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L.A. considers cultural landmark status for Silver Lake house

The 1959 Tirado house was designed by pioneering Chinese American architect Gilbert Leong. A developer wants to demolish it and build five homes.

February 04, 2014|By Bob Pool
  • Preservation advocate Robert Cherno stands outside the Tirado house in Silver Lake, designed by pioneering Chinese American architect Gilbert L. Leong. Cherno is working with neighbors to prevent demolition of the house.
Preservation advocate Robert Cherno stands outside the Tirado house in… (Doriane Raiman / Los Angeles…)

It's a mid-century modern home with a famous designer and a fabulous view. But is it a Silver Lake cultural monument?

The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission will wrestle with that question Thursday when it decides whether to recommend that the Waverly Drive house become the city's 1,038th historic-cultural landmark.

Such a designation would stall a plan by a Beverly Hills developer to demolish the ranch-style house designed by pioneering Chinese American architect Gilbert L. Leong and replace it with five three-story homes.

Built in 1959 for Dr. Miguel Tirado and his wife, the house sits on a ridge with sweeping views of Atwater Village and the San Gabriel Mountains.

The house remained in the Tirado family until last June, when it was sold to developer Michael Rublevich for $985,000.

Neighbors have complained that the proposed construction is too dense and would create traffic problems in an already congested neighborhood. Several have even hired land-use consultants to press to have the home declared a landmark because of its connection to Leong.

Best known for his design of commercial buildings in Chinatown, Leong also was the architect of a tract of 1950s-era homes in the west San Fernando Valley developed by Spiros G. Ponty that have the same airy, contemporary feel and signature floor-to-ceiling fireplace as the Tirado house.

But preservationists say the Silver Lake house is more than just a replica of the tract homes and is unique because it showcases touches that reflect Leong's own roots. Born in Los Angeles to a Chinese American father and Chinese mother, his artistic and architectural career was shaped by a trip to China to visit relatives when he was 8.

Asian-inspired design elements abound in the Tirado house: built-in cabinetry designed with "a Chinese flair," as the cultural heritage application puts it, interior carpeting that is evocative of tatami mats and sliding screens made of wood lattice and semi-transparent glass.

Author Lisa See, who is Leong's niece, said the buyer was well aware of the historic nature of the Tirado house when he bought it.

"The home was listed and advertised as 'elegant geometry of Asian-influenced home designed by groundbreaking Chinese-American architect Gilbert Leong,'" See wrote to City Councilman Tom LaBonge, asking him to help protect the house. She said the original craftsmanship of the house had been "lovingly maintained by the same owners for over a half-century."

"This kind of preservation needs to start somewhere. Even if he wasn't my great-uncle I'd feel strongly about this," said See, who wrote of her family's history in "On Gold Mountain."

Leong's daughter, Leslee See Leong, said that her father was given a "free hand" in designing the Tirado house and that his work is worthy of landmark designation.

Others are less convinced.

An Office of Historic Services report concluded that the house "appears to be a less 'notable' example of Leong's work" and suggested it doesn't appear to meet the criteria for the cultural designation.

LaBonge, who represents Silver Lake, said he would wait to take a stand until the Cultural Heritage Commission votes. If the panel recommends giving it heritage status, the fate of the house would be left to the City Council.

Suellen Cheng, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance's 102-year-old Los Angeles lodge, said Silver Lake was one of the first communities in the city to allow Chinese to own property. Leong, she said, played a major role in helping Asian Americans move to the suburbs by helping found East West Bank, one of the first federally chartered institutions that provided home mortgages to Chinese American families.

"The remarkable intact nature of that house deserves protection," Cheng told commissioners.

Rublevich, the developer, did not testify at the December hearing when cultural heritage commissioners voted to consider the Tirado application and referred questions to his attorney.

Lawyer Rob Glushon said his client conducted nine "outreach meetings" and a field trip to the Tirado house for commissioners, which rankled a land-use consultant who was barred from touring the home.

Robert Cherno, who was hired by pro-preservation Silver Lake residents, said that because a full quorum of commissioners toured the house, it was a violation of the state's open-meeting law to deny him entrance.

But Ken Bernstein, manager of the city's Office of Historic Resources, said the tour was listed on the agenda along with a caveat that "access by the public may be subject to owner consent."

"There was no discussion by the commission at the house," Bernstein said. "We believe we were complying with the letter and spirit of the law."

Monument status would give the Tirado house at least another year of existence while city officials considered other preservation alternatives.

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