JetModern: Preservation in Los Angeles

Posted on: October 5th, 2009 by Guest Writer
Exterior view of the 1965 Department of Water & Power Building (John Ferraro Building) in Los Angeles.

Exterior view of the 1965 Department of Water & Power Building (John Ferraro Building) in Los Angeles.

My visit to Los Angeles coincided with the first of a series of lectures and panel discussions sponsored by the National Trust and the LA Conservancy. Called Modern Modules, these programs will be taking place across the country over the next nine months. Each event consists of two parts: a public lecture and an invited panel discussion. In Los Angeles, the lecture also took place as the first event as part of the LA Conservancy’s “Sixties Turn 50” program. Held at the Department of Water and Power Building/John Ferraro Building (1965, A. C. Martin & Associates), the lecture was moderated by Frances Anderton. Anderton noted that in British English, what we here call the “recent past,” is referred to as the “familiar past.”

This familiarity has both advantages and disadvantages. As an advantage, a familiar aspect may be incorporated in with less-familiar parts of a building in order to build community interest in a structure. Andy Kirk explained to me that this is just what happened in my previous stop, Las Vegas, where public interest in the now-historic neon signs of the Strip and downtown Las Vegas was parlayed into an effort to save not just the sign, but the building to which it was attached. Chief among the disadvantages is the reluctance to see one’s own life as historical; however, as Alan Hess, one of the lecturers, noted in his lightning quick overview of modern architecture in California in the 1960s, it was at mid-century that California was at the height of its cultural influence.

  The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles was designed by Welton Becket and completed in 1967.

The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles was designed by Welton Becket and completed in 1967.

While I most often think of commercial structures (or even civic ones, like the Mark Taper Forum pictured here) as being important examples of an architectural style, there’s no reason to forget about residential structures. In fact, Leo Marmol, FAIA, another of the evening’s lecturers, suggested that there is a very real need to move beyond commercial spaces, especially in Los Angeles, a city very much of private spaces. Some of these private spaces were no less experimental than the largest commercial structure – the Case Study houses, for example, are a group of residential properties Alan Leib is working to protect. As difficult as it is to see a structure with which one is familiar with become a landmark, it must be all the more challenging to see one in which you have lived become “historic.”

Despite the fact that some remember buildings from mid-century being built, that memory does not guarantee that the firms that supplied the materials to build the structures will still be in business. Often using old materials in new ways or experimenting with new composites, modern architecture raises some important questions about authenticity. As Marmol noted, there is a need to rethink some of the standards for preservation as they relate to the use of replacement materials. An experimental plastic used for five years in the 1960s may not be repairable or replaceable, so what can be done when it is worn or broken? Is a newly manufactured piece that mimics the old acceptable?

In order to continue this conversation and to develop some concrete (no pun intended) answers, a more technical talk continued with an invited panel discussion. It was generally agreed that a tried and true survey is the best way to begin documenting the presence of mid-century resources within a community. As the City of Los Angeles begins a massive effort to survey their mid-century resources, they have also taken this a step further and have allowed direct community contributions to the survey process as part of a project called “My Historic LA” in which citizens contribute materials (videos, oral histories, etc.) on the sites in their neighborhoods they consider historic. This, then, helps a community to build an identity around a building or groups of building, engaging them with these structures and, hopefully, helping to translate this engagement into active advocacy for the preservation of historic spaces. To further encourage broad community engagement in LA and elsewhere, we discussed the following ideas:

  • training of real estate agents in the basic idea of preservation
  • creating tax incentives for purchasers or “re-users” of any existing historic property, much like the Mills Act does in California
  • positioning of preservation as part of the green movement
  • adding continuing education programs for architects on preservation
  • proactively landmarking structures before they are threatened to be able to have preservation organizations shape tone of future discussions over preservation
A dramatic re-do of a landmark 1955 Claud Beelman building, the Standard Hotel occupies the former Superior Oil Company headquarters.

A dramatic re-do of a landmark 1955 Claud Beelman building, the Standard Hotel occupies the former Superior Oil Company headquarters.

Above all, I think it is important to remember that whatever we do now will help (or hurt) the ways in which the “window” of preservation will make the next jump forward. Hopefully when this happens, the significance of any given structure will outweigh any arbitrary age limitations. How will we handle it when discussions begin over buildings constructed in the 1980s? 90s? Maybe if the above strategies for engagement are started now, it will be easier to read history through “new” new buildings. If a landmarked structure like the otherwise drab headquarters for the former Superior Oil Company can be successfully transformed into a hotel (The Standard) while keeping its landmark status, it must be possible to recycle the built fabric of the past for a new purpose without sacrificing "history" to "progress."

Surprise next stop: Orlando

Seth Tinkham is a self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.

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