Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Historic Preservation in Los Angeles

Historic preservation in Los Angeles
Apple Store inside the old Tower Theatre, DTLA

Historic Preservation in Los Angeles is a much more important thing here than many people realize. Is it important enough, though? That’s another question. It’s such a relevant concern here because so much of the city’s ethos is about reinvention. LA has often been a city that erases, or tries to erase, its past, as it races towards a golden future. Each generation of boosters has proclaimed that “Los Angeles is a young city, it doesn’t have any history”. This can be said for convenient reasons: if new building developers can convince us that it’s true, maybe we won’t care so much that they’re knocking down a historic location. As often, though, it’s just said out of ignorance.

Nevertheless, this desire to reinvent Los Angeles has led to much of its history just being forgotten by its residents – even as many historic buildings still exist. Ignored by the city that bustles around them. Bearing in mind that DTLA is the most historic downtown of any major city in the U.S. you could argue that this very neglect has in some ways benefitted historic preservation in LA. The city cared so little for its history that it couldn’t even be bothered to think of anything else to do with it!

So, beyond the reasons mentioned already, why was Los Angeles so little concerned with its own history? Why does it have such a schizophrenic attitude towards its past? Why and how did historic preservation become so important in the city of Angels?

How Historic Preservation began in LA

The history of Los Angeles over the last 250 years has been one of constant rebirth and a corresponding erasure of the past. When the city was founded, in 1781, by the Spanish Emperor, the idea was to create a small farming community – which would be built on the backs of the slave-labor of the First American Tongva people. Correspondingly their thousand-year history here came to an abrupt and violent end.

The Mexican era righted some of those wrongs, but there was no going back, the age of the Spanish Empire was over and it was the time of Zorro. When California joined the U.S. in 1848 the new Anglo masters essentially shifted the center of the small town south, to the present day Historic Core, and left the old pueblo to gently decay.

That pattern has been repeated many times since. When the moving picture industry moved to Los Angeles in the 1910’s it was to make use of its terrain for Westerns, a staple of the industry in those days. The city had, until recently, still been the Wild West, so it made sense. But by the 1940’s most of the movies set in LA were Film Noir, in which its concrete, urban, downtown featured prominently. Now Westerns would never be made in Los Angeles.

Olvera Street

You could argue that historic preservation in Los Angeles began with Christine Sterling, in 1926. Upon finding out that the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street, the oldest building in the city, was about to be destroyed, she began a campaign to save the old pueblo. It was only there because the city had plenty of nice land to develop to the south, where downtown is now, but Sterling realized that it was going to be erased too.

She succeeded in her efforts and in 1930 Olvera Street reopened, much as it is today, as a street-market. Sterling’s achievement didn’t spark a wider conversation or movement to save more of LA’s heritage though, so it remained something of a one-off for a long time.

Globally, the historic preservation movement took shape in the 1960’s and 70’s. The demolitions of Euston Station in London, Les Halles in Paris and Penn State Station in New York, all served to give life to the idea that there needed to be some framework for preserving important, historic buildings. Here in Los Angeles it was the disappearance of the 1929 Richfield Tower, a beautiful Art Deco office building in downtown, that did it. When the featureless glass and marble towers that replaced it were unveiled LA decided enough was enough!

When developers began eyeing the lovely 1926 Los Angeles Public Library on the other side of Flower Street, city residents mobilized to save it. In the end the air rights (the legal permission to build into the air above the low-rise library) were sold to a developer, so that he could build the 73-story U.S. Bank Tower next door. Effectively it safe-guarded the library from ever being redeveloped.

Los Angeles Public Library

The battle to preserve the library gave birth to the Los Angeles Conservancy, the leading historic preservation organization here. It’s a constant struggle of course, but now the importance of keeping historic buildings extant is widely recognized in LA.

What Does Historic Preservation Mean Today?

In 1999 the City of Los Angeles passes an adaptive use ordinance, meaning that owners of vacant or underused buildings could apply to change their use, usually from office buildings to loft apartments or condominiums. It kick-started a renaissance in downtown as many beautiful historic buildings that were often empty of any tenants, were brought back to life.

The fact that there were so many vacant offices was because, in a previous erasure, the city destroyed the housing in the old Bunker Hill neighborhood in order to build modern glass and steel towers. When all the companies in the old Financial District on Spring Street relocated, it almost destroyed downtown.

Between 2000 and now the population of downtown went from under 10,000 to over 100,000 residents. Today, although there are still some completely vacant and run-down properties, the area is much more vibrant and interesting. Seems like a win, right?

Recently Apple Corporation leased the old Tower Theatre on Broadway, in order to turn it into a flagship Apple Store Another win, right? Not so fast. Many residents of LA decried a “Silicon Valley Corporation” coming in and taking over one of our precious Broadway Theaters. Why couldn’t it be turned back into a theater? Why wasn’t there a bigger effort to recreate the glory days of the Historic Theater District, in DTLA?

The Tower Theatre itself is particularly historically important. It was the site of the first preview of The Jazz Singer, considered the first sound feature film (and first movie musical), when the Tower opened in 1927. It was at the cutting edge of a tech revolution and it’s a lovely little theater too.

However, the site actually isn’t ideal for a theater, it’s long and narrow, meaning it only has a small stage. The original developer managed to shoehorn it in, but the screen and stage are very small and it has no fly tower. It only really worked as a theater at the time it opened, even by the 1950’s, with wide-screen movies all the rage, it would have needed extensive rebuilding to function effectively and profitably.

In 1988 it became a concert venue, but even that isn’t a great use, with its small stage. It would probably only be appropriate for stand-up comedy shows, but there are no comedy clubs in downtown. And a comedy club wouldn’t have the many millions to spend on a desperately needed renovation, only a big corporation has the deep pockets necessary for that huge expense. An Apple Store is a very appropriate use of the Tower Theatre.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love it if the golden age of Broadway Los Angeles returned, but that wouldn’t be possible with all the theaters and it needs a proper Metro system to be able to bring in the large numbers of people from the surrounding city who would all be arriving at the same time for their show. In that sense Los Angeles is moving forward, with the new Regional Connector and its Broadway station opening just this month. We’ll get there!

The Future of Historic Preservation and Los Angeles

The future for historic preservation, in my opinion, is in being imaginative in terms of rethinking the uses of these buildings. All cities always change. There’s a constant process of reinvention and renewal. That’s why cities today don’t resemble Ancient Rome. Not every building is going to be a museum. The only way to preserve our physical history is to keep making it relevant. Where historic buildings are concerned this may well mean changing its purpose, its uses – but always keeping what makes it special.

There are tons of great examples of precisely that in Los Angeles, from the Commercial Exchange Building becoming a Freehand Hotel, to the Eastern Columbia Building becoming condos (with movie stars living there of course, this is LA!). Union Station recently had a role as the host of the annual Oscars. These are all big wins and there are many more.

The fact that these buildings can be repurposed is something that makes them special. We just have to be realistic about what we can keep and what is going to have to change, because change is inevitable.

DTLA is the most historic downtown of any major city in the U.S.

Our LA: Food + History + Design tour is a great introduction to many of these places and spaces. We go inside Union Station and the Bradbury Building, two of the most beautiful and historic buildings in LA. Tour runs Sundays, starting at 12 midday.

If you have any feedback on Historic Preservation in Los Angeles please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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