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50 Years In LA: Historical Preservation in LA

What Stays, What Goes: The Rise of Historic Preservation in Los Angeles

by Emily Hummel @hummeline /

By the early 1970s, the downtown Los Angeles skyline was changing drastically. The height restriction imposed on Downtown buildings had been removed, so over the 1950s and 60s, buildings had steadily crept higher. In 1968, the Union Bank Plaza was built as the first true "skyscraper," followed shortly after by the Crocker Citizens Bank in 1969, seen in the photo below.

Around the same time, the Los Angeles Central Library was falling into disrepair. Built in 1926 by Bertram Goodhue, and an early example of Art Deco architecture, it was one of the iconic cornerstones of the downtown Los Angeles landscape, and was eventually designated as a Historic-Cultural Monument in 1967.


Los Angeles Public Library, 630 West Fifth Street, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, CA, c. 1971, Historical American Buildings Survey, retrieved from the Library of Congress


Despite its monumental status, there was a growing movement to demolish the site. The issues ranged from "inadequate space" and "outdated electrical and mechanical systems" to "deferred maintenance," and a librarian referred to it as a "filthy fire trap."

In response to the threat of demolition, the Los Angeles Conservancy was founded in 1978. With the library, they certainly had their hands full, within a few years organizing a series of phone campaigns to argue for the preservation of this beloved landmark. A plan for renovation was developed, but before it could be implemented, the impossible happened: an arsonist set a fire inside the Library in 1986, which, fueled by the close quarters of internal stacks, grew to a massive blaze, with temperatures reaching 2000°F. The Fire destroyed 400,000 volumes in the Library's collection-20% of the total holdings-as well as historic maps, photographs, and more.



Street lined with fire engines during Los Angeles Central Library fire, 1986, by Jack Gaunt, Los Angeles Times Photo Archive (CC-BY)


This set back restoration efforts for years, and the Library finally completed a full renovation and restoration in 1993, over 15 years after the conversations had originally begun. While this was a tragic beginning to a restoration, one of the positive things to emerge was the massive outpouring of public support for the Library, as well as the creation of organizations like the Library Foundation of Los Angeles andthe Los Angeles Preservation Network. It also signaled the beginning of a new area in Los Angeles, where a groundswell of passionate activists would begin to enact change for the historic properties in the city-a mission that continues to this day.

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Los Angeles walks a strange walk between being viewed as a young city, and one that has been around for quite some time. How often have we been told-or joked ourselves-that the city "doesn't really have a history?" While the history of Los Angeles stretches back to before the Civil War, because so much of its growth happened in the post-war years, much of its architectural heritage dates from the 20th century.

Even in the 1930s, the WPA guide to Los Angeles argued that "The Los Angeles of the future is likely to evolve around highways," and commented that the "tendency to spread and sprawl has been more or less unrestrained," arguing that the reason for the dramatic shift in city planning was due to East Coaster transplants wanting to consciously escape those "dark canyons" of Eastern cities.


Hollywood Freeway, c. 1957 (CC-BY)


In that way, we have a unique heritage few other cities don't have. In Los Angeles, our oldest buildings are ones that simply weren't built in other cities because there wasn't room, which means we have a deep wealth of Art Deco, Art Moderne, Googie, and Mid-Century Modern structures. The Sheats-Goldstein house below (aka Jackie Treehorn's house in The Big Lebowski), for example, is an incredible lesson in American Organic Architecture (bet you didn't even know that was a style!)



As a result, preservation in Los Angeles has always been a tricky business. In most cities, the buildings being preserved are 100 years old or more, but as we have a much higher percentage of modern architecture, the focus is different. For one thing, more modern structures are sometimes hard to ignite passion around advocating for their survival. Not everyone is a fan of Brutalism, after all! To further complicate matters, older structures aren't always up to modern earthquake standards or due to materials used, are sometimes difficult to bring up to code (Rest in Piece, Sixth Street Viaduct).


postcard of the Bonaventure Hotel, soon after it was built in 1976


But these are the issues you face when you have a city with such a diverse architectural history as this one. What would LA be without drive-thru restaurants shaped like giant doughnuts? Without Griffith Observatory and the Bonaventure Hotel? I rather like the patchwork quilt of styles that we've developed over the years. Give me our strange skyline, our outrageous restaurants, and our Victorian mansions tucked away in the Arroyo Seco. I wouldn't want it any other way.



50 Years In LA:

The Creation of the ARPANET And The Birth Of the Internet

The Building Of The Fabulous Forum

Changing Views Of Los Angeles


Emily Hummel is the creator of @arresteros + @brilliantmashup + internet explorers club

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