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'If they're old enough to be torn down, they're old enough to be preserved.' : '50s Buildings Near 'Historic' Status

January 04, 1988|JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writer

Just east of Century City, the apartment house at the corner of Vidor and Beverly Green drives appears unassuming enough. On two sides, the faded white paint on the walls is obscured by a dense fence of foliage. From the courtyard, the view is of green corrugated plastic and unadorned steel beams.

By Jan. 31, the last three tenants must leave so the building can be razed and a new condo complex constructed. They will not go willingly; they have been comfortable. Despite the modest appearance of the place, they say, the tiny units were artfully designed with lots of storage and private patios or balconies for everyone.

But it is not just the tenants who want to save the building, which was known as the Colby when it was built between 1950 and 1952.

This early example of the California garden apartment has drawn the interest of a new breed of preservationists, who are stretching the definition of historic. No longer do they concentrate solely on adobe missions, antebellum manors, gingerbread Victorians and Art Deco palaces.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 7, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
A story about post-World War II buildings in The Times on Monday incorrectly identified the architect of the Laurelwood Apartments in Studio City. The architect was Rudolph M. Schindler.

In Los Angeles and across the country, a growing number of scholars, government officials and architects are intent on enshrining the ordinary. They tout special landmark status for a host of post-World War II structures, from a 25-year-old Berkeley Safeway to a glassy skyscraper erected in downtown Minneapolis just 16 years ago. They are preserving a '50s business district in Albuquerque's Nob Hill and a 1957 Phillips 66 station, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, near Duluth.

'A Lot of Fun Involved'

In Southern California, they have convinced the conservative National Register of Historic Places that a 1953 McDonald's in Downey is eligible for listing. They talk of making the Four-Level Interchange a monument and rhapsodize about "a terrific Ralphs in Burbank." Often, these efforts on behalf of the recent past are greeted with--to put it politely--great skepticism. "I'm sure the public is not sure whether the advocates are serious," said John Merritt, executive director of the California Preservation Foundation. The issue is divisive within preservation circles as well.

But those who have enlisted in the movement insist that their mission is far from frivolous. They cite the dizzying pace of demolition and reconstruction in today's urban landscape, which depletes the nation's stock of 1950s and early 1960s buildings--buildings that reflect the rise of the American middle class in their fascination with new technology and leisure time.

Those were prosperous, optimistic days. Everyone had a chance to lead the good life. More and more families could buy a house and a car and maybe take to the road for a vacation each year. Meanwhile, the scientists in their labs were researching the way to an even brighter future.

The buildings leave no doubt that that was the way it seemed. In the private spaces, from the Colby in Los Angeles to the Hollin Hills subdivision near Alexandria, Va., architects used new techniques with steel beams and glass walls to frame lush outdoor landscaping in a way that seemed to magically bring vast forests inside the smallest homes.

"The idea was you could have mass-produced houses, but they could be beautiful," said Katherine W. Rinne, research director for the architectural firm Pereira Associates and who has written about '50s architecture for the Los Angeles Conservancy, a local preservationist group. "The outdoor space is the one luxury, they realized, that must be provided. You can't buy the garden if it's not there. You could build cheaply and build well, though much of the work is very modest."

In contrast, the public places were not subtle. The loud colors and Space Age gull-wing shapes of the drive-ins, coffee shops and motels of the era were exuberant appeals to drivers whizzing by in their automobiles. The very existence of such structures meant that the masses had spare money to spend on sheer fun. Life was not all that serious all the time.

Even the most ardent '50s and '60s preservationist does not try to argue that the buildings are beautiful. (Some add, however, that tastes may someday change: "Victorians were once considered ugly and excessive," said Alan Hess, an architecture critic and author of a book on coffee-shop design.)

The focus is on their possibilities as artifacts, not art. "Sure it means nothing right now, but 100 years down the road, these (buildings) will be invaluable," said Robert Mawson, a former official of the National Trust for Historic Preservation involved in the recent-past movement. "They speak to a time we're fast leaving."

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