Real estate developers have drawn a bullseye around many of the most historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, where they are displacing working class tenants, demolishing naturally occurring affordable housing, and getting parcels rezoned to build out-of-scale new projects that nobody who lives in these communities can afford.
They are aided in this harmful work by elected officials and civil servants operating under the shadow of a massive Federal racketeering investigation. Most of these property sales, land use hearings, evictions and demolitions happen quickly and are only observed by members of the “city family” and a small community of tenants’ rights advocates and historic preservationists.
But every once in a while, the forces of destruction target a Los Angeles landmark that’s so significant, the whole world takes notice.
Behold, the 87-year-old oak tree in the back yard of 1156 South Hobart, just north of Pico Boulevard. This tree was presented as a sapling to the son of the household, Cornelius Cooper “Corny” Johnson, on the occasion of his Gold Medal in the high jump competition at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. During the competition, Johnson was shunned by Adolph Hitler, who left the stadium rather than watch his winning jump and shake the hand of a black champion.
Corny Johnson returned to his parents house and planted the sapling in the backyard, where it provided shade for his master plasterer father Shadrick and mother Pearl for many years.
But Corny wasn’t there to enjoy it. He joined the Marines and served in the Pacific, then stayed on as a merchant marine baker. In 1946 he was aboard the Grace Line ship S.S. Santa Cruz at dock in San Francisco when he suffered some kind of psychiatric emergency that was too much for his shipmates to manage.
The Pasadena Star-News reported, “The police said they found the athlete jumping around the deck in wild fashion and that they had trouble subduing him. Johnson was placed in an ambulance and pronounced dead on arrival at Harbor Emergency Hospital.” Despite exhaustive tests, no cause of death could be determined. He is buried in a family plot at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, a mile from the family home.
Over the decades, many of the 129 Olympic Oaks given out during the Berlin games have died, or their locations been forgotten. USC had two, now one. But the tree on Hobart is not especially obscure. In 2007, Jerry Crowe wrote about Corny’s oak in the Los Angeles Times, describing an annual bus tour visit from a group hoping to get the tree declared a landmark. In 2005, New Zealand photographer Ann Shelton photographed it as part of a series on surviving Olympic Oaks.
And in 2017, the Vienna-based artist Christian Kosmas Mayer exhibited a multimedia installation, The Life Story of Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak and Other Matters of Survival, organized around cloned oak seedlings smuggled back into Europe and featuring video of the immigrant family that lived in the Johnson home and cared for the oak. We don’t know if the family still lives on Hobart today, but can’t help but notice that the tree looks much less healthy than when Mayer’s film was made.
But none of this matters to development drunk Los Angeles City Hall, where everything old that can be torn down for profit can be. The 119-year-old house has been on and off the market as a development opportunity since 2018. It sold in 2019 for $927,000, and was re-listed for $1,490,000 in 2020 with plans for a 4-unit townhouse apartment flush to the property line. A sale is pending.
There’s no room in this rendering for Corny Johnson’s Olympic oak, nor for a little front yard with roses for the tenants and neighbors and birds and butterflies to enjoy. It’s a fortress for newcomers who drive in and drive out.
But the demolition permit has not yet been granted, and the parcel has not yet been rezoned. The preservation community has begun raising the alarm, and brought the threat to the attention of the Cultural Heritage Commission and Office of Historic Resources. Yesterday, March 14, 2022, Building and Safety marked the demolition permit as withdrawn, and hit the reset button on the process. It’s not too late to stop before a terrible mistake is made.
We need to save Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak. We need to save the pretty, useful house beneath its branches. We need to save Los Angeles for Angelenos. We need to save the Eagle Tree, too. Will you join us?
Update May 5, 2022: An Historic-Cultural Monument application has been submitted for the Cornelius Johnson Residence and Olympic Oak. The first hearing will be June 2.
Update May 26, 2022: The HCM nomination has been posted in advance of the initial landmarking hearing (June 2, 10am). Here is the agenda with Zoom info. The nomination was submitted by Susan D. Anderson, History Curator of the California African American Museum, and artist Christian Kosmas Mayer. It is an interesting nomination that draws on interviews with Cornelius Johnson’s family and the Tomas family who sold the house in 2019, as well as on German language newspapers. We look forward to the short presentation to the Cultural Heritage Commissioners and their discussion about the potential landmark.
But notably missing from the nomination, which describes the oak as “neglected and highly endangered,” is any feedback from tree experts on how it should be cared for to ensure its survival. This is essential if the potential landmark is not to be lost before it can even be saved. We also note an inaccurate account of Cornelius Johnson’s death, which period newspapers reported as occurring after a struggle with police, and not, as stated in the nomination, from bronchopneumonia contracted at sea.
We hope you’ll read the nomination and then call in to express support for landmarking this significant home and tree, and encourage the CHC to both advance the nomination to a second hearing, and to ask for an independent third-party arborist’s report, to advise on how the oak can be kept healthy as it moves through this process. It would be ideal if this arborist could produce their report before the CHC visits the property, and be available to answer their questions during that tour.
Update May 28, 2022: Efforts to preserve and advocate for this threatened site are featured in The New York Times, with a link to this blog post. Tim Arango reports that the LA84 Foundation and Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust are fundraising in hopes of buying the property, which presumes the property owner who failed to care for the tree while struggling to find a buyer for the proposed redevelopment site will sell to them. We believe eminent domain is also an option.
And Tim Thibault of the Huntington Gardens expresses grave concern about the health of the uncared for tree owned by real estate speculators, while dismissing the nominators’ idea to move it to the grounds of the California African American Museum, “I would be shocked if this tree could survive transplant.” We believe moving an historic tree should be a last resort. [Note the comment from Susan D. Anderson clarifying this point, below.]
Assuming all best results moving forward, caring for a neglected tree and transforming a single family home into an interpretive space will be a challenge. We think that if the tree can be kept alive and if the property is landmarked and purchased, a good model for maintaining and activating the historic house is the youth programming hosted at the South Seas House, operated by Rec and Parks.
Corny’s oak is worth saving, and starting a conversation about all of L.A.’s precious trees that real estate speculation is killing. They aren’t all Olympic relics, but they make our city better and ought to be protected. Read Tim Arango’s story: In Los Angeles, a Tree With Stories to Tell… is threatened with destruction to make space for luxury apartments. (Archive link)
Update May 31, 2022: West Adams Heritage Association (WAHA) are the undisputed experts on the history, architecture and preservation of their diverse Los Angeles neighborhood. This terrific document is their informed supplement to the landmark nomination for the Cornelius Johnson Olympic Oak And Johnson Family Residence that was prepared by Susan D. Anderson and Christian Kosmas Mayer.
Update June 1, 2022: Donald R. Hodel, author of Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles and an esteemed researcher and advocate for urban trees, sent this letter in support for the landmark nomination for the Cornelius Johnson Olympic Oak and Johnson Family Residence.
Update June 2, 2022: At its hearing today, the Cultural Heritage Commission voted unanimously to consider the Cornelius Johnson Olympic Oak and Johnson Family Residence as a landmark, and strongly urged property owner Bleu Kim to water the thirsty tree. For our live tweets of the hearing, click here. Audio of the proceedings will be posted online later.