How To Prevent Historic Places from Slipping Through the Preservation Net

Ken Bernstein of Los Angeles Department of City Planning outlines how preservationists can identify -- and perhaps save -- buildings of historic-cultural significance.

Ray Bradbury House
Ray Bradbury’s Cheviot Hills home, as displayed on Results Real Estate Group.

Many preservationists and sci-fi fans are mourning the loss of Ray Bradbury’s home of over 50 years in Cheviot Hills. It was torn down by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne and his wife Blythe Alison-Mayne who had bought the site to make way for a new home in the leafy, affluent neighborhood east of the 405.

So while it is too late to save Bradbury’s residence, are there any steps a preservationist in Los Angeles can take to try and prevent this from occurring in the future? DnA spoke to Ken Bernstein (right), Principal Planner and Manager of the Office of Historic Resources for the City of Los Angeles, about how to flag an LA building as a historic-cultural monument.

DnA: Everybody’s looking to you for answers for those who cared very much about Ray Bradbury’s legacy. From your perspective as someone who cares so deeply about LA’s historic resources, what was your reaction to the demolishment of Ray Bradbury’s house? 

Ken Head Shot Portrait 2014Ken Bernstein: Well, I was tremendously disappointed to hear of the demolition, and this was an unfortunate sequence of events. We’ve been undertaking for many years a city-wide survey of historic resources, SurveyLA, which is a partnership between Los Angeles and the Getty, to get out ahead of these types of situations, to be able to inform planners, policymakers, and prospective buyers or property owners alike when there are places that have tremendous architectural, or in this case, cultural significance. What’s disappointing here is that we did conduct our field survey of the West Los Angeles area and this is in the Cheviot Hills community which is in West Los Angeles, and this did not come up on our radar.

We do significant public outreach in advance of going out there and conducting those field surveys, and this had not been raised by anyone in advance of our conducting the field surveys, so it was a house that we missed quite frankly, that it was not significant architecturally, and no one had brought it to our attention, even though we have identified many other homes that have literary associations. When we surveyed the Pacific Palisades area, the homes associated with authors such as Henry Miller, or Thomas Mann, or some of the other expatriate cultural figures on the westside were brought to our attention, and that was not the case here. To be able to identify it upfront and use that as a jumping off point to start to have a conversation about preservation.

DnA: Is it based largely off of interviews within the community, or do you also tap groups in Los Angeles that are particularly concerned with a particular type of building or cultural figure?

KB: Yes, all of the above are things that we have done. And we’ve done extensive outreach both to local community groups, neighborhood councils, every neighborhood council in the city. We had a whole social media campaign and a website called “My Historic LA” that was really focused on getting people across the city to identify places such as this, that may not be obvious, the hidden gems of each community, that may have some deeper social and cultural associations.

But obviously the survey is only as good as the information that comes into it. And while we’ve identified many many other such places, this was one that had not been identified. I think there was some awareness just very recently, there had been some press accounts that the house was up for sale after our survey was completed, and I know that The LA Conservancy and other groups had become aware very late that the home was potentially in danger, but there were no protections in place, no one brought forward a nomination of the site, as a city historic-cultural monument.

So the demolition in many ways really is another wake-up call to all of us in the preservation community, whether on the governmental side or on the advocacy side, to get out in front of these these type of potential situations before you have a threat to bring us nominations of sites that are significant.

That way we can consider them and to make certain that the survey that we’re doing is fully complete. It’s always a work in progress and we’re always willing to take new information that might have been missed up front. So we welcome groups across the city to bring up information on sites that have deep cultural significance or have importance to the social history of the city so that they become part of our citywide survey and we can alert potential buyers or owners that these types of sites have significance before they consider redevelopment or demolition.

DnA: Is the survey something that people can reach online? When you say it’s kind of an ongoing process, what exactly does that mean?

KB: Well, it is available online. We have the survey findings available at SurveyLA.org. So there’s lots of ways to access this information that we look forward to continuing to work with the public to to make certain that all of L.A. is covered and that we are identifying all the significant places across the city.

Norms
Norms; courtesy Patricksmercy, Flickr

DnA: Now hypothetically, were you to have been alerted to the presence of the late Ray Bradbury’s home, what  could you have done or what could the community have done short of buying the house?

KB: Well, a nomination could have been submitted for the home as a city historic-cultural monument, and over the last several days there has been a situation much like that for Norm’s La Cienega (right) , a very different type of resource, but a 1950’s Googie-Style coffee shop modern example designed by the firm Armet and Davis. That was identified as significant in our survey, that was certainly on our radar but it did not have any formal protection in place and the building has changed hands and in fact the demolition permit was issued at the beginning of January for that for that structure.

So we have been considering a historic cultural monument application and that was submitted by the Los Angeles Conservancy; and as of last week that was formally taken under consideration by the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission which puts in place a stay on any demolition activity — even though the demolition permits been issued — while the city council considers it its potential designation.

DnA: Now it’s been argued by some that if Cheviot Hills neighborhood had been an HPOZ, that might have deterred what happened with Ray Bradbury’s house. Is that a fair speculation?

KB: Yes an HPOZ is our bureaucratic name for what’s commonly called a historic district in many cities or here the historic preservation overlay zone, which is a designation for a historic neighborhood making it is difficult to demolish homes so yes, it would have provided that type of protection.

However, we did consider Cheviot Hills as a potential historic district in our survey and unfortunately there have been many alterations to a number of the homes in Cheviot Hills, there been many second story additions and other alterations and that the judgment of our survey team was that it was no longer eligible as a cohesive historic district, meaning that it didn’t meet the criteria for designation as an HPOZ, although it was flagged that we might as planners in the city want to consider other types of measures to preserve the overall neighborhood character of Cheviot Hills. But we felt it didn’t quite make the cut as an eligible HPOZ.

DnA: I have to say driving around Cheviot Hills I got the impression there were quite a few McMansions.

KB: A lot of that unfortunately has happened, and I think the last five to ten years we’re seeing this throughout the city and as a planning department we’re trying to get out in front of this by putting forward two interim control ordinances in the city that would essentially freeze new demolition activity or McMansions in many neighborhoods across the city. There are five areas that are being considered as new HPOZs and about a dozen other neighborhoods that need more tailored anti-mansionization controls. And so those two proposed ordinances should be going to the city council in the next month to create a little bit of a breathing period so that as a city we can really get a more permanent handle on this mansionization trend throughout Los Angeles.

DnA: Is there a distinction to be made between a building of architectural merit and a building of cultural merit. And how does one make that assessment?

KB: Well, it’s a great question, and we have really tried as a preservation program in Los Angeles and through our city wide survey to make certain that that preservation is not only about preserving the architectural wonders of the city but also about those places that have cultural significance. And in many ways Los Angeles has always done this.

I sometimes point out that we have one of the earliest historic preservation ordinances in the country going back to 1962, and we’ve always called them not landmarks, but historic dash cultural monuments  — a recognition that preservation really is about preserving places of cultural significance and we’ve done that for a long time. I think obviously the Ray Bradbury House would have been a wonderful candidate for such designation, but we have many other sites that are designated for their cultural significance.

One that immediately comes to mind is a small restaurant and club space on ocean front walk in Venice, that was called the Venice West cafe. It’s a very modest space on an Ocean Front Walk — not at all significant architecturally, but it was associated with the beach culture of the 1950s and early 1960s with a hangout for Alan Ginsburg and Jim Morrison and many others that made Venice along with San Francisco a centerpiece of early beach culture. We have the Charles Bukowski apartments in Hollywood associated with a very different type of literary figure from Ray Bradbury certainly, but an apartment building that figured heavily in Bukowski’s work on Los Angeles, again a site with little or no architectural distinction but designated as a city historic-cultural monument, because of that literary and cultural association.

DnA: Finally, assuming Ray Bradbury’s house would have been worth preserving, who then foots the bill?

KB: Well, that’s that’s always the question. I think what we found in many other circumstances is that, yes, while there may  beconcern from the property owner at a given moment about calls to preserve a historic structure, preservation actually adds value.

We’ve seen that throughout the city. We’re seeing a growing trend of course of adaptive reuse whether for larger commercial buildings for housing in downtown or for the growing tech corridor that’s emerging on the Westside where the Howard Hughes campus and the reuse of some of the historic Howard Hughes buildings has an added economic value to those properties and really become an economic attractor for some of the most cutting edge companies in in the world coming to Los Angeles and occupying some of these historic buildings for residences.

We do see that historic preservation does add value. Homes in our historic district tend to appreciate at a higher value than homes in neighborhoods that don’t have that type of designation and even places like the Bukowski apartments which I mentioned while the property owner at the time of designation did not want to preserve it, ultimately the complex was rehabilitated and actually marketed using the Bukowski name, and the association adds cachet and interest to potential potential residents. So we do think that historic preservation traditionally does add value.

Update to this article: On February 24, the Getty Conservation Institute and the City of Los Angeles launched HistoricPlacesLA.org, described in the Los Angeles Times as “the first digital portal designed to inventory, map and contextualize the city’s cultural heritage sites.” The interactive site allows users to search for places of historic importance by neighborhood or by categories, such as Modernism, the entertainment industry and pre-1900 L.A. The system contains about 25,000 resources, including 29 L.A. Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, 430 historic districts, 1,065 L.A. Historic Cultural Monuments and 300 places designated by the National Register of Historic Places.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.