History in Turnaround

History in Turnaround

On April 11, 2002, the infamous demolition of Richard Neutra’s Maslon House in Rancho Mirage was featured on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Living section. For many, it was a shocking first close-up of what appeared to be a Wild West–style race to summarily destroy midcentury icons as fast as possible. Schindler’s famed Wolfe House in Catalina and his Packard House in Pasadena were demolished in 2000 and 2001. Gregory Ain’s Mar Vista tract home facade at 3542 Meier Street was demolished in 2002. A classic Cliff May Ranch home interior in Sullivan Canyon was gutted in 2002.

Myron Hunt’s famed Ambassador Hotel in Koreatown came down in 2006 along with the original Rand Buildings in Santa Monica. Although the Wolfe House and the Rand Buildings both went through local public hearing processes, they were still destroyed, the former because the building was deemed irreparable due to lack of structural maintenance and the latter for the greater good of the Santa Monica Civic Center Plan.

How was this allowed to happen? For one, Southern California is not only home to hundreds of works by renowned 20th-century architects and modernist mavericks, but it is governed by an equally unwieldy number of local city entities. Los Angeles County alone packs in 88 different municipalities. At the time of the Maslon House loss, Ken Bernstein, then director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy and now managing director of the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, told the Los Angeles Times that, “Many local governments have the misconception that if a building is not officially designated a local landmark, it does not need to be considered as a potential historic building. Under CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), a city has an obligation to decide if a building is significant or not. You cannot destroy historical properties without a review.”

Yet few cities exert their legal authority or responsibility to question or stop property owners or developers in the process of permit requests to demolish residential, retail, or commercial structures. Cities not only badly need ordinances that can stay or halt demolition, they also need surveys of historic properties, and support organizations to convince people why the properties should be saved. Furthermore, they need their citizens to back some reasonable measure of preservation without stifling real estate development and the experimental architecture that continues to make LA an important metropolis for design.

On the positive side, the loud outcry following recent teardowns has clearly propelled the wheels of change here. It doesn’t hurt that midcentury modernism has been hot for a decade. Late modernist works ooze “Mad Men” cool, adaptive reuse projects have prompted turnarounds in several neighborhoods, and Los Angeles is the heart and soul, center and sprawl for postwar architecture. Still, as Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne noted last month, “the effort to round up support for postwar buildings is often far from straightforward—and can easily prove a minefield of contradiction and irony.”

Bernstein is passionate about getting Los Angeles a state-of-the-art preservation program, including a revised Cultural Heritage Ordinance with the backbone to actually halt demolitions, and an upcoming citywide inventory known as Survey LA, which is near the end of phase one of its two-part, five-year plan.

While LA’s existing preservation ordinance was the first among major U.S. cities, the legislation is now one of the weakest in the country. Unlike in New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and Sacramento, where the municipal authorities can in fact prohibit demolition of structures, the existing LA ordinance can only enforce a limited stay of demolition, even for existing Cultural Monuments. Proposed amendments to the existing preservation ordinance—which were approved by the LA Planning Commission in September and are expected to be voted on by the city council in early 2010—not only strengthen the city’s power to stay and halt demolitions, but improve due process for property owners and developers, increase the cultural heritage commission’s board membership from five to seven so that consensus can be reached more frequently, and provide more protection for cherished individual projects to match the strength and success of LA’s Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) program.


Survey LA, largely supported by the grants, working papers, and continued partnership of the Getty, will be completed in 2012. And it’s about time: While LA has over 900 Historic-Cultural Monuments and 24 Historic Districts, only about 15 percent of the city has been surveyed to date.

The project’s first wave of localities will follow a rolling model, making survey work available for consideration as each neighborhood updates its community plan. Another step is the development of preservation education and training. Ken Breisch, director of the Historic Preservation Programs at USC—the only accredited preservation program in LA with both masters and certificate tracks— has seen a significant increase in participation in these programs since their inception six years ago. The program supports the growing rise of interest in postwar architecture, while Bernstein was proud to note that graduates are now working for local historic resource consultants who are piecing together Survey LA.

And while Schindlers, Neutras, Mays, and Ains have been bulldozed or remodeled beyond recognition, private citizens and public institutions have made some nice saves. Oscar Niemeyer’s Strick House in Santa Monica, his only project in the United States, was landmarked by the city and restored by Michael and Gabriel Boyd in situ in 2003. Just a year ago, Richard Neutra’s Maxwell House was precisely sliced like a Gordon Matta-Clark installation and moved by developer Barbara Behn on flatbed trucks from Brentwood to Angelino Heights to recapture the form, if not the context, of this classic 1957 work. In 2008, the homes of lesser-known but remarkable midcentury modernists like Romanian-born Haralamb Georgescu and Swedish-born Greta Magnusson Grossman were thoughtfully restored with complementary additions and renovations in Beverly Hills. On June 4, 2008, the MAK Center welcomed the Fitzpatrick-Leland House donation as part of its roster of Schindler projects available for public consumption and as home to the MAK Urban Future Initiative.

And on November 7, 2008, the LA Conservancy’s efforts to save the Driftyland Dairy-Port in El Monte from a strip mall demolition were rewarded with a unanimous vote of acceptance on the State Landmark Registry. This summer, Santa Monica opened the Annenberg Beach House, including docent-led tours of the Marion Davies guest house and dips in the original mansion pool.

Further afield, Jim Louder, owner of two Bob’s Big Boy restaurants in Torrance and West Covina, just finished a recreation of the almost-completely steamrolled Johnie’s Broiler in Downey. The new restaurant—Bob’s Broiler—opened for business on September 26. This teardown turnaround story was made possible by Los Angeles Conservancy volunteers who had procured copies of the original drawings for Johnie’s state landmark process. Without these, restoration would have been impossible, as a tenant’s demolition crew reduced the building to rubble in 2007. In 2008, Neutra scholar Barbara Lamprecht wrote successful statements of significance for the Poppy Peak and Pegfair developments in Pasadena, getting these projects on local, state, and national registries this year and greatly expanding the lexicon of highly regarded postwar developments. Similarly, the Eichler Balboa Highlands Tract in Granada Hills is now a proposed HPOZ.

Back in Palm Springs, Neutra’s famed Kaufmann House stands restored, unauctioned, and back for sale, while his nearby Miller House is being carefully brought back to life. On April 15, the city of Palm Springs approved a historic designation for Donald Wexler’s west facade of the Palm Springs Airport. And in the aftermath of the Maslon House demolition, Rancho Mirage completed their citywide historic survey and inventory in 2004, noting that the home was the most architecturally significant work within city limits prior to its demolition in 2002.

Nevertheless, threats still abound from developers weighing the value of maintaining existing structures versus tabula rasa visions. Some choice projects still on the chopping block include Minoru Yamasaki’s Century Plaza hotel in Century City, Luckman Pereira’s Robinsons-May department store in Beverly Hills, and Irving Shapiro’s Columbia Savings and Loan building on Wilshire Boulevard. Welton Becket’s Beverly Hills Trader Vic’s and his Century City Gateway West Building have already lost their battles and sit quietly on death row. Equally ominous is the financial fragility of projects in good hands. Cal Poly Pomona’s Neutra VDL House has stabilized its annual operating and maintenance costs through tours and architectural fundraising events, thanks to its energetic director Sarah Lorenzen. But it is in urgent need of $100,000 for roof repairs (plans for these repairs have been drawn up by Marmol Radziner) to stave off continued damage from rainwater infiltration.

While the economy has slowed the actual bulldozers, the LA Conservancy is busier than ever.

“We think this is the best time for us to tune up our preservation policies in advance of the next economic cycle,” said Bernstein. “There are still misconceptions as to what historic preservation means; that it will freeze a property in time. But I think there’s a growing understanding between preservationists and the economic community alike that preservation is a key component of economic revitalization.”