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Mae Babitz, 91; Preserved Past by Sketching L.A. Architecture

January 15, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Mae Babitz, a self-taught artist and ardent preservationist who sought to memorialize Los Angeles' Victorian architectural past by sketching its houses, hotels and public buildings, often as the wrecking ball approached, has died. She was 91.

Babitz died Saturday at Los Palos Convalescent Hospital in San Pedro after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years, said her daughter, Mirandi Babitz.

Many of the artist's 40 pen, quill and pencil-on-watercolor-paper sketches were displayed prominently in 1981 as Los Angeles celebrated its bicentennial. Twenty-seven of the drawings were showcased in Mayor Tom Bradley's City Hall office.

More accessible was her contribution to the exhibit "L.A. by L.A." in the spring of 1981 at the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park.

"The drawings by Mrs. Babitz are tender records of a Los Angeles now lost and they manage to steal the show," said Joseph Giovannini, then architecture critic of the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He called Babitz "L.A.'s own Grandma Moses."

John Dreyfuss, then architecture and design critic for The Times, wrote: "A dividend waiting for visitors to 'L.A. by L.A.' is an exhibition of exquisitely romantic drawings of old Los Angeles buildings by Mae Babitz. This 70-year-old artist's light touch isolates and captures the essence of Los Angeles' old residential architecture."

Among those depicted in Babitz's delicate drawings are some structures that remain because they have been preserved as cultural heritage monuments: Pico House near Olvera Street, the Bradbury Building, the Watts Towers and homes on Figueroa, Miramar and Bonnie Brae streets and Carroll Avenue.

Other structures live on only in Babitz's drawings, which she made, as she often joked, "one step ahead of the smashing ball." Among them are wooden ruins and a fragment of the original Los Angeles High School; the Hollywood Hotel, which stood at the newly spiffed-up intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue; and various views of Bunker Hill in its heyday of wealthy Victorian homes. Babitz also made drawings of another much-loved landmark: the Angels Flight railway.

Lily Mae Laviolette, a Cajun girl born in Crowley, La., and brought up in Sour Lake, Texas, attended the Chenier Business School in Beaumont, Texas. She moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1930s at the height of the Depression and got a job as a secretary.

Here she met and married Sol Babitz and embarked on a family life of music and art. Her husband, who died in 1982, was a contract violinist at 20th Century Fox and a musicologist who took her to Europe for a few years where he studied and she sketched. They entertained such friends as Igor Stravinsky and Jellyroll Morton, and helped found the Ojai Music Festival.

The Babitzes also worked with other founders of the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts from its inception in 1958. Mae Babitz remained on the board until 1998, and sold her sketches of the towers to raise funds for their preservation. She was credited with helping to prevent their disassembly by an unlicensed contractor in 1978.

Babitz taught herself to draw by copying works in museums at Exposition Park. She won a purchase prize from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (then located there) in 1949.

Over the years, her work was exhibited in local art galleries, banks, art festivals and public buildings. She also placed pieces in the private collections of such collectors as the Stravinskys, Edward James and Eugene Berman.

Babitz is survived by her daughters: author Eve Babitz and former concert promoter and now psychotherapist Mirandi Babitz.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Jan. 25 in the Memorial Chapel at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

The family has requested that any memorial donations be made to the Alzheimer's Assn.

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