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Time-Lapse Photography

Many a Local Landmark Is Not What It Used to Be

September 22, 2002|GINNY CHIEN

Justified or not, there's no shaking L.A.'s reputation as a "Blade Runner"-esque shrine to impermanence, where mini-malls supplant Art Deco movie palaces and freeway projects erase rows of stately Victorian homes. At a juncture when preservation is a hot topic--following the destruction of two Rudolph Schindler homes last year, in San Marino and on Catalina Island--the recently published "Los Angeles Then and Now" adds thought-provoking material to the case file.

For the L.A. entry in a series issued by San Diego-based Thunder Bay Press, author Rosemary Lord scoured the archives of such sources as the California Historical Society, USC and the Los Angeles Public Library. Black-and-whites from the late 19th and early 20th centuries of 70 sites such as the Cathedral of St. Vibiana, Grauman's Chinese Theatre and the Santa Monica Pier are presented side-by-side with 21st century perspectives by photographer Simon Clay. "The aim was to duplicate [the old photographs] down to the exact angle," Lord says. "It was important to [shoot] the current scene as closely as possible to the archive so people could draw their own conclusions."

In spots, the volume is a heartening rebuttal to that here-today-gone-tomorrow L.A. stereotype. The plates of the Art Deco Bullocks Wilshire building, for example, are distinguishable chiefly by the absence of Model Ts in the contemporary photo. Similarly, the before-and-afters of Union Station's 1939 Mission-style facade could be mirror images.

On the other hand, development's implacable momentum has destroyed plenty of treasures. The often surreal past-and-present juxtapositions include the original Brown Derby restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, a celebrity hangout and tourist draw unrecognizable today. The hat-shaped restaurant was razed to make way for a strip mall that now houses Stone Age 2000, a prehistoric-themed restaurant and bar. Nearby, the Hollywood & Highland entertainment complex looms at the spot once occupied by the Hollywood Hotel, where Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks reveled. And a Virgin Megastore has replaced the legendary Schwab's Pharmacy where Brigitte Bardot and James Dean sipped sodas.

For Lord, it was alterations to the Venice landscape that proved the most heartbreaking. "They've actually hacked buildings in half," says the English native, a 20-year L.A. resident. "I'd be looking at these elegant Italian colonnades and wonder, 'Where's the rest of it?' It's so tragic." One such casualty is the beautifully detailed St. Mark's Hotel, established in 1904 by entrepreneur Abbot Kinney; a portion was sawed off a half century or so later to make room for a parking lot.

Lord started on the project just prior to the biggest landscape-changing event of recent times, and subtle aftereffects of the Sept. 11 attacks jar present-day tableaux throughout the book: an American flag hanging from the facade of Hotel Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, barricades at the entrance to Paramount Studios. Sites such as Los Angeles City Hall and the Los Angeles Times are missing because the photographer couldn't get near the buildings by deadline due to police roadblocks.

Ironically, the book may benefit from another ripple effect, namely new appreciation for the city's architectural heritage. "There was a huge difference before and after Sept. 11," Lord says. "Before it was, 'That's just an old building.' Then all of a sudden even the general public seemed aware of preservation."

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