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The Barry Building: Saving a piece of Brentwood history

Dutton's bookstore in Brentwood is long gone, and if building owner Charles Munger had his way, the structure that housed it would be gone too. It should be saved as a cultural landmark.

August 30, 2012
  • People make their way through the courtyard area of the Barry Building in Brentwood in 2009.
People make their way through the courtyard area of the Barry Building in… (Los Angeles Times )

The beloved Brentwood bookstore, Dutton's, is long gone, but the building that housed it remains standing. If the owner, Charles Munger, had his way, the building would be long gone too, demolished to make room for his proposed commercial development on the prized swatch of real estate along San Vicente Boulevard. Instead, it is the subject of a battle between Munger and almost everyone else: preservation advocates, the city's Cultural Heritage Commission, neighborhood residents and the local councilman, who all argue that it is a cultural landmark to be saved. After years of hearings, meetings and environmental studies, Munger should relent and build around the existing structure in the interest of preserving the community's history.

This became a protracted struggle in part because the building is on the city's list of Historic Cultural Monuments, a status that guarantees it at least a temporary stay of execution and a review by the Cultural Heritage Commission. There are now more than 1,000 designated monuments, and they include not just structures but parks and plantings as well.

Being on the list doesn't guarantee existence forever. But the Barry Building, as it is known, is considered a rare, well-preserved example of mid-20th century California architecture. Designed by Milton Caughey, the two-story, flat-roofed structure is built around a leafy and inviting courtyard, with curving staircases connecting the first and second levels of walkways. It is austere, not grand, and blends into its surroundings. It is what passes for historic in Brentwood, a neighborhood of recent commercial buildings and few old homes.

Some people don't like its looks. Munger is one of them. But this isn't a beauty contest. The question is whether the Barry Building is such an essential element of Brentwood and the city that it should be protected. Residents, preservationists, architects and historians have said it is. Five years ago, when the building was being considered for listing as a monument, the renowned architecture photographer Julius Shulman made a rare appearance to argue for preserving it.

Property owners' rights and historic preservation can coexist. The L.A. Conservancy, the Cultural Heritage Commission and Councilman Bill Rosendahl would like Munger to leave the Barry Building standing while integrating it with new structures. In fact, his architects were required to come up with such an alternative as part of the project's environmental impact report. That's the sort of resolution that's needed here.

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