May 2, 2000 - From the May, 2000 issue

USC's Architectural Guild Honors L.A. Conservancy

Given the city's reputation, some may consider it ironic that the L.A. Conservancy is one of the nation's largest and most effective preservation groups. But, while this assumption overlooks the amount of history the City has to preserve, it remains true that the City's penchant for starting over makes the Conservancy's continued success that much more impressive and vital. The USC Architectural Guild recently honored the Conservancy with the "Spirit of Urbanism" award. TPR is pleased to reprint comments delivered at the awards ceremony from Margaret Bach, the Conservancy's first president; Roberta Deering, Executive Director of the California Preservation Foundation, and L.A. Councilman Joel Wachs.

Parkinson Spirit of Urbanism Award To L.A. Conservancy

Speaker: Margaret Bach

First President, L.A. Conservancy

The Los Angeles Conservancy began with a vision-a shared sense of urgency-at a moment in L.A.'s history that was poised between our nation's bicentennial and our City's own. There were also other ideas in the air: The legacy of the political activism of the 60s and early 70s, and the environmental/conservation movement, which underscored for so many of us the importance of conservation and stewardship of our resources. We looked around us at the sometimes dismaying failures of urban renewal, and-dare we admit-of the modern movement. And we woke up to the extraordinary urban landscape of our City.

Statewide, too, there were important stirrings. Californians for Preservation Action-a network of activists-somehow sought out and found one another. And our friends to our immediate north launched Pasadena Heritage.

Here in Los Angeles, we had our own set of challenges. We were a great, sprawling and often "fragmented" metropolis, with threats to some of our most treasured buildings-the Central Library, Watts Towers-and the fresh remembrance of losses sustained-the Richfield Building, the Dodge House, Angels Flight and Bunker Hill. And there was no organized voice for historic preservation in Los Angeles.

In this context , the Los Angeles Conservancy was born. It was not simply a matter of "preserving" the past, but using historic preservation and the tools of historic preservation to create an urban future with a vibrant mix of old and new.

In fact, there were some of us who even toyed with the idea of a historically resonant-if not off-the-wall-name for our new organization by proposing to call it "Greater Los Angeles." But we instead settled, probably wisely, on the more understandable, straightforward "Los Angeles Conservancy."

However, the vision is empty without the people to activate it. A remarkable succession of leaders, volunteers and staff have brought the organization to this point in time. And the Conservancy has become in so many ways what we first envisioned-an indispensable player at the table of urban decision-making, working in partnership with many in both the public and private sectors.

The Preservation of Modern Structures & Downtown Revitalization

Speaker: Roberta Deering

Executive Director,

California Preservation Foundation

My earliest childhood memories of Los Angeles are of Disneyland's House of Tomorrow and the Bradbury Building Downtown. Though the sewing rooms I saw as a child no longer grace the Bradbury Building's office suites, the building has been restored into a beautiful new place.

But where is the House of Tomorrow? What will preserving these modern movement structures of the recent past mean? And for downtowns across America, what combination of new uses and preservation will be needed?

Perhaps the connections between the revitalization of historic downtowns and the preservation of structures of the recent past is found in the word "adaptation." In a downtown's case, the adaptive reuse of the buildings, and in the Modern architecture case, the adaptation of preservation objectives.

Considering downtowns like Seattle, Chicago, and those in California, what lessons can we learn for revitalization and economic vitality?

There's the tried-and-true "Main Street" program, which focuses not only on economic restructuring, but has always had a strong component of bringing in housing to revitalize historic commercial districts. And it's been working for decades! One study of malls found that the few successful retail districts with streets closed to vehicular traffic are usually located with college and university students living in the immediate area.

It's the San Franciscos, Chicagos, Denvers and Bostons, which have either had housing near their commercial cores, or have been adaptively reusing 19th Century warehouses, commercial blocks and, more recently, early skyscraper office towers as housing. These cities have seen their commercial cores stay vital-often energetically revitalized with a new economic structure.

In the early ‘80s, when I was working in Seattle for the City's Preservation Office, I was interviewed by a representative from the Chicago firm, Urban Investment and Development Corporation. They were trying to identify markers for cities with healthy downtown economies. As a preservationist and urban planner who loves cities, I'll always remember reading the results of the study. They found that the cities with the healthiest downtown economies typically had several things in common, but the two that made my day were: 1) some method to preserve their historic buildings; and 2) prohibitions against surface parking lots-which are evil static places.

Taken together, downtown housing through adaptive reuse, historic preservation, and no surface parking lots are some key ingredients to foster vital, active communities. "People attract people." If people's daily lives are spread over many miles-living 10, 30 or even 50 miles from work, schlepping the kids 10, 30 or even 50 miles from either work or home, and with other errands or social events in still other places far from everything else-that concentration of activity and people just never happens. Do you see housing everywhere in Paris? But, of course! Do you see historic buildings preserved in Paris? But, of course! Do you see surface parking lots in Paris? Well, only all over the sidewalks. As Jane Jacobs reminds us in the recent Preservation magazine article on Downtown L.A., "I saw healthy city life in density, diversity, and serendipity." Do you see density, diversity and serendipity in Paris? Mais, oui!

The opportunity to open the doors to the reuse of empty office buildings and storefronts and to foster healthy city life can be greatly assisted by:

• Historic rehabilitation tax credits for rental housing developments;

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• Zoning laws revamped to encourage rather than discourage mixed residential, commercial and office uses (which is being accomplished here with the help of the L.A. Conservancy);

• Prohibition of surface parking lots (which are typically created by tearing down some old vacant historic building); and,

• Special tax incentives, like Gil Cedillo's legislation to make converting office buildings into housing economically attractive.

As for the preservation of the recent past, what sort of "adaptation" will be needed? We may need to look at the preservation of these structures differently, but we certainly need to look at them quickly!

We are woefully behind on awareness-building throughout the country and California-except, of course, where the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee has been doing its work. And we're even farther behind on surveying and designating these structures. Every year, more and more structures are reaching the 50-year mark without being surveyed, much less designated, protected, or placed on adopted inventories.

As preservationists, we're not pushing vigorously enough to identify what "features and characteristics" should be protected, nor coming to grips with the integrity issues of "new" resources. Many of these structures are made out of "new," often experimental materials, and are already exhibiting layers of alterations and additions.

Perhaps this is partly because many of us in the first wave of preservationists grew up with the House of Tomorrow as part of our childhood. The Eichler house's original kitchen formica-which was so new and innovative a material in the ‘60s-is not appreciated by many of the move-up Baby-Boomers who grew up with formica kitchen counters and now want granite.

I'm reminded of the fight to preserve Mies van der Rohe's "floating staircase" in Chicago. When built, it was so innovative in its deceptive simplicity. But it eventually became the archetype, with variants of its design so ubiquitous-especially in schools and institutional buildings of the late ‘50s and ‘60s-that its appreciation was a hard sell even in Chicago. And its preservation didn't come easily.

The preservation questions increasingly being raised with the more recent structures are not necessarily new, just perhaps more subtle. Do we preserve Frank Lloyd Wright's innovative surface treatment material that proved defective? Or, do we replace it with something that will look like it but is more durable? What are we preserving? Is it the form of the structure, or the integrity of original materials?

Furthermore, how do we think of these buildings' preservation? As artifacts? House museums? Or as places in which to live? The work on Neutra's Kaufman house in Palm Springs may best typify those structures deserving of "house-museum" treatment, even though there had to be a lot of replacement-in-kind. Or, perhaps it is only the very special residences that will get special treatment, and the Modern non-residential buildings, like the Daphne Funeral Home in San Francisco, will be treated differently-if preserved at all.

The focus of downtown revitalization on the adaptive reuse of historic structures has given rise to many of these preservation issues. And we need to determine what the best preservation design solutions are to prevent our downtowns from becoming Blade Runner sets though I'm sure some of you may think that could be cool, too.

A Tribute To The L.A. Conservancy

Speaker: The Honorable Joel Wachs

Los Angeles City Councilmember

I'm delighted-in fact, honored-to help pay tribute to the Conservancy. I've been on the Los Angeles City Council since 1971, so I've become something of a historic relic myself.

I watched the Conservancy grow from really modest beginnings 22 years ago, at a time when those of us who cared deeply about our historic treasures and our architectural heritage felt like voices in the wilderness. At that time, the City's whole ethic was that everything had to be new.

Then the Conservancy came along, and in two decades became one of the really premier preservation groups in the nation. They transformed the situation from one where the few people who cared about preservation didn't know what to do or how to be effective, to an incredible coalition of government, business and concerned individuals who understand the importance of preservation and appreciate the adaptive reuse of historic buildings to make cities alive and vital once again.

A number of the Conservancy's successes are well known. But I think the battle over St. Vibiana's best exemplifies what a group of people who care about something enough can do. It isn't easy to vote against the Cardinal when he comes to the Council. But the reason I was able to muster the courage to cast that vote-knowing it would only be one vote-was that I knew the Conservancy would hang tough. I knew the Conservancy would see this through and go to court and establish once and for all that the laws we've enacted to preserve our historic monuments apply to all and are for the benefit of all. I knew that if the City of Los Angeles had any hope of achieving its potential greatness, that's the way it had to be. And that stunning victory created an incredibly powerful force in this City to reshape our preservation policy.

We have real estate here that people in other cities would die for. And while most developers have ignored this potential, there are several visionaries-Tom Gilmore, Rob Maguire, Wayne Ratkovich. With these developers along with a government that may finally be willing to provide some resources, this potential can begin to be realized. Some people ask, "Do we have the necessary resources and time to make this happen?" Well, it's no secret that if we have resources for a luxury sports arena and an NFL football team, then we have resources for this, too. It's every bit as much-if not more-of a characteristic of a beautiful city.

Whether we recognize that-and whether government acts accordingly-depends a lot on the mood of the people. It depends on what people value and what their priorities are. To me, this is where the Conservancy's efforts have been most remarkable. They've developed an ethic of preservation. They have galvanized the wide variety of people who know that the great cities of the world have always been centers of culture as well as commerce-cities that preserve their worthy past rather than tear it down. And they've created this powerful force of people to define and shape our preservation policies.

The possibilities are endless with the combination of visionary developers, a City that's willing to provide resources and assistance, and an educated and passionate populace. If Los Angeles is going to be the defining city of the 21st Century, then the time has come for us to achieve greatness in art, architecture and public spaces. And the preservation movement needs to be recognized for its importance in this. We never would have gotten to this point-where that can now be a reality-were it not for the Los Angeles Conservancy. In one of those rare moments when all 15 Councilmembers can agree on something, I think everyone joins me in paying them sincere tribute.

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