April 24, 2019 - From the April, 2019 issue

History & Evolution of Historic Preservation on the West Coast

Women now make up a majority of students in schools of architecture, but have historically achieved success by focusing on interiors or preservation, specialties often considered second class to design architecture. At a recent AIA New York forum, architect Brenda Levin, FAIA and Principal of Levin & Associates, presents an illuminating account of the evolution of historic preservation and the unique role women have played in Los Angeles architecture.  The Planning Report is proud to present the following remarks.

Brenda Levin

“Architects, environmental consultants, and other practitioners bridge vast gaps in skill and knowledge, from properly treating historic buildings, encouraging re-use, to helping developers understand regulations and incentives.” -Brenda Levin

Brenda Levin: As on the East Coast, historic preservation on the West Coast, despite its relative youth, has a rich history of its own. Seminal events and remarkable personalities fueled the evolution of both the field and the movement. In these few minutes, I’ll focus on just a few examples in California – my adopted home state.

Dating from the eighteenth century, the surviving Franciscan missions are the oldest structures in California and a symbol of the state. They inspired Mission Revival architecture and have appeared in countless movies and television shows. For decades, fourth-graders built models of them out of sugar cubes and popsicle sticks.

Yet most of the missions had disappeared by the late nineteenth century, and the ones left were crumbling. Catholic priests worked to restore what they could, but it took a radical librarian to make the first major effort.

A former journalist and early feminist, Los Angeles City Librarian Tessa Kelso flaunted convention. She was described as “a woman of extraordinary business ability, quenchless energy, and a great executive force.” She needed all that, plus persistence, to help the fledgling Los Angeles Public Library soar into national prominence.

A California history buff, Kelso was one of the state’s first preservationists. In 1889, she organized the Association for the Preservation of the Missions, which some consider “the first serious attempt to preserve the California Missions.” Kelso held “stereopticon exhibitions,” led trips to the missions, and displayed photos of them at the library. By raising awareness, not just of the missions but of their serious plight, she laid the groundwork for their preservation.

In the twentieth century, two exceptional women had a profound influence on architecture and preservation, though they took very different paths.

Born in 1872, Julia Morgan was the first woman admitted to the architecture program at the École de Beaux Arts and the first woman architect licensed in California. She was the most prolific female architect in the country and one of few women with their own practice. She designed many buildings for institutions serving women and girls, including the YWCA and Mills College in her hometown of Oakland.

Morgan found a patron and champion in Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a wealthy philanthropist and the mother of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Yet the architect hardly relied on largesse. According to scholar Karen McNeill, Morgan was “a savvy professional with a strong gender consciousness who actively sought success … shaped her own destiny,” and “changed the relationship between women and architecture.” She asserted her authority in subtle ways, from how she dressed to the layout of her office.

And she was a great architect. Morgan designed an estimated 700 buildings, mostly in California. Many of them still stand, and a number have been restored.

Perhaps her most significant project in Los Angeles, the Herald Examiner Building, is being restored and renovated to become the new home of Arizona State University’s school of journalism. An apt reuse for a building that was once the headquarters of the Hearst owned Herald Examiner newspaper.

Despite a pioneering career and huge body of work, Morgan did not want to be remembered as a “woman architect.” She left instructions to destroy her records upon her passing, but fortunately, many survived. As most of you know, in 2014, nearly 50 years after her death, Julia Morgan became the first woman to receive the AIA Gold Medal.

 Fiction writer Esther McCoy tried to become an architect, but she was discouraged from applying to USC because she was a woman and over thirty. Instead, McCoy worked as a draftsman for Rudolf Schindler before becoming one of the great architecture writers of the twentieth century.

 She witnessed, documented, and promoted the development of modern architecture in California, particularly in postwar Southern California. Through books, articles, and exhibitions, McCoy introduced California modernism to the world. Her subjects included architects Charles and Henry Greene, Bernard Maybeck, Irving Gill, and Schindler; as well as those who designed for the Case Study House Program sponsored by Arts and Architecture magazine.

McCoy’s support of modernism included activism. She went to the mat for the Walter L. Dodge House in West Hollywood, designed by Irving Gill - built in 1916. Many consider it the first modern home in the West and one of the most significant homes of the twentieth century. 

When the Dodge House became threatened in the 1960s, McCoy helped lead the preservation effort, including writing and producing a short film about the home. You can see the film on YouTube, but you can no longer see the house. Despite the best efforts of McCoy and others, it was demolished in 1970.  

As the sixties wore on, the Victorian homes on downtown L.A.’s Bunker Hill disappeared in the name of urban renewal. The 1928 Richfield Building, an Art Deco masterpiece designed by Stiles O. Clements, was deemed passé and demolished in 1968.


While Esther was trying to save the Dodge House, others were debating the fate of  the 1926 Los Angeles Central Library, designed by New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue.

Goodhue produced what critic Paul Goldberger described as “a magnificent mix of Spanish Colonial, Byzantine, and Art Moderne architecture that quickly became a landmark—the Los Angeles equivalent of the great libraries of New York and Boston.”

With the city’s exponential expansion, the Goodhue building was outgrown by the 1960s. Despite having one of the country’s first preservation programs—created in 1962, before New York’s—preservation hadn’t taken root in Los Angeles. In 1967, the City announced plans to raze the Central Library.

 The debate that raged over the next decade amounted to what critic Joseph Giovannini called “a battle for the physical and spiritual heart of the city.”

The L.A. chapter of the American Institute of Architects rallied to save the building and played an instrumental role in its survival. In spite of a devastating fire in 1986 that damaged or destroyed more than one million books, ultimately, the library was restored, with  a large yet sensitive addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. Today, the physical and spiritual heart of the city beats louder than ever.

As an invaluable bonus, the effort to save the library fueled the formation of the Los Angeles Conservancy in 1978, under the stalwart leadership of Margaret Bach. Los Angeles finally had an organized voice for preservation, and many of our projects: LA City Hall, Bradbury Building, Wiltern Theatre, Grand Central Market, and Griffith Observatory were the beneficiary of their advocacy.

As tough as it was, the Central Library saga came to a successful end through widespread collaboration. By contrast, the fight to save the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana was a study in vilification. Built in 1876, Saint Vibiana’s was the first cathedral in Los Angeles. It could originally hold ten percent of the city’s population and served as its official cathedral for more than a century.

In 1996, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles tried to level the building and replace it with an all-new cathedral complex. This included an illegal demolition attempt at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, which the L.A. Conservancy stopped.

Unlike the Central Library, this battle left preservationists high and dry. The Conservancy was vilified by business and political leaders, the media, even longtime allies, who labeled the group as obstructionist—undermining downtown’s renewal and curtailing religious freedom. In an unprecedented move, the City even revoked the building’s landmark status.

This fight was a defining moment for the Conservancy, now the largest advocacy organization in the country, forcing them to stand up to L.A.’s power structure. The archdiocese eventually decommissioned the cathedral and built a new one a few blocks away. The Conservancy helped find a buyer for the landmark and secure funding from the State, Congress, and FEMA. Now known as Vibiana, the site is an award-winning wedding, event, and performing arts space with a highly acclaimed restaurant.

Longtime preservationist Christy Johnson McAvoy describes traditional preservation as a “three-legged stool” of government, developers, and advocates. Without all three, the stool can’t stand. McAvoy maintains that the stool now has a fourth leg: professionals. Architects, environmental consultants, and other practitioners bridge vast gaps in skill and knowledge, from properly treating historic buildings, encouraging re-use, to helping developers understand regulations and incentives.

Going forward, we professionals—the fourth leg—have a crucial role to play in expanding not just the practice, but the definition of preservation. How can we as architects help alleviate social ills like the housing crisis in coastal California ? How can we share our collective story more fully with not just reference to architectural gems, but also to enhancing cultural significance of place making? How can we meet future needs yet to be identified?

We can look to our preservation pioneers for lessons and inspiration. Along the way, perhaps we’ll leave some of our own.




© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.