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Perspective

There Goes Our History

Modernist homes are part of the Southland's heritage. So is the maverick spirit that has led to landmark destruction and feeble preservation laws.

April 28, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF

Southern California has never treated its architectural landmarks with much respect. Aggressively focused on the future, the region has always been quick to forget the past. But even by the standards of a region notorious for its short-term memory, the recent spate of landmark demolitions is stunning.

In the last year, half a dozen Modernist works have been destroyed or severely disfigured. Last July, a new owner tore down R.M. Schindler's 1928 Wolfe House on Catalina Island, a structure that had figured prominently in the Museum of Contemporary Art's retrospective on the late Modernist only a few months earlier. A month ago, Richard Neutra's 1963 Maslon House--one of the architect's last major works--was demolished in Palm Springs.

Since then, a homeowner ripped out the interior of a 1952 Sullivan Canyon residence designed by the late Cliff May, considered the father of the California ranch house. Another homeowner tore off the facade of a Gregory Ain-designed house at the architect's Mar Vista development--a historic Modernist community completed in 1949.

And in Palm Springs, the Alpha Beta Food Market (currently a Ralph's Food 4 Less), designed in 1960 by Modernists Albert Frey, John Porter Clark and Robson Chambers, is slated for demolition.

Even Los Angeles' most cherished modern landmarks are starting to look vulnerable. Schindler's 1922 Kings Road House in West Hollywood--one of the most influential designs of its time--was recently placed on the World Monuments Fund list of 100 most endangered sites. Three Frank Lloyd Wright houses in L.A.--the 1920 Barnsdall House, the 1924 Ennis House and the 1924 Freeman House--stand in various states of decay.

It would seem that if a civilization's maturity is measured, at least in part, by how it comes to terms with its history, then Southern California's self-destructive impulses have reached a new high.

Those impulses, in turn, are facilitated by the almost unchecked power of the region's homeowners. In Southern California--a collection of seemingly endlessly expanding real estate developments--the independent property owner has an almost mythical status. It is therefore not surprising that cities such as L.A. have some of the most feeble preservation laws in the country. Of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County, the vast majority have no landmarks preservation ordinances. In such cases, it is usually left up to a city's planning department to determine whether a structure has architectural merit. Usually, that means delaying demolition while the state completes an environmental impact report. Using the report as a guide, the planning department can choose whether to preserve the building.

But planning boards often don't care or know enough to do so. In the case of the Wolfe House, for example, the current owner, Barry O'Neil, approached the local Planning Commission last June with a plan to demolish it, claiming that the previous owner had tried to restore it but that the process turned out to be too costly. The commission approved the demolition immediately by a vote of 7-0. In a perverse acknowledgement of the house's significance, the commission then signed off on a new design loosely modeled on Schindler's original, but double the size. A week later, Schindler's masterpiece was gone forever.

In Palm Springs, the real estate agent who listed the Maslon House had touted the house as an architectural masterpiece, but once it was sold, there was nothing to prevent the buyer, Richard Rotenberg, from tearing it down, which he promptly did. (The former owner could have attached a preservation easement to the deed, which would have given an independent landmarks group the power to veto alterations to the house. Such a tactic is rarely used, however, because it can make a property more difficult to sell.)

The situation is slightly better in Los Angeles. Even in the case of a landmarked structure, the city's Cultural Heritage Commission can halt demolition only for up to 360 days. Typically, during that time, the city will request a state environmental impact report. It is then up to the city's planning department to decide whether the structure merits salvation.

Even with this minimal protection, the outcome is often the same. In the case of Ain's Mar Vista housing, one owner's actions seemed particularly ruthless. The development includes three landscaped streets with 52 L-shaped houses ingeniously laid out to create a series of communal courts. Several months ago, the majority of the development's homeowners filed a petition to declare the site a historic district.

On April 12, the city's Planning Commission began the process of issuing a temporary prohibition against building permits for the site. A few days before the prohibition could be enacted, however, the owner of one of the houses--at 3543 Meier St.--applied for and received a permit; within days, the front portion of his house had been demolished.

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