Recently, I read in the L.A. Times that the former home of Ira Gershwin was being demolished by the new owner so he could build his own dream mansion.
The preservationists were aghast, up in arms. How could you tear down the 8,000 square foot house where one of the last century’s great lyricists had once lived?
Don’t get me wrong, I personally loved “The Man Who Got Away” and many other Gershwin hit songs. I couldn’t care less, however, about the home he once lived in. He wasn’t born there. He didn’t die there, and we don’t know how many, if any, hit tunes he wrote when he lived there.
The whole concept of landmark and historic status has, I think, grown to somewhat ridiculous heights. Trying to preserve untold numbers of homes and buildings that some feel have some kind of historic value has been carried to the extreme.
An owner of a designated historic site has some potential benefits in the form of public recognition—the right to post a plaque, some tax credits and/or outright funds for specific improvements, all of which varies depending on the government entity, i.e., city, county, state, federal authority who provides the designation.
On the other hand, there are certain restrictions imposed by each level of governmental authority on buildings and/or residences which are granted historic designations. More on that later.
Let’s take a look at the scope of historic designations; a few sites having been granted and/or seeking recognition as a historic landmark:
- Henry’s Tacos in North Hollywood, CA
- The Post Office in South Gate, CA
- John’s Evangelical Church in Chicago, IL
- 5 Firehouses in New York City (1 or 2 aren’t enough)
- La Tuna Canyon in Sunland, CA
- Sears Dept. Store in Santa Monica, CA
The City of Los Angeles alone has over 1,000 historic cultural monuments, which include among the most well known:
- Biltmore Hotel
- San Antonio Winery
- A&M Records Studio
- California Club Building
- Bullock’s Wilshire Building
- Pacific RR Depot
- Grauman’s Chinese Theater
- Angel’s Flight
- A. Central Library
- Bradbury Building
Some of these may be appropriate, but how many of the other 990 listings do you think might really be worthy? The National Trust for Historic Preservation lists 220,000 sites, a number of which are in need of heavy financial support for renovation and upgrading before anyone can be allowed to see them.
It’s one thing for existing building owners to want to acquire some form of landmark status, we can assume they are willing to live with whatever restrictions may apply as a tradeoff for the benefits they hope to enjoy.
New potential buyers on the other hand need to be very sure about what they’re thinking of buying.
Here are two examples:
Castle Jeans wanted loft space for an office and a small production facility. They found some space to rent that they thought would meet their needs.
The building was for sale, though, and they were concerned about the long-term stability of a rental in a building for sale.
The owner of Castle told his parents about his dilemma and they jumped to the rescue by becoming the new owners of the building. Okay so far!
After a while, Castle fell on hard times and was about to go BK. The owners/parents found a bank who wanted to move in and remodel, including an ATM on the outside.
Sorry, the building had a landmark designation (they didn’t know) which prohibited any change on the outside façade. Result: No deal!
The second example really irks me every time I drive by. It’s the Aero Theater, a single-screen theater on 14th Street and Montana in Santa Monica. It opened in 1940. It showed second rounds of first-run movies. We went several times to see movies after their opening runs.
They began to have less success and closed down in the early 2000’s. Because it had a landmark designation, it proved impossible to find a new owner who didn’t want to do extensive remodeling.
Finally, in 2004, the non-profit American Cinematheque, offshoot of the Filmax Film Festival, bought the property as a sister to their main efforts at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.
They currently show old, sometimes classic movies and sometimes television. Have no idea whether it is currently a successful business model. The major point is we lost a welcome movie theater and/or a new modern business because profit-making owners could not live with the restrictions on a designated landmark.
How about the old Sears store in Santa Monica, now closed for lack of business? It’s an old dumpy retail store. What historical reference does it serve? What is being preserved?
Maybe it’s time to be a little more judicious about handing out all those historic and landmark designations.