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Idyllic ... and endangered

Should it stay or should it go? It's West Hollywood's call. Tenants want to save the complex, with its adobe walls and classic L.A. courtyard. The owners have other ideas.

June 24, 2004|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

On this sunny Thursday afternoon, Ramona residents do what they do best -- they chat, they chill, they gather around the fountain and commune. Janelle Paradee helps her 3-year-old son, Tristan, blow bubbles, and Rich Johnson watches his dog Mr. French chase them.

Courtyard life ebbs and flows. In the evenings, tenants and neighbors sip martinis (or, in Tristan's case, juice) and debrief about their days spent beyond this garden oasis. Life out there can be tough, say these mostly single men and women. Life can get lonely. In the mornings, tenants inevitably gather again on their way to work. They can't escape camaraderie. When they talk about the Ramona, the word they keep returning to is "family."

"There is love in this building," says Johnson. The surrounding chorus nods in agreement.

Time may be running out for this Ramona family. Up and down Harper Avenue, neon signs blatantly announce themselves from windows and lawns, all demanding one thing: "Save the Ramona from Demolition." Residents of the West Hollywood neighborhood don't have much time. The courtyard building they're rallying to protect is in danger of being taken down, like so many before it and like others once on the block; the Ramona is the last standing.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Courtyard apartments -- An article in Thursday's Home section about courtyard apartments misspelled San Vicente Boulevard as San Vincente Boulevard. The article also misidentified actor Gilbert Roland as Roland Gilbert.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 01, 2004 Home Edition Home Part F Page 6 Features Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Apartments -- An article in last week's Home section about courtyard apartments misspelled San Vicente Boulevard as San Vincente Boulevard. The article also misidentified actor Gilbert Roland as Roland Gilbert.

It's not just the tenants who are campaigning, but a growing number of petitioners pleading for the survival of the 81-year-old structure, whose fate will ultimately be decided by the West Hollywood City Council. If these activists and sympathizers lose, a Santa Monica-based developer will raze the property -- its fountain, its palms, its 12 units -- and build 17 loft-style condominiums.

What's at stake, the preservation-minded will tell you, is not just the home of a dozen people, but a classic architectural style, instantly recognizable as belonging only to L.A. It is probably the one most associated with the city in our collective memories because of the courtyard apartments' starring roles in movies such as the 1950 Humphrey Bogart mystery "In a Lonely Place" and the more recent (and more mysterious) "Mulholland Drive."

Imagine Los Angeles, and you imagine courtyard buildings and Hollywood in its heyday. Colonies of "courts," as they're often called for short, were built blocks away from the big studios for technicians, extras and aspiring actors. More elaborate versions became the homes of movie moguls.

The low-rise, high-density courtyard apartment buildings provided agreeable, inexpensive housing for everyday working people, and they became as emblematic of early 20th century Los Angeles as bungalows or Spanish Colonial Revival houses.

James Tice, coauthor of "Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles," says he's not surprised by the allegiance of tenants and neighbors to the Ramona: Courtyard apartments are uniquely suited to L.A. living. Spanish mission-style courtyards like the Ramona usually feature thick adobe walls, ornamental tile, wrought iron balconies and mosaic fountains bounded by greenery.

Architectural and landscaping elements combine to create a communal atmosphere that is both practical -- you can interact with tenants, and easily keep watch over who comes and goes -- and "spiritual, ethereal," says Tice.

Johnson, an architect turned furniture designer who has lived in the Ramona for seven years, says the layout of the building doesn't just allow community, it necessitates it. All doorways and windows open onto courtyards. He leaves his windows open, summer, autumn, winter, spring. "I like the contact," he explains. "Even though we're not talking to each other, I can hear people, see them walking by."

Courtyard apartments, Tice insists, should be preserved as remnants from the past and also as paradigms for the future. It is hard to calculate how many have been lost: not even the Los Angeles Conservancy knows the number. Their relative humility as landmarks, Tice explains, may have made them vulnerable.

"In a way, they are more fragile because they can begin to disappear piecemeal, and then Hollywood is just like Burbank, and Burbank is just like La Canada, and La Canada is just like everywhere else," Tice says.

Consider what happened along North San Vincente Boulevard. Until five years ago, many of the tiny stand-alone bungalows built for Pacific Electric Railway workers remained, "a window into the modest beginnings of a community," says Ken Bernstein, the conservancy's director of preservation issues. When developers spotted the potential for the land, preservationists applied to have the bungalows designated "cultural resources." The City Council thought otherwise. Condominiums now loom where the bungalows once stood; only five original houses were spared.

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