The Heather Apartments: A Long Goodbye

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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.

 

The Hotel Californian neon is alive, alive!

It was 1995 when arson claimed the derelict Hotel Californian at the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae in the Westlake District. But before the grand old H-shaped structure was demolished, the city removed its massive twin neon roof signs and placed them behind a chain link fence just east of the Mulholland Fountain on Riverside Drive.

The plan, if you can call it that, was to convince the developer who would eventually build on the site to fix them up and put them back.

And there they sat, lonesome, rusting and occasionally vandalized, for almost two decades. Folks would spy them from the road and pull over, astonished, full of questions and humming that Eagles song.

At some point, one of the signs vanished; the preservation grapevine buzzed that Diane Keaton had mysteriously acquired the least ruined of the pair and installed it on the patio of one of her many historic homes. Then the second sign was gone, too, and nobody seemed to know where.

But then came a hot tip from our neon historian pal Dydia DeLyser, which is how we found ourselves at high noon on the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae, hitching a ride in the freight elevator of The Paseo at Californian, the nearly-finished low income housing complex that has sprouted on the grassy vacant lot where the old Hotel Californian (1925-1995) lived and died.

Up on the red-tiled roof, we found vintage neon artisan Paul Greenstein putting the finishing touches on the glass tubes that will illuminate the second, newly restored Hotel Californian sign. The metal cans are smooth and clean now, and painted a brilliant California orange with cream that had been revealed as the original colors, visible in flakes beneath layers of rust and paint. (“Creamsicle!” Paul laughed.) As the neon crew posed for photos, then packed up from a job well done, the master’s doggy sidekick Harpo enjoyed the cool breeze off the lake in MacArthur Park.

After 21 years in the exile, the Hotel Californian sign again rises proudly above the city: behold! (She’s not yet lit, but watch this space, and we’ll let you know when you can see her glow.)

Update: Here’s video of the speakers at the relighting ceremony on March 9, 2017.

Hotel Californian