Like others negotiating the curves and the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, Bradley Weidmaier drove past the shabby Sunspot motel in Pacific Palisades many times with hardly a second glance. But about a month ago his research for a master's degree in architectural history took him to the motel's entrance for a closer look.
What he learned there led him to start a campaign to designate the Sunspot an official city historic monument. The issue has pitted Weidmaier, with backing from the Los Angeles Conservancy, against the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and City Councilman Marvin Braude. It is a battle over how far preservation efforts should go, especially if they block needed city projects--in this case an ambitious plan to halt a landslide and build a park in the canyon behind the city-owned motel.
To Weidmaier and the conservancy, the Sunspot is symbolic of the type of building that is drawing increasing attention from preservationists: more American in style and more recently constructed than the traditional image of a historic edifice. The 12-room motel, designed in 1938 by two prominent Los Angeles architects, was among the first to offer a full range of services--from restaurant to gas station to garage space--for Americans beginning their love affair with the car and the open road.
The Sunspot has been closed for more than a year to all but the occasional film crew on location. The dusty beige stucco and the green trim have faded. Flimsy material, illustrated with brown palm trees against an orange sunset, has been stapled over the grimy windows. The rooms smell of mildew.
But the important elements of the Sunspot's former glory are still intact. The siting and detail by Burton Alexander Schutt and A. Quincy Jones make the motel "a brilliantly orchestrated complex," wrote Weidmaier in his application to the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, which will consider the matter Wednesday.
Architectural magazines of the day agreed. The motel, which opened as Carl's Sea Air, was featured in a San Francisco-based publication and in a New York periodical.
Until then, motor hotels had generally been bungalow courts or outlandish theme projects, such as Rialto's Wigwam Village motel with 19 enormous stucco tepees.
This motel was different--a streamlined V-shaped building, its two wings nestled snugly against the line of the bluffs where Potrero Canyon opens to the ocean. The public areas were close to the road, the sleeping rooms on a second story away from the traffic streaming by on what was then known as Roosevelt Highway. Motel guests, shielded from the cars' noise and fumes, could relax in the rear garden and look at the canyon beyond. Or they could gaze out the angled front windows of their rooms at a sweeping ocean vista.
"We're just beginning to understand some of this commercial architecture," said David G. Cameron, a director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation advocacy group that has endorsed Weidmaier's efforts. "It takes a while for the general public to appreciate this."
The Sunspot may be a harbinger of preservation efforts to come, Cameron said. The conservancy has established what it calls its Fifties Task Force--though buildings from as early as the 1930s are being included--to investigate other recent examples of commercial architecture that should be protected from demolition or substantial remodeling. Cameron said he expects the task force's nominations for historic status to be "interesting and even controversial."
Certainly the Sunspot application is controversial. Braude, whose 11th District includes the Palisades, wrote to the Cultural Heritage Commission, "I strongly assure you (the motel) has no historical value to remotely justify a designation. . . . Those of us who support historical designations need to be reassured that your commission will promptly reject blatantly inappropriate" applications.
Braude, along with city parks officials, is concerned that a historic designation for the Sunspot could mean a costly delay--and perhaps an end--to the canyon project, which is coming to fruition after more than 20 years of planning.
The city has already paid $7 million for about 20 houses that are falling into the undeveloped canyon from high above the Sunspot. About 200 homes line the canyon's rim.
The city wants to halt the slide by filling the canyon with 1 million cubic yards of dirt to a height of about 75 feet and topping the soil with a park and trails linking the Pacific Palisades Recreation Center to the beach.
In March, the city received approval from the California Coastal Commission for the first phase of the attempt to stop the slide, installation of a storm drain to reduce water runoff. Based on bids received last month, that phase will cost about $4.2 million, said Joel Breitbart, the parks department's assistant general manager for planning and development.
The motel's perfect fit against the canyon's walls leaves no space for trucks to pass into the canyon to work on the drain. So the city, which acquired the building in a mid-1960s land swap with Occidental Petroleum Corp., plans to demolish the east wing garages and move the five rooms on the second story about 30 feet to a new foundation. The gas station also would be torn down.
"The storm drain could be built from the top of the canyon down," Breitbart said. "But the residents were opposed to that" because it would mean heavy equipment rumbling through the narrow Palisades streets. Indeed, the Coastal Commission required the city to use the coast highway entrance to the canyon.
The motel's west wing would also change significantly under the city's plans. Andy M. Camacho, the owner of Olvera Street's El Paseo restaurant, has been selected to remodel and reopen the Sunspot restaurant. Camacho will have a three-year lease with an option to extend for another three years.
Revenue from Camacho's business and from a long-term contractor after the storm drain and park are finished is expected to pay for the construction and for an overpass across the highway to the sand.
Camacho, who is out of the country, and his architect were unavailable for comment. But Keith Fitzgerald, a parks department planner working with Camacho, said, "You have to weigh the needs of this concession to keep up with the times. As a matter of fact, we are sensitive to the structure of this hotel. But today one of the popular motifs is early California. That would all be cosmetic changes."
If the Sunspot is granted historic monument status, these changes could not take place without delays of up to a year to give potential buyers who would preserve the building a chance to step forward, Deputy City Atty. Mark Brown said. The City Council will have final authority over the issue.
"If this project were put off for a year, there are two very obvious consequences," Breitbart said. "One is the storm drain wouldn't be built for a year, and therefore there is potential for landslides. . . . And it would be reasonable to assume that a year from now it would cost more."
Fitzgerald added, "I think there comes a point when you just have to say that you cannot retard progress in Southern California for just some business that has some significance. Where do you draw the line, a furniture store? A grocery store?"
Such talk angers Weidmaier, who is a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. "That's a very narrow, snobbish attitude," he said. "I don't know why everything commercial should be considered dirty."
To him, the proposed changes to the Sunspot are "like advocating that with a Matisse or a Gauguin, the picture should be shortened or the face should be changed. It's something grotesque."