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ARCHITECTURE

How to save the real L.A.? First, you find it

July 29, 2007|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

WE all think we know what Los Angeles isn't -- those tip-of-the-tongue platitudes: "Not a real city"; "Not a place with history"; "Not a place easily summed up in a sentence -- or sound bite."

What we don't know precisely, however, is just what Los Angeles is.

That's the monumental task the L.A. Department of City Planning's Office of Historic Resources is undertaking to make sense of -- and give context to -- a region that has often felt diffuse, imprecise and haphazardly imagined.

With technical assistance from the Getty Conservation Institute and funded in part by a $2.5-million, five-year matching grant from the Getty Foundation, "SurveyL.A.: Los Angeles Historical Resources Survey Project" is an ambitious effort to identify, catalog and ultimately protect not just its physical "built history" but to provide a sharper portrait of Los Angeles and how it came to be.

Of course, L.A. has history -- a distinct if not variegated one. But its "City of the Future" moniker has, over time, done more ill than good in bolstering a civic sense of self, leaving Los Angeles ambivalent about its connection to the past and its complex evolution. "There's been a growing sense that the city is going to change and with that a growing realization that there is importance in historic preservation," says Ken Bernstein, manager of the city's Office of Historic Preservation. "It's part of a natural maturing of the city -- or coming of age of the city. And it's become important to catalog what makes Los Angeles Los Angeles."

In 2001 the Getty Conservation Institute published the "Los Angeles Historic Resource Survey Assessment Project: Summary Report," a report that examined preservation in this city. "We were trying to understand if it made sense to even pursue a survey," says Tim Whalen, the Institute's director. "The report indicated that there was a need. What would it require? The problem is Los Angeles is the size of a small country."

Spanning five years and, they hope, the entire city -- more than 800,000 legal parcels -- the multiphase project launches one of its key elements Aug. 15: an interactive website that will catalog L.A.'s wide-ranging treasures. Some are more evident -- historic downtown, clusters of Deco facades, whimsical bungalow courts -- others less obvious. Uncovering that "hidden L.A.," identifying what often slips into the margins or can easily be lost to memory, is a key goal of the survey. Ultimately, that information would be available to anyone who might need it, including visiting scholars and deep-pocket developers as well as harried Hollywood location scouts.

"It's a way to bring historic preservation into the 21st century by taking sites that may be considered by some to be nontraditional or that aren't necessarily architectural masterpieces and ensuring that they are reviewed against accepted historic preservation criteria," Bernstein says. Eligibility will be based not only on architectural significance, "but on historic, social or cultural associations." The idea is not to just round up what we think of when we think about Los Angeles -- the Neutras, the Schindlers, the Neffs -- but to broaden definitions of "valuable."

The project renders the term "significant" more elastic, inclusive. "I think it is an important way to actually change the public's perception about preservation," says Janet Hansen, deputy manager of the Office of Historic Resources. "People generally think that it's about architecture, about things that look good. But this is going to be a really important way for everyone to really understand the goals preservation is trying to reach."

Simply put: "Without a survey, we don't know what we have." This attempt at cataloging, Bernstein says, will help alleviate the panic that can occur when a wrecking ball or bulldozer shows up.

"What we have, I've been calling a 'triage approach,' " he says. "The problem is that it's difficult for property owners as well as the developers to come in late and find out that the site is significant, protected or being contested. Everyone becomes suspect at that moment. It's far better to be proactive."

Decades in the making

IT'S been 45 years since civic leaders formally recommended that the city take stock of itself. The result was the 1962 Cultural Heritage Ordinance, which allowed individual sites to be designated as historic and/or cultural monuments. One of its key proposals was a need for a comprehensive inventory. But sheer size, timing, money and competing civic concerns -- riots, fires, earthquakes -- prevented it from being a top priority.

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