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The equivocal city

A debate over the fate of the Ambassador Hotel illuminates a flimsy planning process and a city unsure of how its past fits into its future.

January 09, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

If you were looking for a case study in historic preservation in Los Angeles -- for first-year graduate students in urban planning, say, or an architecture critic new to the city -- it would be difficult to find one from any era as perfectly, agonizingly balanced as the debate over the Ambassador Hotel.

Designed by Myron Hunt, among the finest Southern California architects of his generation, the 84-year-old hotel on Wilshire Boulevard is a significant link in the chain that connects Spanish and Mediterranean Revival styles to California Modernism. But on the whole it's far from Hunt's best work.

The site of six Academy Awards ceremonies, host to starlets and presidents and famous novelists who drank too much, the hotel is a repository of as much cultural lore as any building in L.A. But those who want to raze it aren't money-hungry developers -- they're officials seeking to add three new public schools to a neighborhood that desperately needs them.

The Ambassador has added historical significance, of course, as the place where Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy with a .22-caliber revolver on the night of the California primary in 1968. But the Kennedy family has argued forcefully against saving the hotel, saying that new schools would make the most fitting memorial to Kennedy's life.

The central antagonists in the drama, too, have canceled one another out -- if only in a negative sense. The school district has proved inflexible and unimaginative, congratulating itself for gestures that it sees as conciliatory and mindful of history but are more like flimsy facsimiles of preservation. The Los Angeles Conservancy, meanwhile, has filed suit against the district on the basis of a plan that even it must realize is not just politically unpalatable but architecturally suspect.

All in all, the debate has been a sadly typical one for Los Angeles, a place that, as the architect Eric Owen Moss suggested to me recently, can't manage to shake its reputation as a fundamentally "equivocal" city. Still not sure whether it wants to be fully urban or conveniently suburban, connected or neighborly, Los Angeles confronts perhaps the most unflattering reflection of itself when it considers what to do with beloved landmarks that have lost their youth and good looks.

And if the Ambassador case is absolutely a singular one in some ways, in others it offers a sign of things to come. As Los Angeles, having reached the limits of its legendary sprawl, continues to double back on itself, more sites like the one where the Ambassador sits will likely be coming under pressure for development. There promise to be fewer pure debates like the one over Bertram Goodhue's Central Library two decades ago, for example, where the need to save a particular building seems obvious, and more like the one that has swirled around the Ambassador.

And to judge from this particular episode, we've yet to figure out how to talk about preservation in a way that takes these new complexities into account. The school district has pushed its viewpoint with force. The Conservancy and a handful of community organizations have pushed back. According to Preservation Magazine, even Sirhan Sirhan has filed suit against the planned demolition, trying to make the case that the pantry holds forensic evidence that might exonerate him. But most of the city's prominent elected officials, including the mayor, have been quiet on the issue, as has the Community Redevelopment Agency. The Planning Department -- whose director, Con Howe, announced his retirement the week before Christmas -- has also been reluctant to join the fray.

Ostensibly that's because the school district is exempt from city zoning regulations. The only approval it needed to move ahead came from the school board, which voted by a 4-3 margin in October for a preliminary version of a plan -- officially, just an environmental impact report -- that would knock down nearly all of the existing hotel.

The Ambassador provided an unusually good opportunity for a farsighted discussion about how we should treat our cultural and architectural heritage in an era of scarce public resources and increasing density. It was a chance to figure out what the city should do when a landmark possesses a kind of cumulative value -- architecture plus culture plus history -- and separately how to decide if a section of a building, like the Ambassador's pantry, is worth saving not for what it looks like or who designed it but for what happened there. Instead, we wound up merely propping up some old cliches about Los Angeles -- chief among them that it operates more as a scattered collection of fiefdoms, enclaves and interest groups than as a city in the collective sense.

THE BASIC QUESTION

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