As a symbol of luxury in America Beverly Hills likes to think of itself as the tops in many categories. But preservation isn’t one of them. After the recent demolition or planned demolition of three significant properties—John Lautner’s Shusett House, Sidney Eisenshtat’s Friars Club, and Robert Derrah’s Durant Drive Apartments—preservationists, and some locals, have had enough with the city’s lack of preservation laws.
Despite zoning regulations that allow for the listing of significant buildings, the city has no legal protections for historic properties: no preservation ordinance, and not even tax incentives for developers to renovate historic properties. And the city isn’t alone. More than half of LA county’s cities do not have preservation ordinances to protect their historic properties.
“A lot of communities don’t wake up to it until they lose something significant,” said LA Conservancy director of advocacy Adrian Scott Fine.
The first recent loss came in August of last year, when the curving Shusett House (1950), considered one of Lautner’s most important early works, was torn down by its owner, Enrique Manheim. Preservationists, including the John Lautner Foundation, had pleaded with Manheim to keep or even move the house, to no avail. According to Jonathan Lait, Beverly Hills’ Assistant Director for Community Development, discretionary review, which may have looked at the building’s historic significance, is not mandated in the Shusett house’s area of the city.
This January the 1961 Friars’ Club, a windowless, Atomic Age Modern building, one of several important buildings designed by Sidney Eisenshtat, was taken down in the city’s commercial district. The building was the home of famous roasts by the likes of Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr. and Billy Crystal, and was also eligible for listing in the California Register of Historic Places. Eisenshtat was well known for buildings like the city’s Temple Emmanuel. But the building was unprotected by Beverly Hills. According to Lait that project didn’t require review because its owners had presented no proposed project for its site. (When asked if this represented a loophole in the city’s preservation review, Lait replied: “That ‘s how our regulations are.”) The empty site still has no specific plans.
Finally in February Beverly Hills approved the destruction of Derrah’s 1935 Durant Drive apartments, a five-unit colonial building arranged around a generous courtyard, in favor of a 14-unit condo project. Derrah is famous for designing the ebullient Crossroads of the World in Hollywood, among other notable buildings. More than 500 local residents signed a petition against the destruction of the property. While that building did merit a review, the city, said Lait, decided that the need for affordable housing (which the condos will contain a portion of) trumped those of the building.
The LA Conservancy and other groups have called the losses a disaster for the city, and for the legacy of Southern California architecture. “The character of the place can change real quickly if you don’t pay attention,” said Fine. “They’re going to lose what makes the place unique unless they put in some laws that afford some real protection,” added Brian Turner, an attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Western Regional Office.
According to the Beverly Hills’ General Plan, local regulations regarding historic resources are limited to the Beverly Hills Architectural Commission, which has the power to maintain a list of historic landmarks, but holds no authority over saving those properties. The city’s zoning code reinforces the commission’s ability to maintain a list of locally landmarked buildings, which could, for example, hold weight in an environmental review process. But since the code was established in 1975 not a single property has been listed as a historic landmark, said Lait.
“We need to carefully balance the need for preservation with property owner rights,” said Lait, who noted that the definition of a cultural landmark in a city where celebrities have lived in almost every building becomes very difficult. Architectural landmarks, he said, are more straightforward.
Lait says that the city is making strides to improve its preservation rules. On March 1 the city council directed its staff to develop an ordinance to allow local building owners to receive tax incentives for renovation through the Mills Act. Meanwhile the city is investigating a preservation ordinance, but has made no movement yet.
“At present it’s not an active work plan for us, but it is on our future work plan list. It’s something that has been discussed. We have some other things that are ahead of it,” said Lait.
According to the LA Conservancy’s most recent survey, over 50 cities in Los Angeles County lack historic preservation ordinances. “Some communities don’t see it as a fundamental aspect of planning,” said Fine. Many, he adds, assume that they can depend on inclusion on state and national registers for protection. But these lists, he said, are largely honorific. Protecting historic Modernist buildings can be even more challenging, since they don’t always “look” historic, added Fine. “History didn’t stop in 1945,” he noted. A total of about 2,500 cities across the nation have historic preservation ordinances,” said Fine. Los Angeles passed its ordinance back in 1962.
Fine added that the Conservancy would be happy to help Beverly Hills draft its own ordinance. “But it’s up to the leadership to step up,” he said. “It’s not about freezing a community in time. It’s about basic planning so you don’t wipe away the history and character of your community.”