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COVER STORY : Red-Tagged Relics : Battered, Blighted Hollywood Landmarks Teeter on Edge of Extinction

October 09, 1994|SCOTT COLLINS

When the Hollywood-Western building was completed in 1928, movie star Norma Shearer opened it with a golden key. Today, the young vagrants who live there don't need any keys--the back door is wide open and admits anyone brave enough to enter.

In these offices, early movie moguls made big decisions on censorship, antitrust laws and trade unions. Now squatters use the rooms as crash pads, slumbering amid ripped sofas, crumbled plaster and dried puddles of blood.

The 66-year-old building--Los Angeles historic-cultural monument No. 336--is rotting inside and out, a victim of the January earthquake and years of apathy and neglect.

Preservationists worry that the red-tagged architectural jewel, an Art Deco landmark on the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue, will soon fall through the bureaucratic cracks and face the wrecking ball--if one of its illegal inhabitants doesn't set fire to the place first.

Numerous earthquake-damaged historic buildings in Hollywood face a similar plight. These include the Egyptian Theater, the Hillview Apartments and the Henry Fonda Theater.

The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission reports that about a fourth of the city's 596 historic-cultural monuments were damaged in the quake. Such buildings represent prime examples of a certain architectural style, were designed by a prominent architect or played an important role in Los Angeles history.

The commission's figures are not broken down by neighborhood, but it is believed the damage was extensive in Hollywood. The short list of Hollywood's '20s and '30s buildings seems to get shorter every year because of demolitions, fires and natural disasters. The fate of what is left depends on a handful of Los Angeles agencies and scattered preservation groups that often have proved powerless to save old or damaged sites.

Just this year, preservationists lost bitter battles to save the Brown Derby on Vine Street--a universal symbol of old Hollywood that was battered by fires, vandals and finally the powerful Northridge temblor--and the Hastings Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.

Tourists seeking a bit of Tinseltown glamour have found many vacant lots and orphaned buildings. The locals know better. They say parts of central and east Hollywood have been deteriorating into a slum for 30 years.

Preservationists blame absent-minded city officials for allowing the decay. City officials blame neglectful property owners. Property owners blame government agencies and the bad economy.

"The biggest threats to historic buildings are neglected or deferred maintenance," said Tim Brandt, project architect for Historic Resources Group, a private consulting company. "But there's also a certain lack of respect for the past. There just isn't the mind-set for the preservation of old buildings (in Los Angeles) that there is back East."

In Hollywood, such buildings have gotten little respect.

Take the Egyptian Theater, which at 72 is several years older than the celebrated Mann's Chinese Theater just to the west on Hollywood Boulevard. Film showings ceased at the Egyptian several years ago, shortly before the Community Redevelopment Agency bought the run-down property from United Artists.

American Cinematheque, a film-preservation organization, has proposed taking over the building to show classic films, but that plan was stalled after the earthquake left the Egyptian looking like an ancient ruin. Fragile hollow-clay tiles--the 1920s precursor to cinder blocks--collapsed in the south and east walls, exposing the interior to sun and rain. Then vandals stripped the theater of whatever they could sell on the street.

The redevelopment agency has estimated the earthquake damage to the Egyptian at more than $5 million. That's about three times as much as the agency paid for the building in 1992. (It can be more expensive to repair such a building than to buy it.) Officials now hope that insurers and the federal government will pay for repairs so the American Cinematheque plan can proceed, but the building's fate remains uncertain.

The Hillview Apartments, a pink stucco structure that once provided temporary housing for silent movie stars, is now the only residential building in the Hollywood historic district. It was heavily damaged in the January earthquake and by street sinkage in August related to Metro Rail subway construction. City officials say repair efforts have been stalled by disputes between the Hillview landlords and the remaining tenants, who are fighting eviction from the building.

The Henry Fonda Theater--a 68-year-old movie house formerly called The Pix--had often been dark even before it was damaged by the quake. The theater is operated by the Nederlander company, whose officials say they hope to renovate the structure by early 1995.

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