Gail Kennard Makes the Case for Saving Parker Center

Gail Kennard is the daughter of the late Robert Kennard, an African-American architect who practiced in Los Angeles from 1957 until his death in 1995, and she is now president of the Kennard Design Group.

Kennard is also a member of the Cultural Heritage Commission and has joined with her fellow commissioners in supporting efforts to stop the demolition of the 1955 Parker Center LAPD headquarters, designed by Welton Becket.

Why?

Gail Kennard
Gail Kennard sits in her Koreatown office. Photo: Frances Anderton

Gail Kennard is the daughter of the late Robert Kennard, an African-American architect who practiced in Los Angeles from 1957 until his death in 1995.

Twenty-eight years ago Gail left a career in journalism to work with her father, and is now president of the Kennard Design Group, which does public sector work; the firm’s projects include the Metro Atlantic-Pomona Gold Line Station and the 77th Street police facility.

Metro Atlantic-Pomona Gold Line Station, by Kennard Design Group
Metro Atlantic-Pomona Gold Line Station, by Kennard Design Group

She is also a member of the Cultural Heritage Commission and has joined with her fellow commissioners in supporting efforts to stop the demolition of the 1955 Parker Center LAPD headquarters, designed by Welton Becket. The city wants to replace it with a 27-story tower that would consolidate its staff.

Earlier this year the commission nominated Parker Center for historical status, and now the City Council is considering the nomination, a process that does not guarantee preserving the building but certainly stalls the demolition.

But the Parker Center reflects the complicated history of race relations with the police in Los Angeles. So DnA was interested in Gail’s perspective, from her vantage point as an African-American who grew up here, and as daughter of an architect trained in the Modernist style of architecture (he was an alumnus of Victor Gruen), exemplified by the Parker Center.

She started by reminding us that the legacy of the LAPD was very mixed.

Gail Kennard: At the time it was considered a very progressive police force, especially in light of police departments at that time. The LAPD was trying to bring policing into the modern era.

Typically, coming out of the Depression and prohibition, police departments were tainted with scandal, there was a lot of corruption and there were payoffs and all kinds of things.

When William H. Parker became chief in 1950, he decided to create a modern police force that was based on credentials, it wasn’t just based on who you knew who would help you move up the ranks.

Tom Bradley joined the police department in 1940, and by the time Parker came along he was he was really greeted warmly by Bradley and other African-American officers, because at the time, if you were a black officer, in many police forces around the country you couldn’t even wear a uniform. You were relegated to fixing the vehicles or being a janitor.

So it was under Parker that black policemen were able to wear uniforms, and they took on ever more increasing responsibilities to the point that in the 1960s, Parker had appointed Tom Bradley to be head of the Wilshire District police station.

Parker Center, designed by Welton Becket
Parker Center, designed by Welton Becket; photo: Frances Anderton

DnA: Parker Center, named for William Parker after his death in 1966, was considered extremely modern in terms of policing for the time, correct? And now you and a group of people are making the case that Parker Center should not be demolished. Why is that?

GK: Parker Center is significant for a couple of reasons. Number one, it really was a departure in terms of the concept of a modern police force. The police department in Los Angeles was renowned all over the nation and if not the world.

And then also because of the architecture. Welton Becket was one of the premier architects of his era, he designed the Capitol Records Building and the Music Center. His legacy is important, and I think it’s important for us to preserve that.

He used landscape at the entrance, which I think was probably a departure from the typical municipal buildings, and you have lots of windows. There’s also a big auditorium, with a lot of wood paneling, very different from prior police headquarters.

Additionally, because it’s in the center of the Civic Center, the commission has been arguing that it’s really important to look at this all in its totality: City Hall, the new police department that was just built, and how all that fits in with the broader master plan of downtown.

So we need to put the brakes on this for a minute and sit back and look at this in a broader scope.

Protesters outside Parker Center during 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Archive.
Protesters outside Parker Center during 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Archive.

DnA: But Parker Center, even though it’s very definitely a landmark for the reasons you’ve outlined, it also tainted by its darker history as well even though Tom Bradley rose through the ranks. Parker’s LAPD has been criticized for being militarized, for being racist and it became a lightning rod during the Rodney King riots of 1992.

Also, parts of Little Tokyo had to be demolished to make way for it. How do you respond to those that say a building like that we’d be better off without?

GK: It’s totally understandable, and I grew up in Los Angeles, so I understand that history. But I think we need to separate the building from the name of William Parker who was very much disliked by people of color because of his record — which goes back to the Watts riots in 1965 when William Parker was chief of police.

To give you some context for this, in 1965, in the County of Los Angeles, two thirds of blacks lived in the greater Watts area, because of restrictive housing covenants, discrimination in housing and a whole litany of other reasons.

So they were stuck in a situation in which they felt that the LAPD was an occupying force. And sadly, that didn’t really change too much up to 1992, except it broadened it, it became not just black folks it became Hispanic folks and even other ethnicities that felt that way when we got around to the Rodney King incident.

Following the Watts riots in 1965, William Parker just did not understand what was going on. When he was asked to explain the cause of the riots, he said one person had thrown a rock, and then “like monkeys in a zoo others had started throwing rocks.”

So that was very inflammatory; however, it would be unfair for us to judge William Parker through the lens of where we are in 2015. In the times that he lived, he was a very typical, his sentiments that he expressed were very typical, no different than the mayor at the time.

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After World War II, the city of Los Angeles acquired land in Little Tokyo following Japanese Internment. Pictured: “A notice to abate overcrowded and unhealthy conditions was posted by Mayor Fletcher Bowron today as the start of a campaign to clean up conditions in Little Tokyo, formerly occupied by the Japanese Americans, but now providing homes for thousands of war workers. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

DnA: So where does that leave Parker Center? It was progressive architecturally and it was regressive socially in terms of what it represents. Do you get into conversations with people who might say, why would we want to preserve this this legacy of a horrible period?

GK: We need to preserve the past, so we don’t repeat the negative aspects of the past. We don’t want to destroy that history, as complicated as it was.

If we destroy that history, future generations will discount it, they won’t understand it. So what I would advocate for, is that the whole history be told. That includes the positive contributions that William Parker made, but also the negative influence that that he had. In the same way that in the south today is commemorating the the march in Selma.

There are museums that want to preserve those drinking fountains that said, for white and colored. You don’t want to destroy those things, as distasteful and negative as they are, because you want the next future generations to understand that this is why there was a civil rights movement, this is why there are always calls to reform the police department up until the present day. Case in point: the Ferguson, Missouri issue with the killing of an unarmed black man, which happens here with the LAPD as well.

DnA: Are you and the commission advocating for a particular use for Parker Center, were it to be preserved?

GK: The building is owned by the city, and the city has plans to demolish the building and build a tower there for city workers. We don’t really have any say in the ultimate use, but it could be very easily adaptively reused for office space by city departments.

And Parker Center is important in the context of preserving the city core, especially the governmental part in the buildings around city hall.

There are some significant architects that helped design those buildings. Richard Neutra, Paul Williams, Welton Becket, Albert C. Martin–we have some really amazing architects from Los Angeles that did great work in the city core and we need to preserve them.

From the Department of Water and Power down to City Hall there’s a corridor past the Music Center. Grand Park, which just recently opened up, has become a really great public space that attempts to tie those structures together.

So there’s a really great effort to tie all these buildings of different eras and different functions together so you have some cohesion in the downtown, and we need to continue that.

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77th Street LAPD Police Facility

DnA: Has your firm designed any police stations?

GK: In the 1980s there was a police bond that taxpayers passed in Los Angeles to build new police stations. And one of the oldest that was in really bad disrepair was the 77th Street Police Station.

It’s in south central L.A. on Broadway between Florence and Manchester, and it was the staging ground for the police officers who were patrolling Watts during the riots in 1965; there was a really bad vibe with that building, and they there were lots of folks who were beaten up there for all kinds of things that were very unjustified.

There was a move to demolish it. So my father was approached to be the architect for that facility, and he knew about this history and he was really hesitant at the time to take on this commission.

It was a really sensitive site, and as an African-American firm we have certain things that we don’t do. We don’t design prisons.

He talked to (then) Councilmember Rita Walters, and she met with him and the community members, and because they really wanted a change there, he took on the commission to design it, and it was actually one of the last projects that he had before he died. So he designed the building, and when they dedicated the building in 1997, they dedicated the community room in his name.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Listen up for Tuesday’s DnA for an interview with Gail Kennard and others about the debate over the  future of Parker Center. And hear more about what’s at stake this Sunday when the LA Conservancy hosts a panel discussion about the building.

Do you think Parker Center should be saved or demolished? Let us know in the comments.