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Saving the Century Plaza preserves a bit of our past

The nonstop destruction of L.A.'s notable edifices erases the city's sense of history.

May 02, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

'We require from buildings two kinds of goodness," John Ruskin once wrote. "First, the doing of their practical duty well; then, that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it."

The thoughts of a 19th century English aesthete might seem an oblique vantage point from which to begin discussion of a planning dispute on Los Angeles' Westside, but the dispute between preservationists and the developer who wants to raze the Century Plaza Hotel is the sort of close question that tends to throw you back on first causes.

The notion that old buildings have any intrinsic value is a recent one, historically speaking. It begins with Ruskin, who revered hand work and the Gothic, and found its first collective expression in England's Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which two of his most formidable disciples -- William Morris and Philip Webb -- founded in 1877. Today, the United Kingdom is a richer place by far because it is dotted with structures the society saved from demolition or ill-considered "restoration."

The Los Angeles Conservancy and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which are resolved to save the 19-story Century Plaza -- an arguably notable example of mid-century modernism's commercial high style -- are the lineal descendants of Ruskin, Morris and Webb. In this instance, the object of their attentions is a 726-room structure with a graciously curved, 600-foot-wide facade designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who later was the architect of New York's World Trade Center towers. The hotel opened in 1966, built on a portion of Fox's former back lot by a developer and Alcoa Aluminum after the failure of "Cleopatra" forced the studio to sell the property.

Last June, the hotel was purchased by developer Michael Rosenfeld, who at the time called the Century Plaza "a rare jewel" and an "L.A. icon." According to Rosenfeld: "Properties like the Century Plaza Hotel are one of a kind; they have lasting value in any economic environment."

Well ... almost any economic environment. By December, the developer announced plans to demolish the hotel and replace it with a pair of mixed-use glass towers surrounded by park-like open spaces. The new development, Rosenfeld said, would help unify Century City for pedestrians and reduce auto traffic.

The conservancy doesn't see it that way. Linda Dishman, its executive director, told The Times' Martha Groves this week, "We believe [the hotel] has exceptional significance." To back that up, the conservancy persuaded the National Trust to include the hotel on its annual list of most endangered historic structures.

Rosenfeld, who points out that the hotel isn't representative of Yamasaki's signature work, argues that "the building ... does not qualify for consideration under stringent criteria for historic designation of a building of this recent age." He adds: "We're building a landmark for the future." At least as far into the future as the new owner's costs pencil out.

The merits are with the preservationists. L.A. has been extremely profligate with its architectural heritage. When we wonder why we so often seem to be a city with no sense of history, part of the answer is that our planning process -- or lack thereof -- has functioned like a kind civic eraser, heedless of the fact that the built environment functions as a community's grand mnemonic device. Ruskin valued old buildings for their "changefulness," for the variety of alterations and imperfections that marked the passage of generations through their doors. That's something you just can't "pencil out."

When we preserve a variety of architectural styles, we weave "changefulness" into our civic fabric and offer our future a chance to educate itself with our past. An architectural style is at greatest risk in the intermediate term. We lost such magnificent buildings as Irving Gill's Dodge House, Richard Neutra's Von Sternberg residence and Stiles O. Clements' Richfield Tower when they were less than 50 years old. The Century Plaza probably doesn't rank in this company, but it is an elegant example of mid-century modernism, and public buildings of that style have been demolished all over town. We'll be a measurably poorer place if none of the major examples survive.

We need them as examples of an era when confidence did not so often seem like hubris. As Ruskin said, "A thing is worth what it can do for you, not what you choose to pay for it."

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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