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Agreement Reanimates Historic Hanna-Barbera Complex

The plan will save the modernist buildings where the TV cartoon industry was born and allow new development in the Cahuenga Pass.

June 07, 2004|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

The defenders of Los Angeles modernism seem to have won one.

After a long struggle, the former Hanna-Barbera Studios buildings in the Cahuenga Pass appear to be safe from the wrecker's ball at last.

On May 25, the Los Angeles City Council approved a plan that would preserve the heart of the studio that created television animation while allowing retail and residential development on the four-acre site.

The home of Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo, Fred and Wilma Flintstone and other immortal cartoon characters failed to achieve Los Angeles city landmark status in 1997, despite the efforts of studio co-founder Joe Barbera and others.

Ken Bernstein, the Los Angeles Conservancy's director of preservation issues, hailed the recent decision to save the buildings.

"This was really the birthplace of TV animation," he said. "It is to television animation what the original Walt Disney Studios in Silver Lake, now demolished, were to film animation."

Of the three Hanna-Barbera structures on the site, the main building was especially important, he said. "We feel the original structure has both architectural and cultural significance, both as an excellent example of midcentury modernism and as the wellspring of TV animation."

Designed by Beverly Hills architect Arthur Froehlich and dedicated in 1963, the studio buildings have a retro space-age look that might appeal to George Jetson himself.

It was here that Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera perfected "limited animation" -- the cheap kind in which bodies lurched instead of danced and sometimes only the character's mouth moved.

In an online history of the studio, Hanna recalled, "Joe was particularly elated over the ultramodern beauty of the structure. He became a virtual volunteer tour guide, leading friends through the premises on weekend nights, pointing out with unabashed pride the building's sculpted lattice-work exterior, moat, fountains and other elements of our virgin studio's architectural splendor."

Best known as a designer of futuristic racetracks, including Hollywood Park and Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., Froehlich was a perfect choice to capture the spirit of what Hanna-Barbera was doing: re-creating animation to compete in the new age of television.

While offending lovers of traditional, labor-intensive animation, the pair believed they had saved the industry in the late 1950s. It was then that the major movie studios, including MGM, where Hanna and Barbera had created Tom and Jerry, closed their animation departments.

Last year, Barbera, 93, summed up the contribution made at 3400 Cahuenga Blvd. in a letter urging preservation of the buildings: "We came up with a system and a style of animation that would allow us to produce cartoons for the limited dollars of the television market. Out of the ashes of theatrical animation, we created specifically for television Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Pixie and Dixie and Jinx along with the Jetsons. Strictly for television, a studio was created and a new foundation for the animation industry to build upon. Tragedy was averted."

The McGregor Co. acquired the property in 2002 for an undisclosed amount and was developing the site, company partner Bill McGregor said.

He said he and his partners worked closely with the City Council to come up with a plan that would include the culturally important buildings.

All three buildings would be preserved, he said.

Minimal changes will be made to the 35,000-square-foot main building, which will be used primarily for offices.

A similar-sized building to the north is being modified for use as an L.A. Fitness health club.

The smallest, southernmost building will probably continue to be leased by its current tenant, Generation Entertainment. About 5,000 square feet may also be developed for retail use, McGregor said.

Facing the Hanna-Barbera buildings and away from the Hollywood Freeway would be a new building with 47 luxury apartments on three floors, with parking below, McGregor said.

Designed by Nadel Architects of Los Angeles, the new building would be compatible with the existing midcentury modernist architecture, McGregor said.

Construction should begin in September and was expected to be completed by the end of 2005, he said. He did not disclose the cost of the project.

Asked if the new development would be called Yabba-Dabba-Do Place, McGregor said, "Probably not."

But, he said, a way would be found to commemorate the site's history as the home of Hanna-Barbera and the unforgettable world it created.

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