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Counterpunch

Earthquake, Not Neglect, Hurt Landmark

April 13, 1998|ROBERT H. TIMME

Nicolai Ouroussoff's commentary about the Frank Lloyd Wright concrete-block residence, the Freeman House ("Wright, Done Wrong," March 14), was an unfortunate attack on USC's stewardship of this wonderful Los Angeles landmark residence.

To substantiate his position, Ouroussoff presented information that was in some cases misleading and in others incorrect.

Approximately 20,000 people have been able to visit the Freeman House during the 11 years it has been managed by the School of Architecture at USC. The resident director of the house during that period, Jeffrey Chusid, was committed to the creation of a fully restored Freeman House that would serve as a study center for historic preservation and conservation.

With the Freeman House Restoration Associates, Chusid raised money to tackle strategic, incremental restoration projects such as rebuilding the rear terrace, treatment of all exposed wood surfaces and the reupholstering of interior furniture.

Collaborations were formed with other universities, such as Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania as well as the Getty Institute, to conduct studies aimed at solving the deeper problems causing the deterioration in Wright's block constructions. This was anything but, as Ouroussoff describes it, "years of neglect."

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The catastrophic 1994 Northridge earthquake set back all restoration efforts. Attitudes changed from optimism for the future to survival in the present. Three years of negotiations with the Federal Emergency Management Assn. led to an initial offer for a settlement based upon a slight increase in the "replacement value of the structure."

Under its proposal, FEMA agreed to participate in a total project that had a limited scope of $852,000. However, FEMA's policy is to pay only 90% of this, or a total of $767,000. Many of these dollars would be consumed by such things as general requirements, plan check and permit fees, engineering and compliance with wheelchair-access requirements or other compliances. FEMA estimates that of the $767,000 only $262,000 would be used for what it refers to as primary structural work. Ouroussoff presented a summary of this by stating that "FEMA offered the school more than $850,000 to rebuild the house's underlying structure and to bring the building up to current seismic codes."

The well-respected structural engineers Nabih Youssef and Associates were hired to determine the extent of the earthquake repairs that were needed. Their report lists tasks that should be conducted to bring the building up to current seismic code. FEMA decided not to include 34 of these identified tasks. Youssef felt that all of the tasks were necessary.

The California governor's Office of Emergency Services contested the FEMA proposal. "The earthquake damage triggered the 1991 Uniform Building Code, which states, 'Whenever an existing building or structure has been damaged or is in need of repairs . . . in an amount exceeding 50% of the replacement cost, the entire building or structure shall be made to conform to current code.' Therefore, the existing structure shall be made to conform to current code."

OES went on record to state that in the case of the Freeman House, "FEMA has not considered the entire eligible scope of work." Furthermore, it pointed out that FEMA is not applying the same criteria for reasonable restoration to the Freeman House as it is to other historic structures.

Under these conditions, it is impossible for USC to agree to a settlement for less funds than are required by the project and to which the project is clearly entitled under the law. Doing this would create an enormous liability for USC, expressly defined by the building code to have a scope of work far beyond the FEMA agreement.

It is curious that the Ouroussoff article belittles USC's current efforts to protect the house during these negotiations. The school hired one of Southern California's leading canvas fabrication companies to design, construct and install a lightweight frame and canvas structure to provide protection from rain.

This structure is dismissed by Ouroussoff as "a heavy canvas tarp . . . propped tent-like, over the roof." During these recent months, marked by one of the heaviest rainfalls in the history of Los Angeles, the house experienced no roof leaks. It is possibly the only winter the house has stayed dry since it was built.

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The ultimate irony of The Times article is that it concludes by evoking the memory of Harriett Freeman while neglecting her views on the house. The comparison of the Freeman House to the Gamble House made by Ouroussoff would have infuriated Harriett, who wrote, there is "no connection or similarity to the Gamble House. Don't even think of the two together. Think of our house as a practical house for work, students, teachers, etc. All the house needs is what is necessary to be made efficient, not a rebuilt house."

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