As we slam the door on 2016, 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 2017 will see some of the Bittersweets tip over onto the Gains side of the fence.
Los Angeles Historic Preservation Gains of 2016:
G1. Spinning Wheel: On a hot day in sleepy Arcadia, where the last Googie-style Van De Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakery restaurant (1967) stands proudly on Huntington Boulevard, Denny’s executives were on hand to throw the switch on the restored, spinning windmill sign, a beloved local landmark brought back to life through the Quixotic efforts of former mayor George Fasching.
G2. Ciao, Bella: One of Downtown L.A.’s most pathetic landmarks, the long-deteriorating Bank of Italy headquarters (1923) at 7th & Olive Streets, has finally changed hands and is currently undergoing a complete restoration as a boutique hotel. And not a moment too soon: the colossal metal entry doors were dissolving from uric acid.
G3: High Lights: For years, sign geeks have looked with longing at the rusting cans of the twin Hotel Californian rooftop neons, tucked away behind the Mulholland fountain in Los Feliz. Then in May, one of the signs appeared atop a brand new low-income apartment house on the site of the old Californian. Beautifully restored by Paul Greenstein, it awaits a last piece of permitting before it can once again illuminate the sky over MacArthur Park.
G4: Overnight Sensation: When we learned that an especially handsome 19th century Boyle Heights duplex was threatened with demolition, we asked the internet to speak on its behalf. Within hours, a preservation promise was made to save the Peabody Werden house, and in July we got to see the old gal moved to a nearby safe haven.
G5: Native Sun: Just as it seemed certain that the modernist home that exiled Nobel laureate Thomas Mann built for himself in Pacific Palisades would be replaced by a bland McMansion, the German government emerged as its new owner, with plans for a literary cultural center in the spirit of Villa Aurora.
G6. Googie Redux: In an age when classic diners are an endangered species, what a neat surprise to hear that The Penguin of Santa Monica is being converted back from a boring dental office to a jazzy all-night restaurant.
Los Angeles Historic Preservation Losses of 2016:
L1. Iconic Absence: The Sixth Street Viaduct was the largest, last and loveliest of our city’s glittering necklace of landmark downtown bridges. Suffering from concrete rot, it needed to be replaced. Our friend Shmuel Gonzalez has documented the span’s sad last days, from grassroots gatherings to tumbling lamps. While common sense and the preservation community called for a full restoration, political forces chose instead an overwrought post-modern replacement. One day, years late and at tens of millions over budget, we’ll see it.
L2. Location, Location, Location: Usually it’s good news when an endangered piece of signage is carefully removed and placed in the care of an institution like the Museum of Neon Art—but not when that sign is as essential a piece of the urban fabric as the Sun-Lake Drugs facade. Preservation is place is better, and Silver Lake much less beautiful for its removal.
L3. Bad Taste: Under the guise of free “restoration” work, the city’s Rec and Parks Department encouraged interior decorators to run amok inside Wattles, Hollywood’s last grand mansion. The new look might appeal to the wedding planners who market the space, but historically, it’s a disaster.
L4. Hole In One: Who would have dreamed that that gang violence could take out an historic structure? RIP to the pretty little house on Pleasant Avenue (1901-2016).
L5. Lurid No Longer: When Charles Bukowski lived in the neighborhood, East Hollywood was the nearest thing to an L.A. red light district. Buk lamented “when you clean up a city, you kill it,” and a last bit of local color died hard this year when the owner of the Tiki Xymposium invested in a dull new sign.
L6. Eclipsed: Meanwhile, on Culver City’s vintage motel row, some lunatic tossed the lovely Half Moon neon in the dumpster.
L7. Tears Shed: Because developers saw no use for the Pacific Electric Trolley Shed in their new project, a cool relic of lost mass transit history went down. (The rail car that used to live there is mostly gone, too.)
L8. Adios: The quirky Casa de Petrol was kid sister to Sherman Oaks’ Casa de Cadillac dealership, and nearly unchanged from when James Dean was photographed filling up on the day he died. So naturally, developers smashed it to bits.
L9. Hamburgled: Downey folks treasure their original Stanley Meston-designed McDonald’s with its iconic golden arches. But in L.A., the arches were ripped out to make way for a smoky grill, and not much later, the whole building came down. Born 1957, died 2016.
L10. 99 and a Half Won’t Do: South Figueroa was L.A.’s original Auto Row, a zone of creative commerce where some of the world’s most exquisite vehicles were crafted and marketed. But you wouldn’t know that from the way the 99-year-old Hartwell Motor Company building was destroyed with zero public notice.
Los Angeles Historic Preservation Bittersweet Moments of 2016:
B1. Stringing Along: Generations of kids have had their minds blown at Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater. Though a city landmark, development threatens the vintage attraction. We think there’s room for puppets and people on the site.
B2. Where’s The Beef: Hyperactive PR buzz touted the return of La Cienega’s beloved Tail O’ The Pup stand, but it turns out the new owners didn’t actually restore the vintage programmatic building. That landmark is still sitting in storage somewhere while a food truck turns out fancy franks. Meanwhile, to the east, the world’s biggest tamale is also in mothballs. We’d like to see them both brought back into photogenic service.
B3. Pershing Problems: Everyone agrees that downtown’s Pershing Square needs work. While thousands of Angelenos would like to see John Parkinson’s 1910 park plan restored, a design competition left restoration off the table; the jury picked the only entry that ignored the past. The proposed redesign is unfunded, and the fate of the park’s historic monuments remains uncertain. And now Rec and Parks has embarked on a bizarre series of modifications to Ricardo Legorreta’s 1992 plan. Amidst all this chaos, a moment of peace: Parkinson’s great-great-grandson crafted a digital version of the lost landmark.
B4. Research Wrecked: The Port of Los Angeles Archives, recently celebrated in a book and granted a dedicated reference library, have been mysteriously removed to an open dockside warehouse. Despite public outcry, the officials charged with protecting these unique documents remain silent as to why they’ve been placed in harm’s way and research access halted.
B5. World’s End: Paramount Pictures is eager to redevelop its studio lot upwards, and despite intense negotiations with preservation groups and the city, refuses to guarantee the iconic RKO Globe sign will be saved.
B6. Main Drag: The last stretch of modest, independent businesses along Main Street’s historic Skid Row face an uncertain future, their historic buildings threatened with demolition by the parking lot company that owns the land.
B7. Pereira in Peril: City planner, Time Magazine cover boy, Hollywood’s idea of an architect, William Pereira never got his due from the critics. Now, a campaign seeks to raise consciousness about his work just as several important local projects are threatened and things get hot at the Cultural Heritage Commission meetings. Can LACMA, the L.A. Times and Metropolitan Water District be saved?
B8. Hot Spot: There’s just something charged about the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights. Wild times at the Garden of Allah, teens rioting over curfew restrictions, and now a politicized preservation battle pitting citizen activists and the Los Angeles Conservancy against developers and their pals on City Council. Lawsuits and accusations are flying as the battle to save Lytton (rhymes with kitten) Savings ramps up.
B9. Half Empty: Welton Becket’s Parker Center is an elegant modernist office tower, one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the city’s portfolio. In a rare move, the Cultural Heritage Commission itself is opposing civic bean counters by advocating for its adaptive reuse.
B10. 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. Arson and murder investigations are ongoing, and the preservation fight continues on appeal. Despite recent tagging, the building is still gorgeous, and worth saving.
B11. Fallen Angels: One especially romantic scene in the new film La La Land pours salt in the civic wound that is the stalled Angels Flight funicular railway, rubbed in when a local rag called the regulators for a quote that killed the non-profit’s major source of funding. In the 1211 days since the public was permitted to ride, the lovely little landmark has suffered grave humiliation, yet it remains fully functional and eager to serve. If only the Mayor would help!
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And that’s our report on the state of Los Angeles preservation for 2016. To see past years’ lists, click here: 2015, 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 7, on the crest of the 70th 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, then stay tuned for a 10th Anniversary Year packed with special events and surprises.
Kim and Richard