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Chips off the old block

Santa Monica preservationists rally as more vintage residences face the wrecking ball.

January 09, 2005|Darrell Satzman | Special to The Times

Rick SORDINI looked about as relaxed as someone who is likely to be evicted soon can look.

Reclining on a beach chair on a recent sun-tinged Saturday with a cigar between his teeth, Sordini and neighbor Mark Neeley were taking advantage of the balmy winter weather to unload some odds and ends on the patch of lawn in front of their Santa Monica courtyard apartments.

But just over Sordini's shoulder, a roughly 3-square-foot sign pounded into the turf offered a disconcerting backdrop to the yard sale. The sign is a notice announcing the owners' intent to have the house demolished. And it's just one of more than a dozen that have been placed in front of older Craftsman bungalows and Spanish Revival apartment houses in a neighborhood bounded by Montana Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard to the north and south, and 4th and 26th streets to the west and east.

Not all those buildings will be torn down. Some developers will be thwarted when they come up against the city's landmark review process. But other structures will go because they are deemed unworthy of landmark status, and with their demolition, some argue, a slice of California history will be lost.

While the razing of small homes to make way for lot-swallowing McMansions north of Montana has generated a lot of ire in Santa Monica in recent years, it's the less-celebrated neighborhood to the south that is now the main arena for those committed to saving threatened architecture in that city.

The tension in Santa Monica between preservationists and property owners who want to rebuild and maximize profits from their investments is not so different from development debates taking place in other Southern California communities. But there is a sense of urgency about the issue in Santa Monica, where preservationists say skyrocketing land values have led to an unprecedented assault on the city's traditional architecture.

In a neighborhood where a 50-foot-by-150-foot lot recently sold for just under $2 million, the economics of buying and preserving a 1,500-square-foot 1920s Craftsman bungalow don't make a lot of sense. Especially when zoning laws allow for the construction of multiunit complexes with condominiums that can fetch more than $500,000 each.

"There are unprecedented pressures on the venerable Craftsman bungalow right now," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. "But also an unprecedented level of grass-roots activism to preserve the best examples."

Among design buffs in Santa Monica, there's a keen appreciation for the smattering of single-family Craftsmans remaining from the first three decades of the 20th century, and the small Spanish Revival apartment houses that came a bit later. But those involved in the preservation fight say they're just as concerned about protecting a disappearing way of life in the once-sleepy seaside town.

Decorative moldings, built-in cabinetry and original tile are one thing, but the loss of structures built to take advantage of an outdoor lifestyle -- emphasizing communal spaces and neighborly interaction -- is at the heart of grass-roots preservation activity in Santa Monica.

"Tear-downs are getting so rampant that it's annihilating what this city was built on. It's changing the whole character of the town," said writer Wendy Abrams, a longtime renter of a vintage Spanish-style bungalow on Idaho Avenue.

The building next door to Abrams' on 19th Street is another with a demolition notice in front. It was built in 1926 by the same architect who designed Abrams' building. For decades, until a landlord planted a hedge at the property line, the two structures shared a common yard. Abrams' building has a different owner and is not threatened, but she fears what's to come if the city allows the structure next door to be torn down and another is built.

The property owner listed on the demolition notice did not return phone calls, nor did several others who are applying for demolition permits in the neighborhood. It's unknown what the owners' plans are for the lots.

"These new buildings take up the entire property, and they have subterranean parking where people take an elevator right up to their apartment," Abrams said. "There's no reason to talk to your neighbors."

Sordini, who works for a hotel, and Neeley, an actor, spoke of communal yard sales, barbecues, baby-sitting and casual schmoozing. They said they value sharing their lives and living space with other residents of their eight-unit complex on the corner of Idaho and 14th street.

"You sit in our courtyard and it feels like you're back in 1938," Sordini said. "Santa Monica always had a funky, laid-back attitude. It began to change a while ago, but there is still a little holdover. Right now, it's a city in transition."

That change is spurring more calls for action among preservationists.

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