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Midcentury Mess
Preservationists fight to save Century Plaza Hotel
Minoru Yamasaki's Century Plaza Hotel is almost certainly bound for the wrecking ball.
Courtesy LA Conservancy

It would seem that the work of Minoru Yamasaki can’t catch a break these days. The now-deceased pioneering modernist—he designed Seattle’s Arch, New York’s Twin Towers, and LA’s now all-but-doomed Century Plaza Hotel—is known less for being one of the 20th century’s staunch modernist architects and more for being the architect of the damned, the doomed, and the destroyed.

His midcentury-modern Century Plaza has been a recent flashpoint in the ongoing debate between development and preservation in LA. Though the hotel sat quietly unnoticed but heavily used for decades, things heated up last December when the 726-room hotel’s new owner, local investor Michael Rosenfeld (who bought the property with the D.E. Shaw Group), released this seemingly pro-preservation statement: “Properties like the Century Plaza Hotel are one-of-a-kind; they have lasting value in any economic environment. This is a rare opportunity to buy a jewel in my hometown.”

The proposed Pei Cobb Freed-designed development.
Courtesy Curbed LA

But just a year later, Rosenfeld announced plans to raze the hotel and replace it with a mixed-use development containing two 50-story Pei Cobb Freed & Partners–designed hotel/residential towers. At a cost of $2 billion, the more than five-acre site will hold 100,000-plus square feet of office space, a 240-room Five Star hotel (still to be operated by Hyatt), 130 luxury condos, and nearly 105,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.

When the new plans were unveiled, Rosenfeld changed his pro-preservation tune: “The opportunity to redefine an urban center in one of the great international cities comes along once in a lifetime… The innovative design embraces the future of urban planning with an emphasis on pedestrian connectivity and sustainable design.” Rosenfeld and Co. also touted the new development as very green. The project is expected to be LEED Silver certified, and will use environmentally “correct” construction materials, with some structures featuring green roofs.

This was too much for local preservationists, who brought out their big guns in late April in a splashy, Hollywood-style press conference, held across the street from the Century Plaza in a screening room at talent agency CAA. In a surprise move, the Washington, D.C.–based National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the hotel had been placed on their list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2009. Though inclusion on the list might seem merely a gesture, only six structures placed on the list in the last 22 years have been destroyed.

Large-scale development has already begun to surround the hotel.
Courtesy LA Conservancy

Unlike the buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, midcentury modern structures, especially those used for commercial purposes, have been a tougher sell in the preservation conversation. Modernist buildings can seem cold and unwelcoming, and have often seen little support from the public when threatened. The Welton Becket–designed office complex just down the road from the Century Plaza is headed for the chopping block this summer, with little fanfare and even less opposition.

Perhaps the biggest irony is the timing: This year marks the 50th anniversary of Century City’s founding. Leo Marmol, of Marmol and Radziner Associates, whose remodel of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs is among the storied acts of midcentury modern preservation, noted, “To make our cities more dense is a positive thing, and I support development. But Century City has seen a loss lately.” He added, “The question is, will they allow the continued destruction of the fabric of their history, or will they say enough is enough?”

The developer must now submit plans to the Planning Department and initiate environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act, which will likely take 12 to 18 months to complete.

Jake Townsend