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A Tour of Endangered Landmarks

April 16, 1989|SAM HALL KAPLAN

There is no rest for preservationists in Los Angeles, bombarded as they are by conferences and crises.

Several thousand are expected to gather here this week at the 14th annual California Preservation Conference to review the movement's successes and challenges.

Scheduled at the historic Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles are the usual symposiums to discuss the finer points of restoration, rehabilitation and recycling; the latest twists and turns in local land-use laws and landmark ordinances, and the drift of funding for preservation projects.

To lighten the proceedings, conference planners are offering "L.A.'s Great Open House," featuring 19 tours of historic sites and scenes. They include the El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, the Long Beach and San Fernando Valley ranchos, Hollywood Boulevard, the movie studios, and historic houses and neighborhoods.

Not scheduled but appropriate would be another tour, "Endangered Landmarks," reflecting some of the harsh realities of preservation today.

For despite the movement's achievements of the past decade and a rising public appreciation of preservation, development and economic pressures continue to mount, threatening historic buildings, districts and neighborhoods.

The tour would start downtown, along Broadway, a national historic district.

Many of the marvelous movie palaces there, exhibiting a range of exuberant architectural styles that flowered in the 1910s and 1920s, are on shaky financial grounds and worse for wear. A few simply aren't making it anymore and are primed to be picked off by speculators interested more in the value of their sites than the buildings.

The frail hope of such groups as the Miracle on Broadway is that the palaces will be saved under some sort of cultural resources plan, to be used as a dance gallery, rehearsal halls or small theaters to augment the Music Center.

Such a plan would only consume a small fraction of the public and private funds earmarked for the center's latest expansion.

Also on the tour would be the Brockman Building and the former Coulter's Dry Goods store, both of which lend a sense of history and scale to 7th Street between Grand and Olive avenues.

This delicately detailed Romanesque-style commercial strip dating back 70 years is threatened by a slickly packaged multi-use mega-project being planned by the local office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for the Japanese investment firm of USA Pacific Atlas.

The next stop would be the southeast corner of Lafayette Park Place and 3rd Street, for a glimpse of the ravaged McKinley Mansion, once a proud example of the rich Italian Renaissance style. Its owner was stopped from brazenly, and illegally, demolishing the structure over last New Year's weekend, but not before inflicting serious damage and opening it up to vandalism.

Preservationists hope that the damaged mansion can be moved to a location where it would be repaired and appreciated. Also obviously in need of repair are the city's ordinances to protect such landmarks from illegal demolition and to force the culprits to restore them.

Next on the endangered tour would be the Menlo Avenue National Historic District, on Adams Boulevard in the North University Park area.

The district is a rare street, lined with gracious two-story Craftsman-styled houses dating back to the turn of the century. Architectural delights, they are the focus of a valiant restoration effort to bring some desperately needed stability to the neighborhood.

Nevertheless, under an ill-conceived and politically motivated plan, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency is proposing to bulldoze much of the block to make way for a Boys Market.

One would think that the site for the market could be adjusted to spare the landmark houses or another found in a neighborhood pockmarked with garbage-strewn vacant lots and liquor stores.

But apparently, local Councilman Robert Farrell wants the houses and their community-conscious residents to go, and has pressured the CRA to contradict its commitment to preservation as a tool for neighborhood renewal.

The tour, unfortunately, continues.

Among other stops is the Ambassador Hotel, Bishop Conaty High School, Queen of Angels Medical Center, the Whittier Theater and half a dozen branch libraries. Each is affected in some way by shifting economics, politics and public tastes and needs.

Then there is the Ennis Brown House in Los Feliz, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece that is slowly crumbling for lack of funds for repairs.

Meanwhile, the Getty Trust's architectural preservation program continues to perfect its application process. Perhaps if the program, instead of being housed in pricey office space, was relocated to the Ennis Brown House under a leaking roof and above a shaky foundation, a way would be found to expeditiously fund the repairs.

More generally endangered is no less than a quarter of the entire city of South Pasadena; the Miracle Mile, both the commercial buildings along Wilshire Boulevard and many of the fine, dated apartment complexes off it, and Bonnie Brae Avenue, south of MacArthur Park.

In South Pasadena the culprit is a poorly planned freeway; in the Miracle Mile and on Bonnie Brae Avenue, insensitive development, confused political leadership and ineffectual city planning.

The list, and the tour, could go on and on.

Many communities may not have a particular landmark of historic interest that is threatened, or indeed may not have a landmark at all. But their struggles to preserve, in their buildings and landscapes a sense of time, place and pride are to be encouraged.

It is these struggles for a livable city, built upon the fragments of the past, that will set the agenda of the preservation movement in the coming years, symposiums and tours not withstanding.

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