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Gehry Can't Escape Environmental Concerns

Tree: Preparation for architect's new office near Playa Vista leads to felling of a prized eucalyptus with historic significance to a family.

September 12, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seemed at first that by moving his office to a site outside Playa Vista's boundaries, architect Frank Gehry was cutting his ties to the controversial coastal wetlands construction project.

Instead, workers preparing Gehry's new design studio were creating a new controversy by cutting down a towering eucalyptus tree that was the Westside's last tie with Ballona Creek's historic rancho era.

The 100-foot tree shaded ranchers' headquarters for generations. It was chopped down last week to make way for a parking lot for Gehry and his staff of 125 architects and designers.

The destruction has outraged neighbors and members of a pioneer ranching family whose roots to the Ballona Creek area reach back to 1819.

"The tree was a remembrance of the ranch. It was something we held sacred," said Fred Machado, 78, the great-great-grandson of the settler who created 13,919-acre Rancho La Ballona.

"That tree marked a historic spot. That was the only thing left from the ranch. It was so big and beautiful and healthy. It's like losing a real close friend."

The chain-sawing came as Gehry issued a denial that environmentalists had persuaded him to locate his new headquarters away from Playa Vista--for which he has been hired to design office buildings.

Although Gehry announced last year that he was moving his offices from Santa Monica to Playa Vista, it was learned a month ago that he was setting up shop instead a few blocks away in an existing industrial area at 12541 Beatrice St.

Environmentalists who for years have campaigned to preserve Playa Vista as a wetland wildlife habitat quickly claimed victory. On Aug. 30, activists delivered a huge thank you card to Gehry and invited him to join their campaign.

Gehry dispatched an assistant to accept the poster-size card. But four days later he announced that his move to Beatrice Street was due to timing problems, not disenchantment with Playa Vista.

Residents of a 50-year-old neighborhood next to the Beatrice Street site tried without success to block the tree's destruction.

Homeowner Mickey Shockley said she pleaded with Gehry's office to stop the chopping before the entire tree was destroyed. "What remains at this moment are two large trunks, which left could continue to grow," she wrote the architect.

"As a very well-known architect, Mr. Gehry, I would have hoped a parking area of your design could have saved this once-beautiful tree."

Greg Machado, another member of the former ranching family, rushed to the site in an attempt to halt the cutting.

"I told the crew that I believed the tree should not be touched, that it was protected by part of a deed restriction," said Machado of El Segundo. He said family matriarch Gayle Machado was convinced that paperwork in storage for over 35 years would prove the family's intent to save the tree.

Gehry was unavailable for comment Wednesday. But a spokesman said the tree was already down by the time they received Shockley's letter.

Ken Ayeroff, president of NSB Capital Partners, which acquired the $10-million Beatrice Street property in partnership with Gehry, said he was unaware of any agreement to preserve the tree.

"We did due-diligence about the property. I'm totally unaware of any special protection" for the tree, Ayeroff said. "The first time we hard of the Machado connection was after the tree was cut down."

But it was "a private tree on private property. It's an industrial area that's been transformed over the past 25 years. In the future that tree might have been somewhat dangerous," he said.

Machado family members said the eucalyptus was planted about 1900 to shade the family ranch house--a two-story, porch-wrapped wooden structure constructed 5 feet off the ground as protection from periodic flooding from the nearby Ballona Creek.

The house was built after Augustin Machado and his brother, Ignacio, first obtained grazing rights to the rancho from Spain in 1819 and then, in 1839, became owners through a land grant issued by Mexican authorities.

During the 19th century the rancho was home to 20,000 cattle, along with thousands of sheep and herds of horses that were raised for use by gold miners and settlers in Northern California. The rancho's lands stretched from the ocean and the Westchester bluffs eastward to Baldwin Hills and north to what is now Pico Boulevard.

More than 40 Machado family members were born and raised in the old ranch house over the years, according to Fred Machado, who lives in Culver City: "My grandmother and grandfather had 12 children there. As children grew up and married, they'd build a little house near the ranch house. The families were close."

Machado's father and five uncles trained in the attic of the ranch house to become boxers. Between 1915 and 1930, they fought at boxing stadiums around Los Angeles under the ring name "McManus" to conjure up the image of tough, Irish bruisers, he said.

Partitioned into pieces that were traded or sold off, by the mid-20th century, the ranch had shrunk to about 30 acres wedged between the creek and what is now Playa Vista. The land was farmed for celery and beans before it was subdivided for industrial use in the 1960s.

The old ranch house was burned down in the mid-'60s by children playing with matches, Machado said. At the time of the fire, the room that the "McManus Brothers" had trained in was still papered with promotional boxing posters from their careers in the ring.

"The tree was the only thing left to designate where the ranch was. We thought it would be saved as part of the sale of the ranch," Machado said.

"It's too late now. It's just a shame."

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