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L.A. Conservancy chief rolls film on efforts to preserve past

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As executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, Linda Dishman leads the fight to preserve architecture that has shaped the life and legacy of Southern California. Preservation for Dishman is about maintaining the narrative: "It's telling the story of Los Angeles through its built environment." We spoke with her in advance of the group's "Last Remaining Seats" film series, which is held annually in historic downtown theaters and kicks off Wednesday at the Los Angeles Theatre.

It seems that preservation is becoming more a part of life in Los Angeles. Do you find there is more acceptance?

Hmmmm [laughing]. I do think we are making progress. Our choir is getting larger, and that's important. There's more awareness that we have historic buildings and more of a range of history. People are reaching out to us, and that certainly wasn't happening 20 years ago. That said, there's still a lot of work to be done. With the return of the economy, for example, there is increased pressure for tear-downs in the neighborhoods.

Is education still the key?

There is a general awareness that Victorian and Craftsman, the traditionally perceived historic resources, have value. We found that people were not understanding '60s architecture. Some people didn't like it; they weren't seeing it as historic. That's why we developed [the program] the Sixties Turn 50. People would say, "Well, it can't be historic because I can remember it being built, so that would mean I'm old." There was a poignant psychology about it.

It's the same with sustainability. We've really worked hard to link sustainability to preservation. People may say, "We want to tear down this old house and build one that's more environmentally friendly." People don't understand the carbon footprint of doing that: It takes 30 to 80 years to make it equal. When you tear a house down, the wood and all the embodied energy have to be trucked somewhere, and you have to create all the new material and truck it to the site. Now there is more appreciation of the value of existing buildings.

How has L.A.'s Historic Preservation Overlay Zone ordinance, which mandated review of proposed exterior renovations in designated neighborhoods, changed the equation?

L.A. is more defined by its residential architecture, and private homes are private. How do you protect that? One of the things I love about the overlay zones, it's a process to become designated. Now we're seeing people specifically want to live in historic neighborhoods, not just because they want the more interesting house but because they also want the sense of community.

You must be gratified when you look at downtown's renaissance.

We worked for so long and saw incremental change. But when we saw the hot bars open up downtown, we said, now we're going. You need the bars and coffee shops; you need the sense of community. There are people everywhere, walking around at night. It is so exciting.

Definitely our [film] series proved the viability of the old movie palaces. People see a movie in a historic theater, and they engage with preservation. You can tell who's walking in for the first time because their jaws drop. This year, we had the opening of the old United Artists theater in the Ace Hotel. They did a spectacular job. Opening the hotel has been a significant catalyst to the revival of South Broadway. With all these other things happening around it, Ace came in and it just exploded. South Broadway is on a phenomenal trajectory now. And that will carry over, north and south.

What's the L.A. Conservancy's priority at the moment?

John Lautner's Paul Weston Work Center in the Valley is certainly top of the list for us. Most of his work was residential, so this is a rare example of a commercial commission. It was a big surprise to us that the city did not pick this up in the initial planning process. We're reaching out to the potential buyer. In general, we look for a win-win solution.

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