Architectural preservation in the Los Angeles area does not have the community-wide élan that it has in Charleston or even New York. . . . In spite of the victories of the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission and the Los Angeles Conservancy and similar commissions and preservation organizations in the County of Los Angeles, the retention of old or even middle-aged buildings depends on the will of the owner to save and, if necessary, recycle them. The owner's mind may be swayed by opinion, but concentrated, well-directed public opinion is still hard to come by in the City of Los Angeles and in Los Angeles County.
Los Angeles: An Architectural Guide
The City of Los Angeles, founded in 1781, is now at the core of an urban area of 500 square miles and 15 million people. During the 20th century, it developed a rich but not widely appreciated cultural heritage that is often overshadowed by its Tinseltown reputation. Space, climate, and a freedom to innovate all contributed not only to the entertainment center of the world but also to a city with an outstanding legacy of diverse and exciting architecture. It is, too, the automobile city. Because of its predominant automobile culture, it has been responsible for bringing to the world developments in freeway design, supermarkets, drive-in restaurants and cinemas, and the Moderne architecture of automobile showrooms.
The 20th century has been a time of dynamic design in Los Angeles. The city was practically the birthplace of both tropical Deco and the unique American domestic design of the 1950s (often called Googie). Sadly, this heritage, often through destruction and neglect, is disappearing at an alarming rate. Unless action is taken now to encourage an appreciation of the quality of the city's architecture#8212;its restaurants and coffee shops; its hotels, motels, and movie palaces; its bungalows and Craftsman homes—much will ultimately be lost.
With this in mind, the Getty Conservation Institute is continuing its long-term commitment to Los Angeles, focusing on strategic ways to contribute to the conservation of the city's significant built heritage. The GCI will draw on existing collaborations with the organizations and professionals already working to preserve L.A. landmarks, in order to plan programs at the Getty Center, and bring additional conservation expertise to preservation in the city.
In recognition of the breadth of the cultural legacy that exists in the city that is home to the Getty Center, we offer here a few, brief descriptions of significant places in Los Angeles and environs. These "snapshots" give a glimpse of some of the historic richness in this still-young American community.
Senior Project Specialist,
Getty Conservation Institute
Sites, structures, and other cultural resources that are long gone or forgotten sometimes become known only as the result of events that are, themselves, destructive. This occurred recently in the construction of the Los Angeles subway. Because federal funds were involved, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was required to identify structures and subsurface resources that might be affected by the construction, to evaluate their significance, and to mitigate the effects on those found to be significant. In the construction of the subway, historical sites were discovered at Union Station, in Universal City, and in the heart of Hollywood.
Under Union Station downtown, the remains of old Chinatown were remarkably intact. This was Chinatown's location from the 1880s until it was demolished in 1933. Public agencies often write off developed areas in the belief that no historical evidence could have survived subsequent constructions. In this case, there was evidence that fill was brought to the site to create a level pad for the new railroad station. Brick and wooden structures were razed and crushed, forming a seal over the streets, sidewalks, foundations, trash pits, and privies.
The area for excavation was limited to the width of the subway corridor. Nevertheless, abundant artifacts were discovered. Most foods, condiments, and beverages were imported from the homeland in stoneware containers that were discarded, since the next purchase came in its own jar; from a single defined area alone, more than 1,172 pounds of these stonewares were recovered. Excavations at the site uncovered 2,444 examples of porcelain table service; 2,951 stoneware jars and lids; 140 toothbrushes; 370 Asian coins; 666 tiny medicinal vials; sculptures in stone and clay; toys; gambling and opium-smoking paraphernalia; faunal remains; and a variety of other materials, from eyeglasses to doorknobs.
The materials yielded new insight into old Chinatown. The presence of children's toys and women's shoes, jewelry, and cosmetics demonstrated that women and children were present and distinctly underrepresented in census enumerations. Artifacts also showed that the community did not consist only of poor laborers. Prosperous merchants and professionals were represented by more costly porcelain items, a greater elaboration of table service, jade bracelets, and the occasional gold-plated haberdashery or carved ivory toothbrush. The persistence of traditional food, recreational, and medical customs, despite the availability of American products, was attributed to social isolation, language barriers, and consumer choice, and perhaps to a desire to maintain ethnic boundaries in the face of a hostile host community.
Metro Rail donated the artifacts to the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, which is displaying some, curating the balance, and making two thousand items accessible on its Web page and on CD-ROM. The information is thus conserved, published, and available for display and future research.
The discovery adjacent to Universal City Studios was the Campo de Cahuenga, where the Articles of Capitulation, ending the war with Mexico, were signed in 1847. The stone foundations and tile floor of this adobe rancho were just below the sod in front of the city's historic park commemorating the event, which led to the acquisition of much of the U.S. West. Test excavations have outlined six rooms thus far and revealed construction practices of the time. Here, the discovery has led to preservation, as Metro Rail is taking the steps to avoid the destruction that would otherwise have occurred.
Other discoveries as a result of environmental studies for Metro Rail have included the granite blocks that first paved the streets of downtown Los Angeles and table service and food remains from the turn-of-the-century Hollywood Hotel. A parking garage had since been developed on the site, yet cultural materials were still present below the existing grade. The potential for archaeological evidence of either prehistorical or historical importance does exist in the urban setting, and conservation is best served by strict observance and application of the guidelines for historic preservation through the environmental reporting process.
President, Greenwood and Associates
Ninety years have passed since the Gamble family spent its first winter in a new Pasadena home designed by Charles and Henry Greene. Ninety cycles of rain and sun have tested the Oregon pine structural timbers, the redwood split shakes, and Burmese teak entry doors. Though the wood may have lost the fragrance of the forest that it had when the house was newly built, the original exterior and interiors remain substantially intact, a testimony to the high quality of materials initially selected.
Nonetheless, many areas of the landmark house need urgent attention, such as exposed beam ends and rafters that play unwilling host to brown and white-rot fungus. This situation raises the conservation question of what can and should be done where historic fabric is damaged or destroyed. For the most part, remaining old-growth specimens of the trees originally harvested to build the Gamble house are either gone completely or protected from cutting, making in-kind replacement difficult or impossible. Similar wood products currently available are generally so inferior to the quality used in the original construction of the house that to introduce them would be ill-advised, likely condemning the structure to a perpetual cycle of periodic replacement (with increasingly inferior material, as typical forest harvest cycles become shorter). There may be no simple solution, but this and a range of other difficult conservation issues are currently being investigated for a historic structure report being developed for the Gamble House—a program of the University of Southern California School of Architecture—with help from the Getty Grant Program and a generous gift from James N. Gamble.
To conserve this historically important wooden house in a climate conducive to rot is not only a major technical challenge but also a political one. A generation of visitors to the Gamble House, and more than two generations of Pasadena residents, have become accustomed to seeing the house with its coat of now-faded, olive green paint, applied in the 1930s. Because of its age, to some people the paint color has become nearly as historic as the house, even though the very notion of painting wood runs counter to the Arts and Crafts movement's tenet of celebrating the native beauty of building materials. The Greenes were foremost among architects who embraced this idea. Accordingly, as exterior areas of the Gamble House are studied, the consulting team writing the historic structure report will attempt to develop strategies for finishing areas to be treated in a way that is not only consistent with appropriate conservation technology but also respectful of Charles and Henry Greene's original intent. These strategies may run the risk of arousing public ire for tampering with its long-held perception of how the house should look, but the team will also be studying interpretation and education issues connected with the proposed conservation work. The report, which will detail the condition of the house and propose conservation remedies, is expected to be completed by the spring of 2000.
Director, The Gamble House
In 1922—to advertise his Packard showroom in downtown Los Angeles—automotive pioneer Earle C. Anthony put up the first neon sign in the United States. It was the beginning of a neon age for the city. Over the course of the next three decades, neon lights—three times brighter than incandescent bulbs of equal power—flourished as an architectural element in L.A.'s downtown, in the Wilshire Boulevard corridor, and in Hollywood. Raymond Chandler, in his 1949 novel The Little Sister, described Los Angeles as a city transformed by its neon lights.
Adolfo V. Nodal, now general manager of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, has spearheaded a long-term project to preserve and restore the city's vintage neon signs. As director of the MacArthur Park Public Art Program, he was fascinated by the darkened rooftop signs dotting the park. In 1986 he succeeded in getting five signs relit to commemorate the park's centennial.
After Nodal took the helm of Cultural Affairs, the city department conducted extensive research to identify and catalog L.A.'s hundreds of vintage and artistically unique neon signs, and it raised funds to initiate a major restoration project. By 1997, with financial assistance from the Community Redevelopment Agency, over 50 signs had been relit and restored in the historic Wilshire district. In addition to illuminating L.A.'s past and returning a little magic to these once-bustling urban communities, the signs have helped upgrade and revitalize the areas. They are a source of local pride and have played a role in encouraging property owners and commercial businesses to invest in these neighborhoods, thereby stimulating economic activity.
The neon preservation effort is now focused on relighting and bringing attention to more than 70 historic signs in the Hollywood district. There are also plans to put the glow back on the dozens of vintage neon signs languishing on marquees in downtown's historic Broadway theater district, as well as on surrounding landmark hotels and properties. These relit signs could bring excitement to the area and prompt new economic growth.
L.A.'s great neon age of the early 20th century constitutes a unique aspect of its historical identity. Relighting these signs is a luminous contribution to the city's cultural heritage. Because of this project, neon is being recognized as significant to the city's contemporary identity as well. Not only did neon change the face of the city visually and aesthetically, it had a direct impact on its economic growth. The transformative effect of this beautiful signage is equally powerful today.
Development Coordinator, Cultural Affairs
Department, City of Los Angeles
Though barely mentioned in architectural surveys of Los Angeles, the concrete arch bridges across the Los Angeles River are "among the largest and most beautiful in the United States," says Steven D. Mikesell, the leading authority on California bridges. Eric DeLony, chief of the Historic American Engineering Record (the U.S. National Park Service division that certifies structures for the National Historical Record), calls the 10 highway bridges, all built between 1910 and 1934, "a unique collection of different designs and styles. . . . Some of the most interesting work that you'll find anywhere in the country." DeLony, the author of Landmark American Bridges, singles out for praise the viaducts, which span not only the river, but rail tracks, roads, and even freeways. "Very masterful. Very, very elegant, major multiple spans."
Standardized steel trusses had characterized much American bridge design up until the early 20th century. But with the newly perfected poured concrete technique, bridges could be individualized to reflect the decorative embellishments of any phase of history. When Merrill Butler became Los Angeles engineer of bridges and structures in 1923, the Beaux Arts tradition—a conflation of 19th-century Parisian neo-Baroque, imitation Renaissance, and Main Street Imperial Roman—dominated U.S. public architecture. For example, the portals and viewing balconies of the 1909-11 Buena Vista Viaduct (now the North Broadway Bridge) were designed to look like Roman temples.
The Spanish Colonial Macy Street Viaduct, the Gothic Revival Fourth Street Viaduct, and the neoclassical viaduct at 9th Street all went up while Merrill Butler was engineer of bridges and structures. However, most of his bridges—from the three-thousand-foot-long Sixth Street Viaduct, with its 112 streamlined columns, to the elegantly simple curve of the Fletcher Bridge that links Silver Lake and South Atwater -- imply that Butler appreciated a cleaner, modern look that expressed the structure's function.
As the bridge-building era ended, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to encase the Los Angeles River in concrete. Ornamentation on the concrete arch bridges started to disappear, replaced by standard issue bridge specifications from the California Department of Transportation; changes in bridge-building technology made the concrete arch prohibitively expensive. By Butler's death in 1963, his bridges, like the river they crossed, had faded from public consciousness.
From its founding in 1986, Friends of the Los Angeles River called for the restoration of the river bridges and their inclusion on the National Historical Register. In 1990, a Los Angeles City bond issue provided for the seismic strengthening of more than 120 city bridges. Clark Robins, a 34-year veteran of the city's structural and geotechnical engineering division, saw the restoration of the concrete arch bridges as the capstone of his career, and he found money for it in the federal government's Highway Bridge Replacement and Restoration Fund. When the last restoration is finished in the year 2000, Robins says it will have cost about $66 million, a tenth of what it would have cost to replace the bridges. Only one bridge was more expensive to restore than to replace.
The bridges are being brought up to modern seismic codes while maintaining "as much accuracy in the architectural appearance as we could," says Robins. Historical lighting and railings are being reinstalled. Eric DeLony calls the current seismic retrofitting "as fine a contemporary bridge rehabilitation program as I have seen anywhere in the country."
What moved Clark Robins to undertake such a huge project? "If you can imagine how small the town was in those days and how much money they put in those projects and how proud they were of them," Robins explains, "they make us look pretty bad. I just have so much admiration for the people of L.A. in those days, and the people who carried out their will."
Poet and Founder,
Friends of the Los Angeles River
In the Los Angeles suburb of Downey is the Speedee McDonald's Drive-In, the earliest remaining example of the original hamburger stands conceived by the McDonald brothers.
The drive-in, which originally opened in August 1953, is an example of the distinctive hamburger stands with the golden arches that were a fixture in American suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, these stands have been either demolished or radically remodeled. The Downey stand survived because its owner held an original franchise from the McDonald brothers, before Ray Kroc catapulted the McDonald's Corporation to worldwide prominence. In the mid-1980s, it was certified as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
When the Downey franchise was sold back to McDonald's in 1992, the corporation began looking for ways to close the operation, claiming it was losing money. In January 1994, the corporation shut down the restaurant, citing damage from the Northridge earthquake. However, an attempt to demolish the structure was blocked by the Downey City Council because the building had landmark status. The lease was then terminated, and the site reverted to the Pep Boys company, which owned the property. However, because the building and sign incorporate the trademark golden arches and the Speedee character, the building could not be adapted to any other use.
The Los Angeles Conservancyled by its volunteer Modern Committeeand the Downey Historical Society pressed for preservation by staging rallies at the site that helped generate international publicity. A campaign encouraging people to write the chairman of McDonald's even prompted a response from California governor Pete Wilson, who urged the corporation to "preserve for posterity the home of the golden arches."
In 1994, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the importance of the Downey drive-in by designating it one of America's 11 most endangered historic places, and it provided a grant to fund a marketing study. For more than two years, the Conservancy waged a battle with the McDonald's Corporation. Pep Boys remained a crucial ally, by resisting market pressure to develop the site and by keeping the building secure and clean.
The stalemate was broken when new management at McDonald's took a fresh look at the Downey building and recognized that it had to be saved. In October 1996, the corporation announced that it would reopen the restaurant. Just two months later, with a gala celebration, the Downey McDonald's reopened, with its distinctive features restored and a new structure to house a museum, gift shop, and restrooms incorporated into the site.
The effort to save this historic structure was initially rebuffed. But the process did keep the building standing until McDonald's was willing to preserve its history.
Los Angeles Conservancy
The only surviving public mural in the United States by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, painted in 1932. Located on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, América Tropical is the subject of a joint project of the GCI and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument that involves conservation and long-term protection of the mural, and the creation of an adjacent exhibition.
A Robert Graham sculpture, created for the 1984 Olympic Games and located at the east entrance of the Los Angeles Coliseum. The GCI undertook assessment and conservation of the work, which was damaged by vandalism and environmental factors.
A group of 17 monumental sculptures created by Simon Rodia over 30 years in south-central Los Angeles. The GCI assisted in the conservation effort to preserve this official City of Los Angeles cultural heritage monument, providing technical assistance during the project.
Back Seat Dodge '38
A 1964 Edward Kienholz sculpture that is part of the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Suffering from a pest infestation, the artwork was treated by Institute staff using nontoxic eradication methods developed by the GCI.
Getty Seismic Adobe Project
A GCI research project focused on methods for the seismic strengthening of historic adobes in Los Angeles and throughout California. The project team devised relatively simple measures to help prevent the collapse of adobe structures during an earthquake.
Historic Preservation Partners for Earthquake Response
A consortium that included the GCI, the Los Angeles Conservancy, the California Office of Historic Preservation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was formed after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake to assist property owners to repair and restore historic buildings damaged by the quake.
Survey of Damage to Historic Adobe Buildings
A survey of historic adobe buildings damaged as a result of the 1994 earthquake. After the quake, the GCI—as part of its commitment to researching conservation measures appropriate for adobe structures—conducted this survey. The survey was published to help owners, building officials, cultural resource managers, architects, and engineers understand the risks earthquakes pose to adobe buildings and the necessity for taking action to limit those risks.
A GCI outreach project for a diverse group of Los Angeles youth who were asked to photograph designated heritage sites as well as the landmarks of their personal lives and neighborhoods. It resulted in an exhibition at Los Angeles City Hall and at the Central Library, and in the publication of an award-winning book.
Joint efforts of UCLA and the GCI focused on conservation. These included an exhibition at UCLA's Fowler Museum on the royal tombs of Sipán; a symposium on the management and conservation of rock art sites, cosponsored by the Rock Art Archive of UCLA ; and a collaboration with the UCLA Department of Archaeology to address conservation at the Maya site of Xunantunich in Belize.
Conservation advice for a number of institutions around Los Angeles. For example, GCI staff offered postfire disaster response consultation for the Los Angeles Central Library and the Huntington Library, and technical advice on the restoration of a Chinese shrine at Evergreen.