noir work, and make a point of seeking out his public projects. But one especially interesting commission had long eluded us: the politically-charged “City Hell,” in Roger “Waldo” Kislingbury’s former Rite Spot restaurant on Colorado Boulevard. Kislingbury is a colorful Pasadena character (and author) whose precise recreations of vintage drinking and dining spaces are unforgettable to anyone lucky enough to experience them. “City Hell,” with its pointed digs at local government, was too “hot” for new tenant Louise’s Trattoria, and the barely-dry work was painted over in 1994. But time cools all tempers, and when the 800 Degree pizzeria moved in, they made the restoration of Nelson’s mural part of the plan. Happily, the artist still lives in that dirty old town, and did the work himself.

G4. Time Enough at Last: Kudos to Los Angeles city councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who introduced the newly-adopted (and, we think, long overdue) city ordinance 13-1104, requiring public notification whenever a demolition permit is pulled for a structure more than 45 years old. It’s not an outright ban on the destruction of historic properties, but this advance notice will provide a little time for preservationists and neighbors to raise a ruckus the next time something wonderful is at risk.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Losses of 2014:

L1. Lights Out in Pico Rivera: One usually doesn’t worry that a thriving vintage steakhouse might be on the verge of a preservation loss, but that’s exactly what happened when the second-generation owners of the Dal Rae in Pico Rivera unexpectedly ripped out their historic 1950s neon signage and replaced it with backlit plastic replicas. Contrary to what the LED lobby would have you believe, it’s really not cheaper to ditch old neon, though it certainly is less charming.

L2. An Architectural Snuff Film:  When a structure is named an official Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, as Koreatown’s San Marino Villa (Banfield & Welch, 1923) was in 2006 (PDF link), it’s meant to be afforded some protection from insensitive renovations and, it’s usually safe to presume, from demolition. But there’s not a lot that can be done when some jerk shows up with a backhoe and goes Godzilla on the building, without any city permits and while the electricity is still flowing. The new owners of the property, which suffered a mysterious fire in 2013, will be disappointed to learn that the city takes a dim view of anyone who willfully destroys a declared landmark: nothing can be built on the site for five years. That probably was not part of their calculations when they bought the vacant building a month prior to their illegal demo for $2,400,0000, but their loss doesn’t bring the San Marino Villa back. If you can stomach the sight, a neighbor filmed the whole ghastly incident. Next time, buddy, call the cops!

L3. Flipper Flattens Favorite: And speaking of illegal demolitions, developer Gil Charash wasn’t dissuaded when architect Cliff May’s Miller House was placed on the agenda (PDF link) of the Cultural Heritage Commission for consideration as a city landmark, nor when the Office of Building and Safety posted a stop work order outside the property. His workmen knocked the gorgeous gem down over a weekend, to the horror of the neighbors who had proposed the property be landmarked. The Miller House was doomed not just because Gil Charash has no respect for the law or beauty, but because it sat on a large, flat lot in a desirable neighborhood. With the insane profits to be made from teardowns, we can expect to lose more important mid-century houses, unless the penalties for illegal demolition become severe enough to make even a property flipper blink.

L4. No Way To Treat Your Mother: In spring 2014, the developer Forest City, at the direction of Councilman Gil Cedillo, arranged for a 40-foot section of the 19th Century Zanja Madre (Mother Ditch) aqueduct in Chinatown to be cut free from the whole and removed from the construction pit by a heavy equipment moving company without archeological supervision. The historic artifact was offered to Lauren Bon’s private foundation Metabolic Studios for use in an art project, and Bon financed the rushed and secretive removal. During this process, construction workers were photographed walking on top of fragile historical material, including glass bottles removed from inside the Zanja. Much of the artifact-filled dirt was sucked into trucks and sent to the landfill. Then, as soon as the large section of the Zanja was lowered to the ground, the unsupported brick tube collapsed and broke into four large pieces. It was a heartbreaking sight to anyone who cares about Los Angeles history, yet somehow a fitting finale to such opaque and arrogant behavior by an elected official.

L5. Nothing Gold Can Stay: When the construction tarps came down at the commercial structure at 735 Broadway in March, we couldn’t wait to see the handsome Art Deco marble and gold leaf facade shining bright, after being cleaned for the first time in decades. But instead, we saw that the developer had chosen to smear the building’s lovely face with ugly beige stucco. The Department of Building and Safety is now investigating the non-permitted alteration, but that’s small comfort for such an aesthetic loss in the National Register Broadway Theater District.

L6. Pay Attention, People: When Mole-Richardson, a venerable Hollywood motion picture lighting manufacturer, shut down its shop on La Brea, nobody took much notice. Nor did the erection of construction fencing around the gorgeous Art Deco structure (Morgan, Walls and Clements, 1930) raise alarm bells within the preservation community, despite tens of thousands of people driving by every day of the week. Demolition permits were filed and granted, without comment. It was only when the bulldozers arrived and began ripping the building to bits that complaints were heard. But then, of course, it was too late. It will, naturally, become a mixed use development.

L7. Diner No More: Did you ever belly up to the counter and enjoy a plate of eggs and stuff at that cute little ’50s-style diner at the Police Academy in Elysian Park, surrounded by cops and law enforcement collectables? No? Well, it’s too late now: someone in authority thought the charming spot was out of fashion, and it vanished with nary a whimper.

L8. Too Late for Tears: Confidential memo to modernist architect William Krisel: if it’s important that your greatest residential project be preserved, you’re supposed to landmark it while you still own it, and not take the word of a prospective buyer that they love it so much you should sell at a discount so they can restore. Yeah, you can imagine how that worked out.

L9. El Dorado Gold is Mud: For years, there have been uncomfortable whispers in the preservation community that something had gone terribly wrong with the conversion of Downtown’s grand old El Dorado residency hotel into high-end condos. The marketing language touted the lobby’s priceless Ernest Batchelder tiles, but the whitewashed columns inside didn’t look like any other Batchelders in town. Curbed National reporter Liz Arnold dug deep into the L.A. tile underground to reveal the true and terrible story of how Spectra, one of most active historic restoration firms in the Southland, destroyed the exquisite tiles, and what happened after. Distressing reading, but necessary.

L10. Hydra-headed Development Monster: A.C. Martin is a storied Los Angeles architect, best known for his work on large scale civic and commercial projects, including City Hall. So when a charming arts and crafts cottage from early in his career popped up on the landmarking agenda of the Cultural Heritage Commission, it suggested a more whimsical, personal side to his work. Unaccountably, the CHC board voted the structure unworthy of preservation, amid troubling claims that politics were playing a role in the decision. A second round of voting meant to address claims of Brown Act violations also came up snake eyes, and a local news crew was on the scene to witness the inevitable demolition. Sadly, we can expect more such losses as developers snap up old houses on large lots. Nobody who wants to live in an old house can compete in the bidding process with a developer who stands to profit handsomely by knocking it down and erecting a half dozen little houses on the site, under L.A.’s Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance.

L11. Cathedral of Commerce RIP: 2014 was the year that the old Robinson’s department store in Beverly Hills, a masterpiece of mid-century glamour designed by William Peirera and Charles Luckman, with interiors by streamline moderne mastermind Raymond Loewy, came unceremoniously down. It will be replaced, naturally, by a mixed-use development.

Los Angeles Bittersweet Historic Preservation Moments of 2014:

B1. Oddball Bow Redux: Southern California is the birthplace of the programmatic restaurant–those daffy structures shaped, often, like what they serve (among them our beloved, and endangered, East L.A. Tamale). But many of them, typically small and erected quickly from cheap materials, haven’t survived into the 21st century. The Idle Hour, shaped like a beer barrel and formerly a flamenco joint and private residence, was in pretty poor condition when bar owners 1933 Group snatched the city landmark up at auction. Restoration is nearly complete, and when the Idle Hour re-opens, it will be with a companion structure: the small-scale replica of Downtown L.A.’s lost Bulldog Cafe, built as part of the Petersen Automotive Museum’s incredibly cool, and recently destroyed, first floor exhibition celebrating Southern California automotive culture. It seems the Petersen has decided to reinvent itself, with Californiana no longer part of the program. We’re disappointed, but plenty pleased that the little pup will live on.

B2. Slipped Through The Cracks: The twin Rosslyn Hotels at 5th and Main Streets are distinguished by their heart-shaped neon roof signs, pointing east to the old train terminals, and symbolizing the original owners, the Hart Brothers. The Annex, the southernmost structure, has recently emerged from scaffolding showing off a handsome restoration, signaling the fresh start SRO Housing Corporation offers to their formerly-homeless tenants. While the building and repainted blade and roof signs look great, we’re heartbroken to report that in the construction flurry a wee surviving gem of old Main Street appears to vanished. We sure do miss seeing the historic Sunlan menswear neon sign when cruising up Main Street on our bus tours.

B3. Private Property, Keep Out: For nearly a century, the Ruskin Art Club provided a space for Angelenos—ladies at first, later a mixed crowd–to gather for the discussion of fine art, poetry, music and literature. But after decades of deferred maintenance on its Spanish Colonial Revival clubhouse, the club’s officers found a way to ensure the landmark structure got the care it needed. Unfortunately, they did so by selling the property to someone who restored it, then put it back on the market as a $2.4 Million private residence. The privatization of any community space pains us, all the more so since no effort was made to fund the restoration of this unique gem before choosing to sell it off.

B4. The Charnock Block is Dead, Long Live The Charnock Block: A rare and delightful remnant of Victorian Los Angeles, Main Street’s bay-windowed Charnock Block, home to the notorious 1920s freak show attraction The World Museum, is no more. The ancient interior, a warren of halls and stairways, has been gutted, the walls propped up with girders, and a new building erected inside the old one, to serve as low income housing and social services. And while the marvelous facade survives, the finished project has been painted a jarring brownish-purple, which is neither historically accurate, nor what was promised in the architectural renderings. It’s a huge disappointment, but nothing a couple of coats of paint can’t fix. Please!!

B5. Wings Still Folded: Although not threatened with demolition, the continued lack of an operating permit makes Angels Flight Railway, Downtown’s beloved on-and-off-again funicular, little more than a nostalgic photo op. While the non-profit that runs Angels Flight has invested in a new electronic brake system and addressed the problems that resulted in a non-injury derailment, the California Public Utilities Commission and NTSB are demanding expensive and historically inaccurate changes to the tracks and cars before Angels Flight can roll again.  Here’s hoping the new year, with a new commissioner heading the PUC, sees a break in the conflict that has stalled Olivet and Sinai since 2013.

B6. To Cool To Lose: Welton Becket’s Parker Center (1955) is more than just a very jazzy modernist civic building. It’s the rock-solid symbol of Chief William Parker’s mid-century LAPD reforms, and a large piece of the puzzle when seeking to make sense of our city’s history. Presently, it stands vacant, awaiting the verdict: adaptively reuse or demolish? Many folks, including us, would to see it saved. Chime in if you agree.

B7. Preservationists Unite, You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Losses: West Hollywood, with its pro-development City Council and weak historic preservation policies, has seen more than its share of architectural loss. Now, a committed cadre of social media savvy preservationists have emerged, fighting to protect endangered landmarks like Plummer Park’s WPA-era Long Hall and Wurdeman & Becket’s 1938 streamline moderne pet hospital. The wrecking balls ain’t swinging… yet. Get involved and let’s keep it that way.

B8. No Cocoa Today: Wither Ernest Batchelder’s whimsical Dutch Chocolate Shop, a tiled and vaulted century-old fantasia that’s been only infrequently accessible as lease-holder Charles Aslan struggled to find a way to make the wee landmark profitable as an old-timey hot cocoa emporium? With year’s end comes the unexpected news that Charles is no longer involved with the space. We await news of future stewards, and their plans, with baited breath. (For our video tour of this astonishing landmark, click here.)

B9. Bringing Back Broadway?: Last year, we reported that we were thrilled to see signs of new life come to downtown’s grand old boulevard, the re-lit (if crooked) Rialto marquee advertising Urban Outfitters, the high fashion and jewelry lines, the reactivated United Artists Theater, even Ross Dress for Less. But while additional investment has been slow to appear, mom and pop businesses are losing their leases as long-derelict buildings are flipped.  Meanwhile, a provisional Streetscape Master Plan sets the stage for a half-baked one-way streetcar loop that may never be built, but which could still result in permanent changes to our beautiful National Register Broadway Theater District. It all seems too fast and too speculative. Visit our free walking tour series page to learn more about what’s there, and how to preserve it.

B10. Waiting for Clifton’s Cafeteria: In February 2012, the 1960s-era metal grate covering Clifton’s Cafeteria was removed (video), revealing the heavily damaged 1935 facade; it was promptly tagged by vandals. But 39 months after the beloved forest-themed cafeteria and community landmark closed, and 34 months after the grate came down, the historic restaurant remains shuttered, with no reopening date in sight. Clifton’s, we love you. Please come back!

And that’s our report on the state of Los Angeles preservation for 2014. To see the 2013 list, click here. And to stay informed all year round, like our preservation page on Facebook, and visit the Los Angeles Historic Preservation Hotspots map, where you can find nearby trouble spots, and add your own.