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Historic Status Sought for German Exile Site

January 21, 1988|PHILIPP GOLLNER | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude has called on the City Council to grant historic-preservation status to Villa Aurora, a Pacific Palisades mansion that was a meeting place for some of the greatest intellectuals and artists who fled Hitler's Germany.

As a monument, the house would be saved from demolition for at least six months if it were sold by USC, which last year inherited the 22-room villa and its renowned 36,000-volume library from the late Marta Feuchtwanger, widow of German novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger. Braude, who represents Pacific Palisades, introduced a motion to declare the house a historic monument.

"We want to do more than just preserve this house," Braude said at a news conference at the villa. "What we want to do is preserve the inspiration provided by these exiles."

"This is not a local project for the Palisades or the City of Los Angeles," he said. ". . . It is a valuable monument for the entire world."

Plans Still Fluid

USC officials want to sell the house and move the library to their Exposition Park campus. But they said they would reconsider if $15 million can be raised to repair the house, which then would be used as a research center for exile studies.

Braude was joined at the news conference by representatives of Mayor Tom Bradley, who has said he supports the preservation effort.

Braude's proposal must be approved by the council's Recreation, Library and Cultural Affairs Committee and the city's Cultural Heritage Commission before being submitted to a final council vote. The process could take two months, according to Glenn Barr, Braude's press assistant.

Volker Skierka, a correspondent for the Munich-based newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, who heads the West German effort to preserve the villa, said Braude's proposal is a small yet welcome step.

"We are pleased with every effort by our friends in America to save the house," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Hamburg. "But we want it to be preserved for future generations, not just for six months."

Situated on Bluff

Beginning in the 1930s, the house, situated on a steep bluff behind Sunset Boulevard, was a gathering place for the German exile community in Los Angeles--which included novelist Thomas Mann and his writer brother, Heinrich, playwright Bertolt Brecht and writers Franz Werfel, Alfred Doeblin, Bruno Frank and Ludwig Marcuse. Charlie Chaplin, Aldous Huxley and Albert Einstein visited on occasion.

The home was built by the Los Angeles Times in 1927 as a showcase of the latest in home design and technological convenience.

If USC sells the house, it will move the library to a separate floor of a new library to be built on campus. University officials said they do not have the estimated $600,000 to $700,000 needed to repair the house's foundation. And, they said, the books would be safer and better cared for in a new library.

Even if the $15 million were raised, about 6,000 of the library's most valuable volumes would be moved to the campus for better preservation, said Robert Biller, USC executive vice provost. Some of the books date from the late Middle Ages and require special care, he said.

Bradley Plan

William E. Bicker, special consultant to the mayor, said Bradley has a plan to help save the house. He refused to release details, but said an announcement will be made soon. Bradley tentatively plans to announce his support for the preservation effort when he travels to West Germany early next month to discuss trade issues, Bicker said.

"This is an example of a horrible period of history when these people got together and flourished," Bicker said. "To the mayor, it represents the spirit of oppressed people not just surviving, but flourishing."

Braude's proposal would not provide any city money to help restore the house. The councilman called on the "world German community" to raise funds for the repairs and the proposed research center.

The $15 million includes an $11-million endowment that would generate about $550,000 a year to operate and maintain the research center, Biller said. Repairs and restoration would take $2 million, and the remaining $2 million would be used to build the new USC library, to be named after Lion Feuchtwanger.

Price a Problem

Skierka said he wishes that USC had offered a "more realistic" price--he originally thought that the house could be preserved if the West Germans paid for only the foundation repairs--but added that his effort will go on.

"It is not as if we were hit by a sudden shock and plan to drop the effort," he said. "The issue is too important for that to happen."

Skierka said he has received letters of support from West German President Richard von Weizsaecker and former Chancellor Willy Brandt. He plans to meet with other backers in West Berlin this week to discuss USC's offer.

Idea Popular in Germany

The effort to save the house has made headlines in West Germany, where many politicians and intellectuals are eager to erect a monument to German literature written in exile during World War II. Part of a nationally televised weekly news program was devoted to the issue, as was a lengthy account in a recent issue of the West German news magazine Der Spiegel.

Many of those involved in the preservation effort see the house as a monument to the humanistic, anti-fascist tradition that was crushed during the Nazi era.

"The house is the only one of its kind in the world," said Harold von Hofe, director of USC's Feuchtwanger Institute for Exile Studies. "It is the only one that is precisely the way it was when the German exiles met" in Los Angeles.

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