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Sure, Trash It; It's Only a Part of Our History

September 19, 2004|Gale Holland | Gale Holland is a Los Angeles journalist.

Los Angeles has embarked on a course so stupid no one would believe it, were it not as predictable as it is dumb. To turn the old Ambassador Hotel into a high school, Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer has chosen, as the Associated Press put it, to "save some of the hotel's more notable features" and tear down the rest.

Miracles do happen, and Los Angeles Unified's crack construction team -- the one that brought you the Belmont Learning Complex fiasco -- could conceivably produce a project that balances heritage against the dire need for urban classrooms. But the likelier scenario is that officials will cannibalize a monument not only to Hollywood glamour but to a profound moment in Los Angeles and U.S. history -- the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. By severing the students from this legacy, Romer threatens to rob them of an experience that can only enhance their education. That most of the students at the future Koreatown campus stand to be poor and/or immigrants only accentuates the disservice.

The architectural distinction of the Ambassador, designed by Myron Hunt, with a coffee shop by Paul Williams, is not as indisputable as, say, the Bradbury Building. I like it, but then I'm not an architecture critic. But its value is really as a cultural icon: the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, where Bing Crosby crooned and Joan Crawford danced her way to a studio contract, the suites where presidents, kings and Albert Einstein stayed.

Los Angeles has long been known as a city that eats its architectural history. Some people like it that way. They say the destruction juices up the city's cultural vital signs. But there's another quintessentially Angeleno approach to preservation at play here: the McMonument.

A block or two from the Ambassador are the remnants of the original Brown Derby, the hat-shaped topper that gave what eventually became the definitive Hollywood Golden Age restaurant its charm and international cachet. The derby was taken from its original location on Wilshire Boulevard and perched ridiculously atop a mini-mall on a nearby side street. The only vantage point from which it could be recognized as a fantastical hat is a helicopter. The Brown Derby has ceased to be anything. Not a landmark, not a tribute, just an ugly bulge atop an undistinguished commercial strip.

According to news accounts, the Cocoanut Grove will be "restored" as the school's main auditorium. The ballroom will be "relocated" and made into a library elsewhere on the property. Sounds ominously like the Brown Derby redux. Then the wrecking ball will have its way. The real question, however, is not what the district will save. It's what the architects will build in the Ambassador's place. Recent history is not encouraging on this score. Take the evolution of the historic Farmers Market into the Grove shopping mall in the Fairfax District. True, the market, which celebrated old, agricultural California, was largely protected. But the complex is dwarfed by the massive parking structure and garish, even by L.A. standards, mishmash of the Grove. Even deep within the market stalls, the Grove's bulk looms like an iceberg about to sweep the old wooden market to toothpicks.

I can hear critics say L.A. families and their children don't care about old hotels and landmarks; they just want a good, safe school. As a mother and native Angeleno, I say, not true. We grew up with the Ambassador and its lore. My family has pictures of my mother, glamorous in an upswept platinum hairdo, at the Cocoanut Grove in the 1950s. The story of the triumphal Kennedy, fresh from his primary victory, being gunned down in the hotel pantry still has a tragic resonance for us.

To give our children a school that is culturally and historically significant says we think they're precious. This city and all it has to give -- the glamour and the pain -- is yours, take it.

Instead of killing the Ambassador to save it, why don't we adapt the school to the site? Fix the pool up for water sports. Create a program on the life of Kennedy, the relationship of the farm worker movement he championed to civil rights struggles in the South. I'm not a teacher; someone else could develop a better lesson plan.

That's the delight of living in a city that loves to re-create itself: New ideas grow outside the restraints of tradition. But let's keep our history. We don't have enough of it to spare.

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