The project, on paper, promised to be one of the largest and possibly the most lucrative of Yujiro Honda's career as an architect in Los Angeles: a 118-unit apartment complex.
That is what Honda's zoning calculations had indicated could be built on a large lot at 310 S. Lafayette Park Place, at 3rd Street west of downtown, which his clients were considering purchasing and developing.
But when the 38-year-old Gardena-based architect visited the site, he was struck by what he saw there: a handsome but faded Italian Renaissance-style mansion set in a large classical garden.
"I thought it must be of historic interest, so I went to the Building Department in City Hall and asked if it was a landmark," recalled Honda last week in an interview. "They said it wasn't on the city's list of historical and cultural monuments and that it could be demolished without delay; that I shouldn't worry."
But Honda said he did worry, though not about someone trying to prevent the demolition of the building and thwarting the redevelopment of the site and his commission. "I was worried about the building," he explained. "I thought it was wrong to demolish something so beautiful."
So Honda went back to the Building Department the next day and told them what he felt. With shaking heads, the department's counter personnel directed the architect to the city's Cultural Affairs Department, which, in turn, put him in touch with the Los Angeles Conservancy.
"We were a little confused at first," recalled Ruthann Lehrer of the Conservancy. "We don't get many architects who will put their commission in jeopardy by suggesting that a building on their project site be declared a historical landmark. Mr. Honda is an exception, and, we feel, a hero."
A subsequent investigation by the Conservancy found that the mansion, indeed, was of historic significance, having been designed in 1914 by the then prominent architectural firm of Sumner Hunt and Silas Burns. Other projects by the firm include the fanciful Automobile Club of Southern California on South Figueroa Street and the Mission-styled Southwest Museum in Highland Park.
In the resulting application for landmark status, the Conservancy declared that the Lafayette Park Place structure, known as the McKinley Mansion and owned by the McKinley estate, is an excellent example of its type and period and one of the few historic mansions "remaining in this district after the invasion of dingbats and condos."
After a tour last month of the property, the city's Cultural Heritage Board agreed, approved the application and sent it on to the City Council where action is now pending.
While landmark status might not stop the demolition of the mansion, it can delay it a minimum of six months while ways are explored as to how the structure can be saved through recycling.
Meanwhile, the Tokyo-born Honda reports that his actions did upset his clients, whom he would identify only as a group of Japanese investors. "I told them I didn't think it was right to make a profit by destroying historical landmarks, that there were other ways to make a profit."
Honda added that his comments to his clients were also prompted by the fact that in World War II America did not bomb Kyoto, a Japanese city containing a wealth of religious and cultural monuments. "You did not destroy our landmarks, so we should not destroy yours," the architect declared.
A nice thought, but Honda was reminded that the clients could simply hire another architect to draw up plans, a reason many in his profession give for accepting what seem to be distasteful commissions. ("If it isn't me, it'll be someone worse," is a typical comment.)
Honda also was told that as a result of his actions, his clients might simply drop the project, with their place being taken by other potential purchasers and their preferred architect.
"Yes," replied Honda, "but my hands will not be dirtied."
It is a person such as Honda that gives one hope that the design professions can make a difference in the shaping of our cityscapes, even by occasionally not designing.
Our Troubled Street: In East Hollywood, the tree-pruning project along Western Avenue seems to have gotten a little out of hand. Shade trees there, such as the two that had blessed the bus stop on the west side of the 1000 block, just south of Santa Monica Boulevard, have been mutilated, in the description of Edward Villareal Hunt, of the Melrose Neighborhood Assn. And when does the denuding come, but just when the shade is most needed.
I am pleased that the city is paying attention to the trees, but as pointed out by Hunt, who is also a landscape architect, the pruning has been, at best, raw, with the trees being hacked instead of thinned.
Hunt also called attention to the increasing, nefarious practice of some absentee property owners in the area of paving over their front yards to create a few more parking spaces for their units. This also is happening in other parts of the city where parking is becoming a problem.