Selling Sunset

Tower project pits Gehry against the father of the L.A. Conservancy

Rendering of the 8150 Sunset project designed by Gehry Partners for developers Townscape Partners (Courtesy Visual House)

It’s not often that Los Angeles moves to demolish one of its 1,158 Historic-Cultural Monuments (HCM), a list of relics that includes Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, and three of the city’s majestic Moreton Bay Fig trees. But if developers Townscape Partners had their way, their Gehry Partners–designed 8150 Sunset project could do just that.

The controversial three-tower 8150 Sunset development aims to bring 229 apartments—including 38 low-income homes—and 60,000 square feet of commercial programming to the site of the Lytton Savings bank, a commercial structure with a folded concrete roof designed by local architect Kurt Meyer in 1960, an advocate for architectural preservation in L.A.

Designated HCM no. 1137 on the HCM list, Lytton Savings was recognized in 2016 after Gehry’s project was initially proposed. If demolished, it could be the first time a city monument is intentionally destroyed in 27 years, following the demolition of the A. H. Judson Estate—HCM no. 437—in 1992. The site of the Judson Estate, a mansion designed by George H. Wyman, the architect of L.A.’s Bradbury Building, remains empty to this day. In 1985, the deliciously gaudy Philharmonic Auditorium—HCM #61—in Downtown Los Angeles was also reduced to rubble and remained vacant until 2017.

Black and white photo of modernist building

The historic Lytton Savings bank in Los Angeles has lost a contentious preservation battle and will soon make way for a Frank Gehry-designed mixed-use tower. (Julius Shulman/©J. Paul Getty Trust/Getty Research Institute Julius Shulman/©J. Paul Getty Trust/Getty Research Institute)

This troubling legacy haunts Steven Luftman and Keith Nakata, two preservationists fighting to save Lytton Savings. They have been trying to work out a way to relocate the structure, though a new site and funds to relocate the 180-foot-long building have yet to materialize.

“It’s a long shot, but it’s important to make a try,” Luftman explained while highlighting the lengthy and complicated effort, adding, “The biggest obstacle to moving it is the building’s sheer size.” A recent 180-day grace period to create a plan to move the building expired on April 30, clearing the way for the developers to seek a demolition permit.

Like many buildings in Los Angeles, Lytton Savings has a hotly contested history that goes back to its prior incarnations. The structure was built atop the site of the former Gardens of Allah, a collection of bucolic hotel villas frequented by famous personalities, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Greta Garbo, and Ronald Reagan.

Frank Gehry, however, has no nostalgia for Meyer’s bank. “I came to L.A. when the Gardens of Allah were still there and was witness to [Bart Lytton] tearing them down,” Gehry said. “The way it was done was ruthless.”

Gehry explained that he was bothered by “the history of [how Lytton Savings] got there” and that he “didn’t feel compelled to fight to keep it,” adding, “I offered to live with it, but the client did not want to.”

“Four of my buildings have been torn down without anyone asking,” Gehry added. “It’s kind of a better way to have it happen.”

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