'If they're old enough to be torn down, they're old enough to be preserved.' : '50s Buildings Near 'Historic' Status

Times Staff Writer

Just east of Century City, the apartment house at the corner of Vidor and Beverly Green drives appears unassuming enough. On two sides, the faded white paint on the walls is obscured by a dense fence of foliage. From the courtyard, the view is of green corrugated plastic and unadorned steel beams.

By Jan. 31, the last three tenants must leave so the building can be razed and a new condo complex constructed. They will not go willingly; they have been comfortable. Despite the modest appearance of the place, they say, the tiny units were artfully designed with lots of storage and private patios or balconies for everyone.

But it is not just the tenants who want to save the building, which was known as the Colby when it was built between 1950 and 1952.

This early example of the California garden apartment has drawn the interest of a new breed of preservationists, who are stretching the definition of historic. No longer do they concentrate solely on adobe missions, antebellum manors, gingerbread Victorians and Art Deco palaces.

In Los Angeles and across the country, a growing number of scholars, government officials and architects are intent on enshrining the ordinary. They tout special landmark status for a host of post-World War II structures, from a 25-year-old Berkeley Safeway to a glassy skyscraper erected in downtown Minneapolis just 16 years ago. They are preserving a '50s business district in Albuquerque's Nob Hill and a 1957 Phillips 66 station, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, near Duluth.

'A Lot of Fun Involved'

In Southern California, they have convinced the conservative National Register of Historic Places that a 1953 McDonald's in Downey is eligible for listing. They talk of making the Four-Level Interchange a monument and rhapsodize about "a terrific Ralphs in Burbank." Often, these efforts on behalf of the recent past are greeted with--to put it politely--great skepticism. "I'm sure the public is not sure whether the advocates are serious," said John Merritt, executive director of the California Preservation Foundation. The issue is divisive within preservation circles as well.

But those who have enlisted in the movement insist that their mission is far from frivolous. They cite the dizzying pace of demolition and reconstruction in today's urban landscape, which depletes the nation's stock of 1950s and early 1960s buildings--buildings that reflect the rise of the American middle class in their fascination with new technology and leisure time.

Those were prosperous, optimistic days. Everyone had a chance to lead the good life. More and more families could buy a house and a car and maybe take to the road for a vacation each year. Meanwhile, the scientists in their labs were researching the way to an even brighter future.

The buildings leave no doubt that that was the way it seemed. In the private spaces, from the Colby in Los Angeles to the Hollin Hills subdivision near Alexandria, Va., architects used new techniques with steel beams and glass walls to frame lush outdoor landscaping in a way that seemed to magically bring vast forests inside the smallest homes.

"The idea was you could have mass-produced houses, but they could be beautiful," said Katherine W. Rinne, research director for the architectural firm Pereira Associates and who has written about '50s architecture for the Los Angeles Conservancy, a local preservationist group. "The outdoor space is the one luxury, they realized, that must be provided. You can't buy the garden if it's not there. You could build cheaply and build well, though much of the work is very modest."

In contrast, the public places were not subtle. The loud colors and Space Age gull-wing shapes of the drive-ins, coffee shops and motels of the era were exuberant appeals to drivers whizzing by in their automobiles. The very existence of such structures meant that the masses had spare money to spend on sheer fun. Life was not all that serious all the time.

Even the most ardent '50s and '60s preservationist does not try to argue that the buildings are beautiful. (Some add, however, that tastes may someday change: "Victorians were once considered ugly and excessive," said Alan Hess, an architecture critic and author of a book on coffee-shop design.)

The focus is on their possibilities as artifacts, not art. "Sure it means nothing right now, but 100 years down the road, these (buildings) will be invaluable," said Robert Mawson, a former official of the National Trust for Historic Preservation involved in the recent-past movement. "They speak to a time we're fast leaving."

Increasingly, such 20- and 30-year-old buildings have been demolished or remodeled beyond recognition. John A. Jakle, a geography professor at the University of Illinois, believes that the landscape began turning over more rapidly because of changes in the tax structure during the 1950s that favored the use of cheaper materials and a relatively brief period of ownership. When investors sold out, the buyers decided as often as not to get rid of the structure and make use of the land. The result: "You run the risk of losing a whole generation of architecture," Jakle said.

L.A. Emphasis on Car

To aficionados of '50s and '60s buildings, the conclusion seems clear. "If they're old enough to be torn down," said Jay M. Oren, staff architect for the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, "they're old enough to be preserved."

Los Angeles is one of the most important lodes of '50s and '60s buildings, many of the recent-past enthusiasts say.

The city began its boom in the postwar era and carried the new emphasis on the car to unheard-of extremes. And important architects practiced here, with many participating in the Case Study Program sponsored by the magazine Arts and Architecture.

The Case Study houses, designed to provide quality housing at affordable prices using technology developed during the war, were "international news," Rinne said. The Museum of Contemporary Art plans a 1989 exhibit about the Case Study Program that "is going to focus an incredible amount of attention on Los Angeles," she added.

Rinne is one of the founders of the Fifties Task Force, formed three years ago by the Los Angeles Conservancy to survey the area for valuable buildings erected between the end of World War II and 1963.

CBS Television City

The task force found gems throughout the basin: a Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake, a Case Study house in Pacific Palisades designed by Charles Eames, the Los Angeles International Airport Theme Building and the Adolph's (as in meat tenderizer) Office Building, near Universal City, which features an interior that is authentic '50s down to the typewriters.

One of Rinne's favorites is CBS Television City in the Fairfax District, which opened in 1952. Its white concrete and black steel grid work housed the first facility tailored to the needs of TV broadcasting.

"I want to nominate Disneyland" for historic status, Rinne said. "It's a national monument. I think Disneyland is an incredible piece of planning."

In some cases, the task force has succeeded in getting the Los Angeles City Council to share its perspective. The Laurelwood Apartments, designed by Richard Schindler and built in Studio City in 1947, have joined the '20s Spanish Colonials and the '30s Art Decos on the city's roll of historic-cultural monuments.

The Colby, however, was narrowly rejected in October, though it was the only apartment house designed by another renowned architect, Raphael S. Soriano. The Cultural Heritage Commission had recommended designating the Colby a monument. But owner Tina Bow objected.

'Rusted and Dirty'

Bow said she had invested millions in her condominium proposal over the last eight years. "I'll build something gorgeous, something up-to-date like people want," she said in an interview. "A clean environment, nice living surroundings, convenient bathrooms." She called the Colby "rusted and dirty."

On an 8-7 vote, the council agreed with Bow.

Nationally, campaigns on behalf of such recent "relics" have also generated such mixed reactions.

In Cape May County, N.J., for example, preservationist Dane Wells took some members of the recent-past movement on a tour of hundreds of motels in and around the beach resort of Wildwood. "They thought they'd died and gone to heaven," Wells recalled, when they saw the gaudy pinks and greens and yellows, the glowing neon signs and, to cap it all off, the establishments' names: the Telstar, the Friendship 7.

The resulting interest in a historic district covering Wildwood completely surprised people such as Robert C. Patterson, executive director of the county Chamber of Commerce. He considers the motels "modern-day properties. I can remember when most of them were built.

"Maybe I just don't want to admit how old I've gotten," he said, sighing. "You know, I always think of historic things as being close to 100 years old." Most locals apparently agree.

50-Year Requirement

It would be difficult, too, to convince the National Register of Historic Places that Wildwood deserves designation as a special place. The register, administered by the National Park Service, generally requires historic districts or structures to be at least 50 years old.

"Without that much time, the scholarship isn't available to really try to understand the buildings in a broader perspective," said Patrick Andrus, a National Register historian in Washington. "We can't just jump ahead of the scholarship and start making decisions based upon intuition."

Nevertheless, there have been a few exceptions. Of the Register's 40,000 listings, Andrus estimated, a few thousand date from after World War II.

Most have something to do with the space race, including a simulator at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena and testing facilities at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Cape Canaveral Tower

Even the prestige of a Register listing, however, is no guarantee of protection for posterity. The Cape Canaveral launch tower for the 1969 Apollo mission to the moon has been dismantled. Activists won a settlement in court to keep NASA from selling it for scrap. But they failed to keep their part of the bargain: to raise enough money to put the structure back up.

Pleas for cash were met with resounding apathy from preservationists throughout the nation, said Robert Mawson, who headed Save the Apollo Launch Tower Inc.

"If we had put up a nice Colonial facade around it, maybe it would have different," he said, still bitter about the experience. "The last thing this world needs is another nice Colonial mansion."

He said he believes that it is never too early to start saving material for the historians of the future.

"We ought to go to a 1988 home with everything in it," he said, "and pay off the family, have them just leave. And then we should just keep it intact."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 7, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction A story about post-World War II buildings in The Times on Monday incorrectly identified the architect of the Laurelwood Apartments in Studio City. The architect was Rudolph M. Schindler.
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