As we slam the door on 2015, 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 2016 will see some of the Bittersweets tip over onto the Gains side of the fence.
Los Angeles Historic Preservation Gains of 2015:
G1. At Last: After four years of painstaking restoration and revision, our beloved Clifton’s Cafeteria reopened as Clifton’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The menu has changed and the addition of booze and burlesque on upper floors would have upright founder Clifford Clinton fuming, but there’s much to celebrate in the return of this unique establishment. Our 2011 closing day meditation and Brother Pancake’s 2015 reopening invocation remind us what Clifton’s has meant to Angelenos past. What’s in the future? Maybe the Jell-o knows.
G2. Saved By The Bell: In Downey last month, a modest stucco building was loaded onto a flatbed for the overland journey to Irvine, where Taco Bell’s “Numero Uno” store found a new home at the fast food corporation’s HQ. It’s the happy ending to a mercifully brief preservation crisis, when the long-shuttered restaurant got an eviction order in advance of planned development. Would this iconic California culinary landmark be demolished? But preservationists are great gossips, and word soon spread: “Taco Bell thinks it’s cool and they want to save it.” We’re thrilled that a huge corporation sees value in preserving its own history. Nine years ago, when we asked ConocoPhillips to please stop destroying 76 Balls, it took a year and a lot of bad press and bad jokes before they saw the light. Taco Bell didn’t need to be shamed to step in and do the right thing, which might mean we’re living in more enlightened times. Here’s to more mainstream preservation saves, and a lively second act for Numero Uno.
G3. Sign Here: Start a brick-and-mortar business today, and your signs will likely be designed on a computer, and look that way—perfect, but kind of boring. What makes older signs so special is their hand-crafted nature: neon tubes bent by hand, jauntily painted script. Old signs are cool, and function as familiar way-finding aids, even when the businesses that paid for them move away. So kudos to the City of Burbank for recognizing the value in its historic signage stock, and enacting a preservation ordinance making it easier for citizens to nominate neglected favorites for landmarking and restoration.
G4. Extraordinary Ordinance: The City of Los Angeles was an early adopter of historic preservation, and today the list of designated Historic-Cultural Monuments tops 1000. But in the wider unincorporated County, there were no tools for nominating and protecting sites of cultural and architectural significance—until this year. The requirements are a bit too stringent and the submission costs too high, but it’s an encouraging first step towards saving wonderful things that might otherwise be lost.
G5. Oddball Row Redux: Southern California is the birthplace of programmatic architecture—those daffy structures shaped, often, like what they sell (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, was in pretty poor condition when bar owners 1933 Group snatched the city landmark up at auction. A loving restoration followed, and when the Idle Hour re-opened, it was 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, recently destroyed exhibition celebrating SoCal automotive culture. Meanwhile, down in Long Beach, restoration work continues on the Koffee Pot Cafe, a charming spot that’s been in sorry shape for years, and the much-missed Tail O’ The Pup stand is coming back, and being cloned! As Southern California’s surviving programmatic buildings approach the century mark, we hope more people will do what it takes to keep them hopping for many decades to come.
G6. Rancho Days Are Here Again: Once upon a time, a family named Lugo, famed for their hospitality, maintained adobe homesteads across Southern California. But with the decades, the assets of the old Californio families were stretched thin as a hand-me-down shawl. When Henry Gage married a Lugo, her dowry was a dilapidated adobe by the Rio Hondo. Charmed, Gage restored and expanded it. When Gage became Governor in 1899, the home served as his southern headquarters. Later, a trailer park sprung up on the grounds, and a community grew there. The mansion became an official California landmark, among the oldest homes in Los Angeles County. But few people knew about it and fewer visited. When we wrote our South Los Angeles tour, the mansion was prominently featured. There is simply no other place that contains these precise layers of culture and change, in so beautiful a package. But over the years, our access to the mansion has been restricted at the request of the trailer park’s board. We never stopped visiting this stretch of Gage Avenue, but we’ve been forbidden from entering the property for years. Finally, this summer, came some positive movement in our campaign to ensure that this extraordinary landmark remain accessible to the public, as required by virtue of its status in the state’s charitable registry. When we gave the South Los Angeles tour in August, we visited the mansion’s porch and were graciously welcomed by several resident board members. While interior access isn’t an option for now, we’re glad of the opportunity to share this important site with fellow travelers, and hopeful that the future will bring opportunities for further exploration and needed preservation of the place.
G7. Thank The Mermaid: March saw the Gilmore Gasoline Service Station (R.J. Kadow, 1935) buzzing like an Art Deco hive in its new life, as a Starbucks drive-thru coffee shop. For too many years, the old station moldered on its prominent corner, victim of a greedy landlord who drove its gas station tenants off with unsustainable rent hikes. Vacant, fenced, it became a magnet for taggers and a source of pain for the preservation-minded. As a landmark, nominated by the neighborhood that loved it, the station couldn’t be easily torn down to reap the “highest and best use” of its prime Hollywood location (think mini-mall, or mixed use residential). But time can be nearly as effective as the wrecking ball, when demolition-by-neglect is on the menu. So three cheers for a corporation with the resources and the vision to transform this bit of urban blight back into the proud treasure that always lurked beneath the grime, and the good taste to let the building speak for itself. For the cost of a restoration, Starbucks has bought itself a billboard, and a whole lot of goodwill.
G8. The People Have The Power: Reading a blog post about protests by people unhappy that their rent-controlled Boyle Heights units would be demolished for a low-income development, we observed that one of the doomed buildings looked mighty historic. We swung by to have a look and confirmed that the double-width, half-timbered Tudor house, built 1895, was a rare surviving example of early eastside vernacular architecture. It was also much too handsome to be lost without notice, so we whipped up a meme illustrating the threat and suggesting folks email the developer, ELACC. The image was shared widely on social media, and within hours we heard from ELACC that they appreciated the public concern, and intended to move the structure. We were also invited to sit on an advisory board dedicated to its preservation. Observe how the internet can empower communities to speak up and swiftly make a difference for special places like this one, which is called the Peabody-Werden House. Watch this newsletter for updates on its future.
Los Angeles Historic Preservation Losses of 2015:
L1. Something Wretched This Way Comes: The year began with a hollow thud, the sound of science fiction pioneer Ray Bradbury’s charming Cheviot Hills home of fifty years being ripped apart so starchitect Thom Mayne can build something much larger on the lot. It was all just barely on the up and up, with the demolition permit pulled one week in advance of a new notification ordinance that would have granted neighbors and the wider community the opportunity to protest. In the end, there was nothing to do but weep, and lament the baffling fact that Survey L.A., which is supposed to collect all structures of significance in the city, canvassed wee Cheviot Hills and somehow missed the neighborhood’s most celebrated resident.
L2. MIA, Presumed DOA: Once upon a time, Rosemead boasted a lively Polynesian restaurant called Bahooka, famous for its flaming tiki drinks, fish tanks, and one enormous Pacu fish, the friendly, carrot-chomping Rufus. But the owners were ready to retire, and sold their building at a bargain price, leaving the fishes in the care of a longtime employee. After a contentious fundraising campaign that sought to move Rufus to a competing tiki joint (Damon’s of Glendale), new owner Alan Zhu promised to look after the beloved fish. Elderly, delicate Rufus soon left the building for points unknown, Mr. Zhu made vague remarks that terrified fish-savvy fans. Now, after many months and another ownership change, the old Bahooka is Moonlight Restaurant, with nary a fish tank to be found. Decorative elements from the old Bahooka are slated for inclusion in the forthcoming Clifton’s tiki bar, but sadly, Rufus was not included in the restaurant auction. We hate to say it, but RIP old chum. You were one cool fish.
L3. The Townhouse Curse: You’d think a beautiful century-old house by a famous architect situated on big lot with mature trees would be something to treasure. But in Los Angeles, which recently enacted an ordinance allowing developers to shoehorn half a dozen tall, skinny houses where one grand old lady once held court, such properties sit in the crosshairs. When such a house is sold, families looking for a home can’t compete with developers seeking to profit. Late last year, we lost A.C. Martin’s lovely Bartlett House in Los Feliz, when the Cultural Heritage Commission refused to landmark it. But while the demolitions continue, renters are beginning to fight back and sometimes win.
L4. Counter Countdown: This year we lost Jan’s Family Restaurant, a venerable community hub on Beverly Boulevard. There’s no drama in its closure, no villainous landlord to hiss, just the passage of time and a proprietor’s decision, leaving a pretty big hole.
L5. The Big Oops: Everyone laments the loss of the Red Cars, but nobody does anything about it—except the good people of San Pedro, who drafted snazzy replicas into service as port-side trolleys in 2003. But now, with big plans for redevelopment at the Port and historic Ports o’ Call, a series of planning oversights means these Red Cars will likely vanish, too.
L6. Oodles of Noodles Obscure Swell Structure: People are talking about the new facade of the Petersen Automotive Museum, but they’re not saying anything nice. Nor are we: it’s an aesthetic crime that such an eyesore occupies the same intersection as two marvelous Southern California landmarks: the (newly-truncated) “stack of pennies” May Company Building and jaunty Johnie’s Coffee Shop. Hard to believe, but there’s a pretty restrained modernist building by L.A. master architect Welton Becket under all that jazz.
L7. A Jailable Offense : The old Lincoln Heights Jail alongside the L.A. River has lived many lives: drunk tank immortalized in verse by Charles Bukowski, youth boxing gym, Hollywood memorabilia storage facility, movie star. But the city has long failed to maintain the Art Deco landmark, and recently allowed vandals to repeatedly enter and deface the walls and windows. A trespasser’s video celebrating the debased condition of the jail is one of the most upsetting things we’ve seen all year. There was a beauty to the building’s aged surfaces that’s been lost forever.
L8. The Mystery of the Mucked Up Formosa: In July, Angelenos were all aflutter over an unexpected preservation crisis. The Formosa Café, the iconic cocktail lounge known for its carmine walls dotted with vintage celebrity photos, had been ruined, its jewel-box interior replaced by a generic beige motif with a side of tacky mural art. But wasn’t the Formosa on the short list of official WeHo landmarks, and thus protected? The question nagged at our friends Kate Eggert and Krisy K. Gosney, the dedicated preservationists behind West Hollywood Heritage Project. So they started digging, and what they found was truly shocking. Because it turns out the Formosa wasn’t quite the landmark that local preservationists or the city said it was. The building had been “saved” from redevelopment decades earlier, but apparently everyone involved was so busy celebrating that they failed to actually file the paperwork required to codify the matter in law. Still, the city proudly claimed it as a landmark, so it wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a place that needed to be watched carefully. And because nobody raised the alarm during the demolition, the Formosa was wrecked before anyone knew it was at risk. The owners have since backpedaled, blaming the unpopular makeover on a departed partner and seeking funds from patrons to help undo the damage. Good luck with that. But next time, don’t “fix” what ain’t broke.
L9. A Cool Sign, Crushed: The backlit plastic and incandescent Sassony Arcade sign in the 700 block of South Broadway wasn’t terribly old, likely dating to the 1970s. But it was a playful and lively relic of Downtown L.A.’s lost era, something that politicians and developers regularly evoke in their efforts to revitalize the boulevard. Increased property values recently spurred the neglectful owner to evict the popular ground-floor arcade and sell the otherwise vacant building, but the sign remained… until the new owners illegally destroyed it in the middle of one September night. The replacement lacks a certain vigor.
Los Angeles Historic Preservation Bittersweet Moments of 2015:
B1. A Sycamore Shaped Like A Question Mark: There’s no house in Los Angeles more steeped in Southland myth and lore than Charles Fletcher Lummis‘ hand-crafted El Alisal, in which that remarkable man organized to save the missions, founded our first museum, ran the public library (where he used a cattle brand to mark rare volumes), recorded the vanishing sounds of the Rancho-era and hosted a mind-boggling array of celebrity visitors. The city-owned property has long been neglected, and the historical society that volunteered to occupy and interpret the site was unable to seek restoration grants without a long-term lease. Many in the community winced when the historians were shown the door and public visiting hours shortened. Would a largely-vacant El Alisal entirely in the care of the Department of Recreation and Parks fall victim to vandals and the natural course of decay? If you’ve heard that Occidental College is taking over and Lummis House is safe, take note: that’s a great idea, but no formal agreement has yet been reached between the college and the city. And so we wait, and sincerely hope that CFL’s wonderful home will soon have a steward who gets it. The alternative is most distressing.
B2. Cowboys and Indians: And just up the hill from El Alisal, Lummis’ marvelous and once city-owned Southwest Museum still languishes, victim of a too-good-to-be true takeover by the Autry Museum that took a world-class Native American art collection off view and shuttered all but a tiny section of the aging building. Discussions between the Southwest’s advocates and the Autry have done little save generate mistrust, so it was a relief when the National Trust For Historic Preservation stepped in to lend resources and aid in conflict resolution. Perhaps fresh eyes can see new life for a great cultural resource.
B3. The Trouble With Angels: 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. Although 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 regulators continue to demand expensive, historically inaccurate changes before Angels Flight can roll again. We became involved after one car was vandalized, forming the Angels Flight Friends and Neighbors Society, a volunteer organization that petitioned Mayor Garcetti for help, redesigned the funicular’s website, and organized a film noir fundraiser. Now the non-profit and regulators are talking again, and we’re hoping the new year sees further progress in the easing the conflict that has stalled Olivet and Sinai since 2013. But just alongside Angels Flight, the charming Angels Knoll, a rare section of mature landscaping in concrete-heavy downtown, remains fenced off from public use, a victim of the dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency and the complaints of “stakeholders” who didn’t like the type of people who used the lower plaza. Angels Knoll also has its friends, but sadly they haven’t had much luck in their campaign. We’d love to watch Angels Flight in motion from that film-famous bench again some day.
B4. Deco Inferno: In 1938, veterinarian to the stars Eugene C. Jones commissioned architects Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket, in a rare collaboration, to design a Streamline Moderne animal hospital. Decades later, the neglected structure was hidden behind overgrown trees, and its provenance deliberately obscured by development-happy politicos. West Hollywood Heritage Project discovered the subterfuge, and have tirelessly campaigned to save this endangered landmark. We were encouraged when the Los Angeles Conservancy joined the cause and sued West Hollywood to compel preservation, then horrified when the back side of the “vacant” building caught fire, with a homeless man, known to the owners to be living inside, killed by smoke inhalation. Now, in addition to the preservation suit, arson and murder investigations are ongoing. But the building is still gorgeous, and worth saving.
B5. Keep It Simple, Stupid: Poor old Pershing Square, widely dishonored as one of the nation’s worst public spaces. Now a public-private partnership is making noises about yet another redesign, but while the competition proceeds, critics yawn and note that there’s no actual money in the pot to pay for a makeover (we’ve heard cost estimates for a park of this size and complexity of upwards of $50 Million). Uncertainty about the park’s future hasn’t stopped Rec and Parks from investing in not one, but two, children’s play areas, which perhaps conveniently took out the concrete benches where Downtown’s less fortunate used to sit and take the air. The result is a debasement of Ricardo Legorreta’s 1992 design which only serves to make the grim and confusing space more incoherent. Our gentle solution for the contested park: don’t redesign, restore!
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And that’s our report on the state of Los Angeles preservation for 2015. To see past years’ lists, click here: 2014, 2013, 2012. And to stay informed all year round, see our preservation page on Facebook, subscribe to our newsletter and visit the Los Angeles Historic Preservation Hotspots map, where you can find nearby trouble spots.
Our guided bus tours return in the new year with The Real Black Dahlia on January 9, the 69th anniversary of Beth Short’s disappearance and an especially haunting date to walk in the footsteps of this fascinating and mysterious lady. This tour is nearly full, so reserve soon if you’d like to ride.
Kim and Richard