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Sunset Lanai's owner, residents spar over apartment complex's fate

The owner of the West Hollywood complex designed by Edward Fickett plans renovations. Fans say the 'midcentury masterpiece' should be protected against demolition or alteration.

July 22, 2012|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Jeffrey Bornman, a Sunset Lanai resident, says, "People look at this place and say, ‘Wow! This is old Hollywood.'" A number of actors are said to have lived at the Googie-style complex built in 1952.
Jeffrey Bornman, a Sunset Lanai resident, says, "People look at this… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Its residents call it a midcentury masterpiece. Its owner calls it a badly designed, poorly constructed mess.

Those contrasting views of a 60-year-old Googie-style West Hollywood apartment complex were presented last week as city leaders grappled with whether or not to designate the place a local cultural resource.

The Sunset Lanai apartments at 1422 N. Sweetzer Ave. were designed by architect Edward H. Fickett and built in 1952 by developer George Alexander.

Fickett planned most of the 22 apartments to face inward — away from the busy Sunset Strip — where a swimming pool and a courtyard filled with subtropical plants such as banana trees, palms and bird of paradise create what residents describe as a quiet oasis in the bustling city.

The architect also called for floor-to-ceiling windows. He custom-designed the handrails along outdoor balconies and specified space-saving built-in cabinets. Fickett even designed the outdoor light fixtures and had 4-foot-tall, wooden-base desk lamps built for apartment interiors. He chose kitchen appliances and commissioned "boomerang"-patterned Formica countertops from famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

"People look at this place and say, 'Wow! This is old Hollywood,'" said Jeffrey Bornman, a personal trainer who has lived there 12 years. "I have 600 square feet — it's a small space, but there's all of this light and all of these trees right outside."

Some tenants have lived at the Sunset Lanai more than 40 years, he said. "Our architect was very generous to people who live here. Those who live here get it," Bornman said.

Over the decades, numerous Hollywood celebrities have also called the place home. Christopher Hewett, who was TV's "Mr. Belvedere," and actors Jeffrey Tambor, James Coco, Vincent Gardenia and Al Pacino are said to have lived there at one time or another.

Two years ago, West Hollywood's Historic Preservation Commission concluded that the Sunset Lanai apartments were impressive representations of the late architect's work and recommended that they be labeled a "local cultural resource" — a designation that offers protection against demolition or alteration.

Sunset Lanai's owner, Edwin Silver of Los Angeles, promptly appealed that recommendation. He asserted that the commission had failed to take note of the complex's deteriorating condition and had overstated its historical and architectural significance.

City Council members tried to referee the dispute last week in a public hearing that drew Fickett's widow from her hospital bed.

Silver's lawyer, Mark Lehman, told leaders that although Fickett was a highly regarded architect, Sunset Lanai was not one of his finer efforts.

"There are design and construction flaws" in the complex, Lehman told council members. The lawyer called the layout "inefficient and problematic" and said the building is rife with problems such as flooding and leaks. Repairs and upgrades would cost about $2.3 million.

"It's a 60-year-old building that was not designed terribly well. Many of the original design and construction defects are coming back to haunt," Lehman charged.

That infuriated Joycie Fickett, who has jealously guarded her husband's legacy since his death in 1999 at 83. Walking frailly to the council speaker's podium, she told members she had sneaked out of the hospital to attend the hearing.

"Nobody has ever insulted my husband as much as he," she said, glancing toward Lehman. "Every critic will tell you my husband's buildings are just as beautiful, just as contemporary and in perfect condition today as they were when they were built 50, 60 years ago."

Fickett-designed buildings are known for longevity, she said.

Other supporters of the apartment complex told leaders that Sunset Lanai was not poorly designed but that years of deferred maintenance had taken a toll. Among repairs needed are the makeover of several units damaged four months ago when a 25-year-old dancer from a West Hollywood strip club allegedly quarreled with a fellow dancer and torched her apartment.

Council members agreed that repairs need to be made and voiced concern that a historical designation might make improvements difficult.

At the suggestion of Councilman John Duran, the panel voted 4 to 1 to indefinitely defer action on the designation. That means the Sunset Lanai's owner can proceed with renovations that do not alter the property's appearance.

But if Silver applies for a demolition permit, officials said the council will immediately resurrect the issue and vote to protect Sunset Lanai.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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