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Lehrer Leaving Conservancy : She Took Preservation Ardor into Mainstream

July 12, 1987|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

Ruthann Lehrer and the Los Angeles Conservancy have become synonymous.

Lehrer joined the preservation group as executive director three years after it started in 1978.

"But I was the first full-time staff person," she said. "So the Conservancy and I have grown up together."

Now she's leaving.

She has been easing out, really, working part time at the Conservancy and part time at her new job. Beginning next month, she'll work full time at her new job as administrative officer for the Center for Law in the Public Interest, one of the biggest public-interest law firms in the country.

"I was offered an opportunity, and it's an organization I admire a lot," she said.

She also admires the Conservancy but looks at her new job as a chance to learn new skills. Anyway, she says, "I think it's healthy for organizations to have new leadership."

Under her leadership, the Conservancy blossomed. It went from a couple hundred members when she joined to 3,500 members, several of whom volunteer to lead historic tours and present other fund-raising and educational events.

It went from a staff of one to a staff of four.

It went from a few voices crying out to preserve the city's historic buildings to many.

As she sees it, her greatest accomplishment was "bringing historic preservation into the mainstream of urban development--building coalitions and generating a new awareness."

She said, "Historic preservationists concerned with land use and the urban environment must interact with public agencies and private developers to conserve buildings." She hopes the Conservancy will continue to use this approach.

She views the Central Library as "the most important issue" during her tenure. It was threatened with demolition when she first came on board. Now it will be part of a major new development.

The library is also her favorite old building. "I love it," she said. "It's like a cathedral. It's really one of the greatest examples of architecture in the country.

Built in 1925

"It was built in 1925 by architect Bertram Goodhue, who died before it was completed. It's a synthesis of sculpture, mosaics, tile, decorative arts and poetry. It has an inscription over every doorway."

Lehrer, who is married to a doctor and has three college-age children, is almost shy when it comes to talking about herself. It's another story when the subject is historic preservation.

It's a subject like the library--one she loves. And it's a subject she learned to love while getting her master's degree in urban planning from UCLA and master's in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts in New York.

Ask her about any historic building in Los Angeles, and she'll talk at length. Even when asked what was her major defeat as director of the Conservancy, she went on and on, remembering the beauty of a building that was razed.

'Architectural Masterpiece'

"It was a major loss," she said, "a true architectural masterpiece in perfect condition inside and out--from its Tiffany mosaics to its stained glass to its wood paneling. It had some of the most beautiful terra cotta in town, and it was willfully torn down in the spring of '82."

It was the First United Methodist Church, which was on the southwest corner of 8th and Hope streets.

"I still hurt from the loss of that building," she said.

And what's there now? "A parking lot. Asphalt. It breaks your heart."

It was an example of an urgent real estate deal that lost its urgency when plans changed, she said, recalling how the church owners had to demolish the building for the sale to be completed, and then the new owners decided not to build there anyway.

"The same thing happened to Coulter's Department Store on the Miracle Mile," she recalled. "It was a beautiful, Streamline-Moderne building designed by Stiles Clements. Now all that's there is a gaping hole."

Ambassador Hotel

She's afraid the same will happen to the Ambassador Hotel. Its owners applied for a demolition permit. "If they get it, will we have yet another vacant site?" she asked. "And do we need that?"

Some questions have been raised about its worth in being preserved, but Lehrer has no doubts.

"I've come to appreciate the building for its classic, Mediterranean style on spacious grounds oriented toward our sunshine. It's a step back in time to a period of pastoral splendor.

"Myron Hunt, a major architect, designed it in a style to be sympathetic to our region. It was designed in 1919, completed in 1921. Its simplicity reflects the avant-garde interest in international architecture, and--besides--it is of historical value because it was linked with the film industry and local political figures."

Home of Conservancy

Even talking about the building housing the Conservancy's headquarters brings a smile and a plethora of detail. It's the Eastern Columbia Building at 849 S. Broadway--"one of the finest Art Deco buildings in the city." Built in 1930, it has a clock tower that says "Eastern" because that was a clock company that later became the Eastern Outfitting Co. Columbia was a department store.

"Notice the glazed blue, green and gold terra cotta? And the clock tower? It's the only one of its kind in the city."

Such enthusiasm won't abate with a job change. "Oh, sure, I'll still be involved on a personal level."

And who will replace her? "The (Conservancy's) board has a search committee to find the most qualified person. They're looking locally, because they want somebody who knows Los Angeles well."

The hunt won't be easy. The job doesn't pay much. And though Lehrer is a small woman, her shoes will be hard to fill.

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