How Canadian Developer Onni Group “Preserved” the Art Deco Seattle Times Building

1

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before:

A venerable local newspaper, fallen on hard times in the aftermath of the financial crisis, sells its architecturally-significant, centrally-located Art Deco headquarters and two attached buildings, comprising an entire city block, to a multi-national development company. The developer expresses affection for the site’s history, and makes preservation of the main newspaper building the centerpiece of a proposed project. The twin-tower mixed-use residential, retail and public plaza project is vastly out of scale and requires zoning changes. When preservationists express concern about protection of the historic resources, they’re assured that the developer is a good steward with the best intentions. Besides, we’re in a housing crisis, so build, baby, build!

Sound familiar? If you’re a Californian, you might recognize the beats of the recent history of the Los Angeles Times, with the paper’s real estate split off under Tribune’s ownership and its historic headquarters sold to Vancouver-based Onni Group.

But the story you just read is actually about the landmarked Seattle Times ( Robert C. Reamer, 1931), which Onni Group purchased in 2013 and neglected so profoundly that the normal rules for protected buildings were waived: in February 2016, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections approved (archive link) immediate demolition of the landmark for reasons of public safety.

November 2015: “Squatters leave the old Seattle Times building at 1120 John St., after waking up during Thursday’s fire” (Steve Ringman / Seattle Times)

During the first three years of Onni’s ownership, the Seattle Times became a squatter’s den (archive link), home to hundreds of homeless people, their pets and their troubles. Metal thieves operated openly, stripping the landmark of its historic artifacts and plumbing. The squatters were rousted, but immediately returned, prying off the thin plywood panels Onni Group installed to keep them out. When the police ordered the landlord to properly secure the building, Onni Group missed the deadline. Taxpayers covered the costs of constant police and paramedic calls. There were fires, overdoses, gas leaks and suffering that can’t be quantified.

Then came the wrecking ball and bulldozers, spelling the end of the Seattle Times and a clearing a nearly clean slate for a massive development, recently changed from housing to office towers, in the shadow of the Amazon.com headquarters.

February 2017: An old press that once printed the Sunday color comics section is partially exposed. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

(But before the walls came down, the newspaper building told one last story. Up on the roof, a hand-made banner went up the flagpole. The Times printed a photo and reported on the common ¢ents activists who were calling for Seattle’s hundreds of vacant buildings to be made available to serve the city’s homeless population. That’s a conversation Los Angeles should be having, too.)

Demolition began in October 2016. Today, just a couple of sad walls from the landmark Seattle Times building survive, and Onni Group is busily building upward.

The Art Deco Los Angeles Times Building is not a protected city landmark like the Seattle Times Building was. We believe it should be a landmark, which is why we’ve filed an Historic-Cultural Monument application, which is now under consideration, with a hearing on July 19 (Update: the second hearing is Thursday, September 20 and we still need your comments and emails!). At the direction of the Office of Historic Resources, our application includes all three entwined historic structures on the site: Gordon B. Kaufmann’s 1935 Times Building (including the Globe Lobby and its fixtures), Rowland H. Crawford’s 1948 Mirror tower and William L. Pereira’s 1973 corporate headquarters. These three buildings together tell the story of the Los Angeles Times and Southern California.

Some people believe that it’s only Pereira’s building that is threatened by Onni Group’s plans. But the Pereira can’t be demolished without tearing a giant hole in the Art Deco Kaufmann building’s west facade. And the Pereira is a good, if unfashionable, building that deserves to be considered on its architectural merits, which are largely invisible from street level, but reveal themselves when you step inside.

As Harry Chandler told the Los Angeles Times, “Developers are wont to change their minds based on market conditions, not preservation needs. [Onni] is not an L.A. company and they don’t have credentials for caring for historic buildings in our city. We shouldn’t leave that to chance.”

He’s right.

Onni Group might prove to be a better steward of our great newspaper’s home than they were in Seattle. It would be hard to be a worse one.

But let’s not just take their word for it. Please join us at the Cultural Heritage Commission on Thursday, July 19 and speak for the stone, the neon, the glass and the Globe. (Update: the second hearing is Thursday, September 20 and we still need your comments and emails!) These buildings shaped the Southern California we love, and they deserve to be preserved.

Workmanship of such poor quality is not acceptable.

The Heather Apartments: A Long Goodbye

3

Charles C. Rittenhouse built the Heather Apartments (1910) in the then-popular Mission Revival style. She was an unusually attractive building, with keyhole arches spanning the porch, rusticated stone and symmetrical towers.

Miss Elizabeth Stewart, Scottish stage star, thought she was just swell in 1911.

We have a theory that it’s bad luck to rename a public park after a war hero. Central Park started its long slide when it became Pershing Square, and the once-desirable residential neighborhood around Westlake Park lost its luster as MacArthur.

But a strong, handsome building like The Heather has always been a good investment, easy to rent, not needing too much upkeep. She last was sold in 1993 for $720,000, and seems to have operated without incident for more than a decade after. Then, just before the real estate bubble burst, the property owner must have gotten ideas.

The Heather cannot speak, so her story can only be pieced together from notes on the Department of Building and Safety website. In 2005, somebody filed a complaint about an Abandoned or Vacant Building Left Open to the Public.

A couple of years later, an inspector came, found illegal work taking place and wrote up the code violations: Electrical permit required for the new electrical installation. Maintenance and repair of existing building; construction work is being performed without the required permits. Plumbing permit is required for the installation of the new plumbing work. Stop all work.

Apparently, the extensive, illegal construction had left The Heather uninhabitable. Maybe the property owner couldn’t afford to do the work properly. No legal permits were pulled. For year after year, The Heather remained vacant, taking 26 rent-stabilized apartment units off the rental rolls as the city faced a growing housing crisis. Squatters pried open doors and windows and rested within The Heather’s walls.

The old girl stood tall and waited.

Architecture lovers noticed The Heather, neglected and unloved, but still beautiful. Many people hoped she might be preserved, might be full of people again. But nobody did the hard work of submitting a landmarking nomination, and the city failed to include her in SurveyLA as a significant structure deserving of protection. She was vulnerable and without friends.

April 2017, LAFD photo

Last spring, a fire broke out in The Heather, leaving the building open to the sky. The firemen from the station down the block fought hard to save their neighbor. She was still strong and beautiful. We went over with our friend Nathan Marsak, The Cranky Preservationist, and made a video about this great building and our worries about her future. (And yes, dear reader, he humped her.)

You’d think in a situation like this, where much-needed affordable housing stock was kept offline by an absentee landlord, the property creating a public hazard, that the city would insist on improvements. Not in Los Angeles. For more than a decade, this attractive nuisance rotted away, and nobody was held accountable.

After the fire, the squatters returned. It was only a matter of time.

Then last week, on the hottest day anyone could remember, The Heather burned again. It took firefighters almost an hour to extinguish the blaze, and when they were done, the proud old building looked ready to give up. Sadly, we returned to document the damage and wonder if we would ever see The Heather again.

We noticed that there was a demolition permit taped to the fence out front, and marveled at how quickly the city had moved to condemn after the fire. But no, the permit was filed in June, weeks before. Perhaps one of the squatters was angry and set the blaze.

At the time of the 2017 fire, the owner of record was Louis C. Gonzalez of 204 1/2 South Marengo, Alhambra. The Heather can’t tell us her story, and Mr. Gonzalez probably has a sad tale of his own to tell. Very few landlords set out to create blight, go without rent for years, or to see their buildings burn.

When the history of 21st Century historic preservation is written, there will be a special black-edged chapter about the crooked bankers who wrote crazy loans to people who could never pay them back, financing tens of thousands of flipped properties, their pretty old fixtures ripped out for Home Depot junk, and grand buildings like The Heather brought to a premature end.

RIP, old girl. So beautiful, and potentially so useful, even now.

 

Esotouric’s Los Angeles Historic Preservation 2017 year-end list

Gentle reader…

As we slam the door on 2017, 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 2018 will see some of the Bittersweets tip over onto the Gains side of the fence.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Gains of 2017:

G1. Angels Sing: After several years of non-operation, during which time the lovely little landmark suffered grave humiliation, Angels Flight Railway returned to daily service, thanks to a private partnership cemented by the Mayor’s Office, in direct response to the pleas of civic petitioners like you.

G2. Such A Lovely Place: After Westlake’s Hotel Californian burned in 1995, only the most optimistic preservationist—is there such an animal?—dared dream its massive, rusting twin neon roof signs would ever glow again. But dreams can come true when people care enough to do the work. And while a recent transformer issue has temporarily shut off the lights, soon you’ll again be able to marvel at that sweet script in the sky.

G3. In Sacred Memory: Angelenos who fell in the Great War have no better friend than Courtland Jindra, the modest preservation powerhouse who sleuths out the locations and histories of local war memorials, and has recently added restoration to his resume. Victory Memorial Grove was a forgotten ruin on the edge of Elysian Park, but thanks to Courtland and his crew, it is once again a beautiful place of remembrance, with new tree plantings to come.

G4. Dream Factory: Against the backdrop of Hollywood’s hyper-development excess, one project stands out for its audacious attempt to redesign Sunset Boulevard itself. Named for the exquisite National Register landmark at its eastern edge, Crossroads of the World seeks to demolish dozens of 1930s apartment units and the historic art deco HQ of The Hollywood Reporter. But not so fast, bulldozers: thanks to the passionate advocacy of local preservationists and historians, our company town landmark now has some civic protection. Special thanks to the Art Deco Society, with its new focus on writing landmark nominations.

G5. Final Exit: The Hotel Cecil was just another of Downtown L.A.’s 1920s-era low-income residency hotels, and occasional stop on our true crime tours, when a pitch-perfect internet-era mystery captured the world’s attention. While Vancouver tourist Elisa Lam’s sad death inside the rooftop water tower was ruled accidental, public fascination with the Cecil’s supposed curse has only intensified. But despite the lobby’s unfortunate recent faux finishes, the old girl has great bones, and new management that’s sought and received historic landmark designation. Restoration coming soon.

G6. Rock On: If you love music history, Hollywood history, civil rights history and great architecture, then Musicians’ Union Local 47 matters to you. Founded in 1897, its members have shaped motion picture soundtracks since the dawn of the talkies, and uncountable hit records. The handsome Vine Street union hall, master architect Gordon Kaufmann’s last commission, became one of the first integrated performance guilds in America in 1953. The union recently sold the building and moved to Burbank, but the future of the old union hall is a little less uncertain now that it’s passed the first hurdle on the road to becoming an Historic Cultural Monument. Cheers to John Girodo of Hollywood Heritage for writing a terrific nomination.

G7. Home Is Worth Fighting For: Hurrah for Lena Kouyoumdjian, who successfully nominated her lovely rental, in one of Echo Park’s rare surviving bungalow courts, as a landmark. These distinctly Southern California compounds are rich with history, and provide a rare sense of community in the heart of the city. But Wurfl Court faced that growing threat: demolition of historic rent-stabilized housing stock for a newly-permitted “small lot development” of high-priced tiny houses. Of note: landmarking is contagious, and successful nominations inspire future fights.

G8. Sugar Pill: The Cranky Preservationist went down to Sugar Hill, West Adams to gripe about the hipster murals that had defaced a fine old house (inside and out), but it turns out 2200 Harvard has been sold, and is finally getting some respect.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Losses of 2017:

L1. Joe Friday Wept: The Cultural Heritage Commission tried, but couldn’t overcome City Council’s plan to clear a large plot by City Hall for development. In the cross hairs: Welton Becket’s masterful mid-century Parker Center (“not one of [his] best works” – Councilman Jose Huizar, justifying a travesty), the world’s first modern police administration building and the finest International Style structure in L.A.’s portfolio. Demolition appears inevitable, but first the city must document the building, and ensure the removal and re-installation of integrated art pieces by Joseph Young and Tony Rosenthal. Preservationists and even one of the architects lament the city’s short-sightedness.

L2. Hot Stuff: Since 1910, the magnificent Mission Revival-style Heather Apartments have occupied the slightly sinister address of 666 South Bonnie Brae, but it’s years since anyone has lived inside. In April, the Santa Ana winds picked up an arsonist’s spark and tuned this derelict gem into kindling wood. The fire department’s photos are astonishing, and the Cranky Preservationist aghast.

L3. His Horrid Hobby: Imagine, if you will, spending years painstakingly restoring a magnificent 1902 mansion by Griffith Observatory architect John C. Austin, seeing it declared a landmark, then selling for a pretty penny. A happy ending, yes? Not when the buyer is serial home wrecker Xorin Balbes (not his real name), who felt that all that gorgeous dark wood had to go. Just a few months later, the “protected” Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch Mansion is languishing on the market, the best illustration we know for how desperately Los Angeles needs an interior landmarking ordinance.

L4. His Excellency Regrets: Sometimes we only learn of a landmark when informed of its pending loss. Such was the case with a fine Koreatown mansion which, we discovered when researching the address, had been the home-in-exile of Mexican Revolutionary General Maytorena. Illegal demolition stymied any attempt at saving the home or its stunning stained glass.

L5. Park It: It’s no secret that we’re in love with John Parkinson’s 1910 design for Pershing Square, and yearn to see it return. But that doesn’t mean we’re enjoying the city’s slow destruction of the extant Ricardo Legorreta + Laurie Olin Brutalist park plan and its integrated artwork. Meanwhile, an unfunded redesign scheme now proposes to block the classic Biltmore view with LED lights. Is it so hard to just do the sensible thing and restore?

L6. No Room To Grow: It’s ironic, as LACMA scrounges around for a billion dollars to finance demolition of its iconic 1965 William Pereira campus for a slightly smaller Wilshire-spanning mausoleum, that it leased A.C. Martin’s & S.A. Marx’ streamline moderne May Company department store to the Academy for a museum of the movies. That project has hit some potholes, but none deep enough to stop the removal of the back half of the building.

L7. Storm The Bastille: When hillside Silver Lake bar-restaurant El Cid demolished half of its sidewalk-facing wall, it broke our hearts. Although altered somewhat since 1925, that windowless facade, with a wide door at the center, was built as a daffy roadside attraction, the Jail Cafe, featuring waiters in prisoner stripes serving swells chicken dinners, with no silverware, inside mock jail cells. The world is a little less weird for loss of that wall.

L8. Lights Out: A concerned fan sounded the alarm that Vermonica, artist Sheila Klein’s beloved 1993 installation of historic L.A. streetlights had mysteriously vanished from its East Hollywood parking lot home. Turns out, street lighting staff had reclaimed the poles, but failed inform the artist. Something that is Not Vermonica currently shines on a nearby city building, but Klein and the Mayor’s office are now in talks to bring the real deal back to the city that loves it.

L9. Brookfield Broke It: When the Community Redevelopment Agency demolished every building on Bunker Hill, Los Angeles was promised something new and useful in return for the lost Victorian neighborhood. High-rise developers received huge subsidies to provide public art and amenities, in return for agreeing to maintain these civic handouts. Flash forward to last week, when Brookfield Properties, recent buyer of Wells Fargo Tower, illegally demolished landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s Crocker Court (1983), an oasis of running water, mature plants and world-class sculpture.  The timing couldn’t have been more shocking: a touring Halprin exhibition was at the A+D Museum, and the Los Angeles Conservancy had just toured the site. The Cranky Preservationist explains where the buck stops, here.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Bittersweet Moments of 2017:

B1. Bad News: It’s been a long, slow slide for the Los Angeles Times since the Chandler family sold the paper. The Chicago owners continue to bleed its assets, recently selling the landmark (but not actually landmarked) newspaper buildings to Canadian developer Onni Group. Onni is marketing the compound as a hip work space, with Times staff likely evicted by summer. If the newspaper leaves, what of the magnificent Globe Lobby? It would be a civic and aesthetic crime to take it apart, even assuming the newspaper still owns its artifacts, which is uncertain.  As for William Pereira’s masterful, if misunderstood, 1973 addition: Onni wants to demolish it for twin glass towers. There’s a reason no local developer bought the Times compound: if respect for a Los Angeles institution was included in the equation, the financials just didn’t pencil out. That’s not an issue for foreign investors. So if any local billionaires are reading this, it’s your last chance to buy paper and preserve its historic home.

B2. Covina on The Nile: Covina Bowl (Powers, Daly, and DeRosa, 1956) closed last March, leaving fans and preservationists concerned about the fate of the wildest Egyptian-Googie bowling center in the world. Eligible for the National Register, the exotic white elephant patiently waits for a visionary to save it, or a villain to knock it down.

B3. Frank Slept Here: Doug Quill is a filmmaker with an office on the old United Artist’s / Goldwyn Studios lot. When he learned that Frank Sinatra’s personal bungalow was threatened by demolition to make room for a DWP infrastructure project, he petitioned to save it. It seemed the least he could do, since his grandfather had played in Sinatra’s band! After Doug asked for help from the DWP Commissioners, the bungalow got a stay of execution while possible solutions are explored. It’s not saved, but still standing, so there’s hope.

B4. Rhymes With Kitten: We’re big fans of architect Kurt Meyer, who was the firm hand at the CRA that ensured that Central Library was preserved and restored. Now one of his own finest buildings, the marvelous mid-century Lytton Savings, is threatened. Although recently designated as a landmark, starchitect Frank Gehry refuses to adapt his project to spare Meyer’s work. It will be up to the courts, City Council and the continued dedication of Lytton lovers Steven Luftman and Keith Nakata, to keep this art-drenched Sunset Strip gem intact.

B5. Attractive Nuisance: Victorian Los Angeles provided a safe place for its indigent and ill, a vast farm and industrial complex called Rancho Los Amigos, aka The Downey Poor Farm. Today, its decaying buildings are fenced and shuttered, which only sometimes keeps out the urban explorers who have defaced the buildings with graffiti and set a series of major fires. But after decades of indecision, the County is taking a serious look at how best to redevelop the site, and we’re encouraged to hear that preservation of existing structures is on the table.  Hopefully, affordable housing will be on the table, too.

B6. Elegant Decay: Also in Downey, are things finally looking up for the columned Rives Mansion, a National Register landmark badly neglected by its “owners” (owners in quotes, because they stopped paying their mortgage years ago)? Finally, after a fence collapsed from the weight of accumulated garbage, the bank and city took notice. The mansion sold in December, hopefully to a preservation-minded buyer.

B7. Adobe Don’t: One of the oldest houses in Los Angeles County, home to a California Governor, molders away in the middle of a Bell Gardens trailer park, desperately in need of roof and electrical work and informed interpretation. A recent L.A. Magazine feature looks at the Gage Mansion preservation problem, but fails to cover all the drama of our years-long public access battle. For that story, join us on the South L.A. Road Trip!

B8. A Dog-Gone Shame: 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. But a judge has ruled against  preservation, which leaves us hoping developer inertia leaves the door open for the still gorgeous building to be moved. If it falls, it won’t be without notice.

B9. Too Cool Too Lose: After initial discussions about demolishing not just the buildings, but perhaps even the prominent hill on which they sit, serious architectural and landscape guns were brought in to redevelop William Pereira’s neglected Metropolitan Water District HQ, a prime focus of our Pereira in Peril campaign. We’re watching this project with cautious optimism.

B10. Star Power: Another day, another Pereira in Peril (there’s LACMA, too, see L6 above). CBS Television City, the world’s first and most glamorous purpose-built TV production studio, is on the market. Concerned that inflated land values make demolition likely, the Los Angeles Conservancy has stepped in with a landmarking nomination, their first such attempt to preserve an endangered Pereira compound.  In a Times Op-Ed, ironic since their own Pereira building is endangered, Zev Yaroslavsky highlights the need to preserve an architectural and cultural treasure that supports high paying professional jobs.

B11. Pulling Strings: The landmark Bob Baker Marionette Theater will be be demolished, but Baker’s magical puppet shows going to return to a new theater inside the development project slated for the site.

B12. Men Behaving Badly: For film fans, the sudden shuttering of the Cinefamily non-profit was a cultural loss. For emotionally abused employees and volunteers, it was a validation and relief. But preservationists and Hollywood historians lament the closure of the Silent Movie Theatre in its 75th year of operation, and hope this isn’t its final curtain.

B13. Tails We Lose: For all the owners’ big talk about bringing the beloved Tail O’ The Pup stand out of storage and restoring it for a new generation of photo ops and quick meals, nobody did the actual work required to launch a restaurant. The end of the line for the promised roadside revival is a static museum display. And the original wasn’t even in the valley! Meanwhile, to the east, the world’s biggest tamale is also in mothballs.

B14. Daffy Deco Gone Dark: Among our most-missed tour stops is Monrovia’s incredible Aztec Hotel (1924), actually Mayan-inspired and designed by eccentric English architect Robert Stacy-Judd, who held court there in ancient Central American ritual garb. The National Register landmark has had hard times since the start, with repeated foreclosures and some downright peculiar “restoration” work. The hotel reverted to the bank in 2011, and was purchased by a Chinese investor. Although the storefronts remain active, and the restaurant recently reopened, the hotel remains inaccessible, undergoing agonizingly slow renovations. We’re hoping for a grand reopening in 2018.

B15. Band-Aid Solution: New chain-link fencing ruins the beauty of Pasadena’s National Register Colorado Street Bridge. It’s not that we’re insensitive to how important it is to help people thinking of self-harm, but the bridge already has integrated suicide prevention fencing that was installed when it was restored in 1992, which blended in with the design of the span. This new fencing is very ugly, and blocks off the alcove benches that give pedestrians a place to rest and look at the view. The bridge deserves better, and we’re glad to hear the city will be exploring alternative designs.

B16. Stone Drag: Charles Fletcher Lummis saved the California Missions, and did much to preserve the history of Native Americans and Mexican California. If only that great Western booster was around to advocate for the preservation and reactivation of his own historic home El Alisal, city owned, minimally managed by Rec and Parks, and brimming with potential. Every year that goes by without regular cultural programming at Lummis House is a heartbreaking civic failure.

B17. Just Because You Can: Everyone loves the Bradbury Building, California’s greatest surviving Victorian commercial space. Well, everyone except the uninspired folks behind the insensitive LED lighting scheme which makes the exterior remarkably ugly after dark.

B18. Doesn’t Mean You Should: When William Kesling’s streamline moderne Wallace Beery House (1936) was recently on the market, the listing highlighted its remarkable condition and unique machine-age charms. The realized price reflected the home’s condition and rarity. What an unpleasant year-end surprise, then, to learn it had been purchased by a developer eager to demolish the house for a dense cluster of condos. Preservationists have kicked into high gear, hoping to protect this gem.

B19. Vegas on Vine: Remember Onni Group, the Canadians eager to evict the newspaper from the Los Angeles Times building? They’re busy in Hollywood, too, with an outrageous proposal to erect a landlocked cruise ship looming over the lovely Afton Square District, which is designed on the California State Register. The project seeks a 35% density bonus, and proposes to move a collection of historic bungalows around like pawns on a chessboard and demolish a fine 1930 Art Deco market. Although presented as 429-unit apartment complex (hey, L.A. needs housing!), we suspect it will be another unpermitted hotel, a destructive model Onni got in trouble over at home in Vancouver before importing to L.A.

B20. Spinning Wheel: On a hot summer’s 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. Last week, after just 18 months of service, the restored Van De Kamp’s windmill blade fell off the tower. A few days earlier, we saw no sign of trouble. Locals are shocked and eager for assurance that Denny’s will re-restore, but as yet there’s been no official word on what went wrong or on plans for the sign’s future.

*      *      *

And that’s our report on the state of Los Angeles preservation for 2017. To see past years’ lists, click here: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012. And to stay informed all year round, see our Los Angeles History Happenings group 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 with The Real Black Dahlia on January 6, on the crest of the 71st 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 as we kick off our 11th Anniversary Year of loving, preserving and telling the stories of Los Angeles. See you on (or off) the bus!

yrs,
Kim and Richard
Esotouric

Save Parker Center


Parker Center (Welton Becket & Associates and J. E. Stanton, 1955) in Downtown Los Angeles is a building that inspires strong feelings.

Architecture lovers admire its beautiful lines and integrated artwork and plantings. Crime historians marvel at the first modern police headquarters with its cutting-edge forensic science laboratory, built to the specifications of the legendary Ray Pinker. Film and television fans enjoy its stylish appearances from Dragnet to Inherent Vice.

But Parker Center also symbolizes the dark side of Los Angeles policing, and was a place where protesters came over many decades to challenge authority that harms their communities. And stakeholders in Little Tokyo regret the loss of a block of small businesses for Parker Center construction.

Despite the advocacy of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Cultural Heritage Commission and independent preservationists and community members, Parker Center is a cultural and architectural landmark that is in grave danger of being destroyed within the year.

Attempts to preserve Parker Center have been stymied by Los Angeles politicians’ ambitions to redevelop the property surrounding City Hall. These plans have made it impossible to get a fair landmarking hearing for the building, even as the Los Angeles Conservancy’s independent analysis of the project suggests that as much as $100 Million in public funds could be saved if the structure was adaptively reused.

We are very concerned that the process by which landmarks are dedicated is not being allowed to follow its natural course, and that a great building might be lost for what is now only a speculative real estate development. We are also worried about what will happen to the art that exists within and on Parker Center: Bernard J. Rosenthal’s “Family Group” sculpture and Joseph Young’s “Theme Mural of Los Angeles” mosaic, which will be very difficult and expensive to remove from the lobby.

We will continue to advocate for the preservation and adaptive reuse of Parker Center, and will update this page with news as it happens.

A timeline of recent events:

• September 2016 – After City Council’s PLUM committee, headed by Jose Huizar, fails to consider a landmarking application in a timely fashion and internal city proposals recommend demolition, the Cultural Heritage Commission makes a rare attempt to save the building itself.

• December 2016 – Cultural Heritage Commissioner Gail Kennard publishes an eloquent defense of Parker Center in an L.A. Times op-ed, explaining that the building is worth saving for all the reasons some want to see it demolished.

• February 2017 – On political, rather than the legally appropriate historic/aesthetic grounds, Los Angeles City Council denies the recommended landmark status for Parker Center, ignoring the educated determination of the Cultural Heritage Commission.

• March 2017 – At the LAVA Sunday Salon, architectural historians Nathan Marsak, Alan Hess and Richard Schave present an illustrated lecture and walking tour advocating for the preservation of Parker Center. Watch video of the event here.

• April 2017 – City Council promotes the demolition of Parker Center as stage one in the process of creating a clean slate around City Hall that can attract public-private investment partnerships.

• October 2017 – City Council explores the immediate demolition of Parker Center.

• November 2017 – in The Architect’s Newspaper, Louis Naidorf, who worked on the project under Welton Becket, asks why Los Angeles would demolish a pleasant, adaptable office building like Parker Center.

• May 2018 – In Curbed, Jill Stewart from the Coalition to Preserve LA says, “We think Parker Center is the No. 1 best property they could possibly turn into homeless housing. We hired an architect who said that 730 could be housed there. The retrofit would be very inexpensive. The city’s numbers are off the charts as to how much it would cost to retrofit—way, way off the charts. There’s a much cheaper way to do it, so we think they should look at the big empty city buildings and use them for homeless housing. We think they should stop being NIMBYs.”

• May 2018 – Coverage of the press conference calling for Parker Center to be adaptively reused. (photo by Esotouric)

Parker Center Tom Bradley Housing Center press conference 2018-05-24

• June 2018 – New report confirms the Los Angeles Conservancy’s analysis: the true cost of demolishing Parker Center and building a new tower is hundreds of millions of dollars more than the city claimed.

• June 16, 2018 – The Department of Cultural Affairs removes Joseph Young’s mosaic mural from the lobby of Parker Center, one of a small series of historic resource requirements that must be met before the building can be demolished. Video of the removal.

• July 3, 2018 – Los Angeles City Council votes unanimously to rush demolition of Parker Center, despite the true costs now estimated as $226 Million higher. Councilman Jose Huizar is determined to privatize the Civic Center and turn it into “a 24-hour destination” and you’re going to pay for it.

• July 11, 2018 – Activists pushing forward with plan to convert Parker Center into homeless housing.

• July 13, 2018 – Parker Center is #3 on Curbed L.A.’s list of LA’s most endangered buildings. “Led by groups like the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, and Esotouric, LA has a strong community dedicated to historic preservation.”

• July 31, 2018 – While the city races to demolish Parker Center (319,000 square feet) it’s considering its tiny neighbor, the derelict Children’s Museum on the L.A. Mall (14,000 square feet), as emergency homeless housing.

• early August 2018 – Demolition scheduled to begin August 20 and last 500 days. (Architects Newspaper, Rafu Shimpo.)

• August 15, 2018 – Housing advocates sue the City of Los Angeles to halt demolition of Parker Center over a $193 Million discrepancy between their independent engineers’ report on the cost to retrofit the building as supportive housing and the city’s estimate to do the same.

• August 20, 2018 – As demolition begins pending a judge’s determination on preserving the building, our Richard Schave goes on Take Two to talk about what made Welton Becket’s 1955 Parker Center such a progressive LAPD HQ. (interview starts at 40:00). See also this LAist story.

Esotouric’s Los Angeles Historic Preservation 2016 year-end list

27for2016-header

Gentle reader…

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 Artbut 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!

*      *      *

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.

yrs,
Kim and Richard
Esotouric

The Demolition of the Hartwell Motor Company Building (1917-2016)

1
The South Park neighborhood around the Los Angeles Convention Center is positively lousy with new development projects, and some charming commercial structures are being lost around historic Automobile Row.
hartwell-1917-ad-detail

1917 (Los Angeles Herald)

This afternoon, we paid our last respects to The Hartwell Motor Company Building at 1224 South Flower Street. This elegant early auto showroom, office and mechanic’s garage survived just three months shy of a century on this site before being unceremoniously smashed to bits. (We’d heard that Onni Group planned to build a tower on the corner, but were mistakenly under the impression that the site only encompassed a surface parking lot.)
2009-google-street-view

2009 (Google streetview)

Automobile Row could be a volatile place in the teens, as early advertisements reveal. A trip through the Los Angeles Herald archives reveal that in January 1917, the Hartwell Motor Company moved into its custom digs, only to sell to the Troy Motor Sales Company a scant three months later. For a few months in 1919, this was the A.E. Evans Company, dealing in the Paige (“the most beautiful car in America”), before the Standard Steel Automotive Corporation moved in. In later years, it was a taxi dispatcher.
rubble
Thanks to Roger Price for pulling our sleeves to the dire situation, and sharing a photo of the partially demolished structure on the L.A. Historic Preservation Facebook page, taken a couple of weeks ago.
When we made it down to see for ourselves, it was too late to see anything but a patch of broken, but still beautiful, floor tile on top of the rubble pile.
broken-tile
Bye bye, old girl. You deserved more respect than this. And so does your pretty neighbor. Long may she stand.
demolished, and we're worried about her neighbor

Metropolitan Water District landmarking vote reveals recent gutting of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission

PETITION: Mayor Eric Garcetti, Fill the Vacant Seat on the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission.

On Thursday afternoon, September 15, 2016 an SRO crowd gathered in room 1010 of Los Angeles City Hall for the final hearing in the historic-cultural monument consideration process for William L. Pereira’s 1963 Metropolitan Water District campus at 1111 West Sunset Boulevard.

Presentations were made by Pam O’Connor and nominator Yuval Bar-Zemer (in favor) and Bill Delvac and Jenna Snow representing the property owner (opposed). Members of the public spoke about the property: two dozen in favor of preserving it (among them, the architect’s daughter Monica Pereira), two opposed. Bar-Zemer also presented the Commissioners with a pro-landmarking petition containing more than 600 names.

The Commissioners acknowledged that it had been a long day—we heard that security had already been called during the contentious Miracle Mile HPOZ agenda item, and they also were called during this item—and that they believed that determination on the MWD property was problematic due to alterations, some done by the prior church tenant in the 1990s, others done just a few months ago by the property owner apparently (though the Commissioners did not say this) in an attempt to render the property less suitable for landmarking.

When the vote came, it split 2-2, Commission president Richard Barron and Commissioner Jeremy Irvine somewhat reluctantly opposed to landmarking, Commission vice president Gail Kennard and Commissioner Barry Milofsky in favor.

chc-agenda-header-with-5-commissioners-shown-september-15-2016We had noticed through the whole afternoon that Commissioner Elissa Scrafano wasn’t at the dais. But it wasn’t until the vote was tabulated that her absence was explained, to the great dismay of the many citizens who had taken half their day to attend what they believed would be a fair hearing, with an informed Commission vote determining the fate of the endangered mid-century campus.

Although her name appears on the agenda for the hearing, in fact Elissa Scrafano is no longer a member of the Cultural Heritage Commission!

In July, Mayor Garcetti appointed Ms. Scrafano to the Cultural Affairs Commission to fill the vacancy created by Mari Edelman, who resigned. This appointment leaves both Commissions unbalanced and unable to break tie votes: the CAC now has 6 sitting commissioners, the CHC 4.

In the absence of Ms. Scrafano, there was nobody able to break the tie vote for landmarking the MWD, which means no action will be taken. With no new Commissioner nominated by the Mayor, and no CHC meeting scheduled in the 75 day window from when the property came before the Commission, this important William Pereira campus will almost certainly be demolished by the property owner.

But there is a chance, and we’re asking you to help: we are petitioning Mayor Garcetti and several city councilmembers with significant pending landmark nominations in their districts to act promptly to correct the voting imbalance on the Cultural Heritage Commission by appointing a fifth Commissioner. We are further asking that CHC president Richard Barron extend the period of consideration and/or call a special meeting once the Commission is balanced to hold a fair and final vote on the fate of the Metropolitan Water District campus.

If you share our belief that the Cultural Heritage Commission should be fully staffed for the protection of Los Angeles landmarks, please visit the petition link here, and add your name to send a message to the Mayor, City Council and the CHC.

Video of the September 15 hearing is below. Learn more about the Pereira in Peril campaign, see videos from past site visits and learn how to join us for upcoming tours here.