Preservationists, Tenants Fight to Save Laurelwood

Times Staff Writer

The paint is peeling, the roof leaks and plaster is falling off the walls. But tenants of Laurelwood Apartments in Studio City say their building is worth fighting to save.

The apartment complex, designed in 1948 by noted Southern California architect Rudolph M. Schindler, is once again the focus of a dispute between historical preservationists and a real estate investor, who hopes to demolish the buildings in order to build condominiums.

Tenants said they will meet next week to develop a strategy to save their apartments after hearing that building owner Steve Hartunian has filed for a demolition permit with the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department.

"We're going to fight tooth and nail, and we'll fight on as many fronts as it takes," said Gordon Warnick, who has lived at Laurelwood for 12 years.

It is a battle that many tenants have already fought.

In 1980, the former owners of Laurelwood, which consists of two buildings at 11833 and 11837 Laurelwood Drive, tried to demolish the apartments. But pressure from tenants and preservationists helped save the buildings from wrecking crews.

Unique Angular Style

The hillside complex, overlooking Ventura Boulevard, has been heralded by architects as one of Schindler's best works, reflecting a unique post-World War II angular style. No two units are alike, and the apartment has been called one of the best examples of hillside development because of its unobtrusive design.

The 22-unit apartment building was declared a Los Angeles cultural historic landmark in 1980, a classification that can delay but not spare it from demolition.

Hartunian, president of Empire Properties in Sherman Oaks, said he bought it in 1984 for about $900,000 and put it on the block about a year later.

Ruth Ann Lehrer, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group, said she is outraged that Hartunian is planning to level Laurelwood. She is trying to find a buyer who would preserve the apartment complex.

The search has not been successful, primarily because Hartunian has set a selling price of $2.5 million. Lehrer said she has found buyers who would pay up to $1.5 million.

"The clock is ticking on the Laurelwood, and his only worries are his business interests," Lehrer said of Hartunian. "He's just in it for the bucks, just trying to get the best bang for his buck. It's very disturbing that he can't be a little more sensitive to the past."

Looking for 'Sensitive' Buyer

Hartunian said in an interview that he tried to find a "sensitive" buyer for about six months "on a very quiet basis," but no one came forward.

"We don't want to demolish the old place, but it's looking like it'll come down," Hartunian said. "We haven't given up, but it's looking pretty futile."

Hartunian said the 1.4-acre site, which includes a smaller non-Schindler apartment house next door, could accommodate as many as 59 condominiums.

The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission has put a hold on Hartunian's demolition application until September. If commissioners determine that there is a "valid preservation effort" to save Laurelwood, they could extend their hold for another 180 days, commission spokeswoman Nancy Fernandez said.

Complaints of Maintenance

Meanwhile, tenants complain that Hartunian is not adequately maintaining their apartments. Further, a plaque they bought and attached to a wall facing the street identifying the apartment as a Schindler work was ordered removed by the property management company hired by Hartunian, tenant Wendy Ferris said.

"The place is just falling apart," Ferris said. "We lived through one of the wettest winters last year and practically all of our roofs leaked constantly. The roofs still haven't been fixed."

Tenant Steve Warnick said residents will canvass the neighborhood to drum up support for their apartment. A block party has been planned, and Ferris said: "We have other plans that we don't want to talk about yet or Hartunian might try to undercut them."

In addition, Lehrer said she is trying to persuade city officials to downzone the property to prevent construction of a large development on the site, which is surrounded primarily by single-family homes.

City Councilman Joel Wachs, whose district includes Studio City, does not want the apartment razed and will "do what he can" to save it, but that might not be enough, said Mark Siegel, Wachs' spokesman.

"The problem in this case is one of ownership," Siegel said. "If you own the Mona Lisa and want to take a knife to it, that's up to you."

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