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To Preserve and Protect

Architectural conservation groups, meeting in L.A. today, are seeking creative ways to safeguard America's structural heritage.

October 31, 2000|REED JOHNSON, TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the anguished aftermath of the 1992 riots, L.A.'s Central Avenue district set out to salvage its cultural memory. Once the heart of a vital, jazz-inflected African American community, most of the neighborhood's storefronts had been razed and plowed under long ago, and many of its wooden homes had been stuccoed over by immigrants, erasing the district's architectural identity. Reginald Chapple, executive director of the nonprofit Dunbar Economic Development Corp., said that although the National Trust for Historic Preservation offered technical assistance for rebuilding the commercial corridor, the program, which was designed to assist small Midwestern towns, "didn't fit with what was happening in urban communities." So for the past eight years, the Dunbar agency and its neighborhood allies have been evoking Central Avenue's historic spirit and sense of place, not with old buildings, but by constructing low-income housing, hanging street banners and staging a popular annual jazz festival at the historic Dunbar Hotel, which the agency owns and operates. Meanwhile, a small but growing number of middle-class blacks have begun moving back after decades of outward migration. "We may not have the built-environment structure," Chapple said, "but we've got the history" to recapture the community's cohesiveness and spirit.

The Central Avenue experience illustrates how historic preservation in America is adapting to meet a complex new set of challenges that will be high on the agenda when the National Trust for Historic Preservation holds its conference at the Biltmore starting today. Some 2,500 preservationists are expected to attend the annual event of the 61-year-old historic conservation organization, which Los Angeles is hosting for the first time.

Among the more pressing questions: How can preservation take root in areas undergoing constant social upheaval? How can it be used to revitalize older, economically depressed areas? How can historic structures

keep pace with changing technological needs fueled by the new economy? Can cultural festivals, photo archives, oral histories and other "non-built" materials be used to "preserve" communities that have physically diminished? And how do preservationists decide what's worth keeping from the second half of the 20th century--a period when bowling alleys, cocktail lounges and coffee shops partly usurped churches, libraries and government offices as the neon-lit repositories of American civic life?

The impact of the preservation movement is visible nationwide. In downtown San Jose and other parts of the Silicon Valley, neglected commercial buildings are being retrofitted with T-1 lines for computers and acquiring new lives as Internet dollars chase a dwindling supply of affordable office space. In New York, an influx of urban professionals are colonizing rundown stretches of Harlem, lured by an abundance of spacious and relatively cheap turn-of-the-century brownstones. The startling turnaround of Miami's booming South Beach, with its rows of glittering Art Deco hotels, shows how buildings once considered worthless kitsch can be resurrected practically overnight as popular tastes change.

In the three-plus decades since the destruction of the Beaux Arts masterpiece Penn Station galvanized New York's conservation community and led other U.S. municipalities to pass building regulations, preservation-minded groups have expanded their mission beyond protecting individual landmarks.

Among its top priorities, the National Trust lists curbing "sprawl" and promoting "smart growth" in an increasingly suburbanized landscape. Although 40 years ago only two major U.S. cities, Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans, had laws protecting historic properties, today preservationists can claim victories stretching from a restored Frederick Law Olmstead Park in Providence, R.I., to seismic retrofitting of 85 historic Stanford University buildings and the conversion of a restored Japanese coffee farm into Hawaii's first living history museum.

"The destruction of Penn Station and similar community losses around the country due primarily to urban renewal and the construction of the highway system were huge catalysts for forming preservation groups," said Richard Moe, the National Trust's president. "It was an enormously important turning point. But [the movement] has evolved a great deal since then."

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