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Old Buildings Get New Respect

To step into Dan Furuya’s downtown martial arts studio is to step from the racket of a rundown industrial district into the serenity of a 17th-Century Japanese teahouse. A narrow doorway that once led from a loading platform into the former Los Angeles Post Office Annex now points the way to a straw-matted pavilion dedicated to the instruction of aikido.

Having outlived its usefulness as a postal sorting station, the 70-year-old structure has been reincarnated and now serves as a training hall, or dojo , where Furuya instructs his disciples in the mysteries of “the way to harmony.”

The rebirth of the once-abandoned 2nd Street Annex is typical of the architectural recycling occurring citywide, say observers, noting that such “adaptive reuse” preserves not only solidly built and often historic structures but a sense of the city’s past as well.

Contributing to its rise has been a reversal of the sentiment that new means good--what Walt Whitman called “the pull-down-and-build-over-again spirit” that prevailed after World War II. Worship of the new, most succinctly expressed in Henry Ford’s dictum that “history is more or less bunk,” is now giving way to a reverence for the past and its valuable artifacts. No longer are appealing old buildings being bulldozed in the name of “urban renewal,” only to be replaced by often graceless and remorselessly anti-historical structures, says architect Brenda Levin, who has supervised restoration of several local historic landmarks.

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The permutations of adaptive reuse are endless: A warehouse in Little Tokyo becomes the Museum of Contemporary Art’s now-permanent Temporary Contemporary gallery. An old bank building on Spring Street is transformed into the Los Angeles Theatre Center. A stock exchange evolves into a disco. Historic fire stations find new lives as restaurants or community arts centers.

An abandoned brewery is converted into affordable designers’ studios. A church takes over an outdated Downtown office building. A Watts industrial building is reborn as housing for minority artists. And an old brick workshop marooned among rail yards serves as the permanent location for a TV series supposedly set in New York City.

According to Barbaralee Diamondstein, author of “Remaking America: New Uses, Old Places,” adaptive reuse has become a national phenomenon in the last decade. “The insistence on preserving our past, on recycling rather than razing our built environment is here to stay,” she predicts.

What propels the movement, observers say, is a mix of sentiment and economic sense. Since the mid-1970s, historic preservation, helped by liberal tax breaks, has attracted more than $11 billion in private investment, says Diamondstein.

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“Destroying old buildings that still have a lot of life to live is foolish,” notes Ed Avila, president of the Los Angeles Public Works Commission. “The passion to raze the past has been very damaging to every city in the U.S.”

Flattening ‘Fine Old Streets’

It was that passion that led to the flattening of “the fine old streets on Bunker Hill in the late 1950s and early ‘60s,” says Ed Helfeld, former administrator of the Community Redevelopment Agency. “If Bunker Hill had preserved its urban neighborhoods instead of bulldozing them, we would now have less of a struggle to attract the middle classes to live downtown. Young professional families, for instance, would have had the opportunity to buy up and renovate old houses relatively cheaply, as has happened in the revival of Baltimore’s, Chicago’s and other U.S. cities’s urban cores.”

Not all buildings that have been adaptively reused are great architecture. Some, like the former Post Office Annex, are simply solid and still-useful structures. Others, like former Engine House No. 18 on Hobart Boulevard in South-Central Los Angeles, now a community center specializing in the arts and job-training programs, are muscular shells that would have been more expensive to replace than rehabilitate.

Still other old structures of dubious architectural merit or poor original construction cry out for new leases on life. In this category are two famous Los Angeles buildings whose fates are still in doubt.

Loaded With History

The 67-year-old Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, threatened with demolition, is “not a masterpiece of design,” according to the Los Angeles Conservancy, which is nonetheless fighting to preserve the famous old hotel.

“The Ambassador is loaded with social history,” says former executive director Ruth Ann Lehrer. “It is also the last large green space left in the Mid-Wilshire district.”

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Increasingly unsuccessful as a hotel, the Ambassador has so far failed to inspire commercially viable alternative uses that might save it from the wrecker’s ball when the temporary moratorium on its destruction runs out later this year.

On the other hand, the much-admired 1935 Streamline Moderne Pan Pacific Auditorium on Beverly Boulevard is so badly built that interested developers have found it difficult to adapt the structure.

An ambitious 1985 plan to convert the huge, barn-like building--thrown up in six weeks as a temporary auditorium during the Depression--into a commercial and entertainment complex failed to get under way. Gruen Associates, the architects for this planned development, described their task as “the architectural equivalent of trying to fit a new ship inside an old bottle.”

Adaptive reuse does not always imply a total change in architectural usage. It can also mean the radical updating of a building’s original function to satisfy contemporary fashion.

Historic Carapace

Chapman Market on 6th Street in the Mid-Wilshire area, for instance, is currently being transformed from a 1929 drive-in mini-mall--the first in the United States--into a “festival” marketplace featuring delis, a health club and a “neighborhood bistro” with outdoor dining. The Spanish Colonial-style courtyard building is being gutted and totally renovated to serve the anticipated upscale clientele. What will remain of the once-rundown mini-mall is a historic carapace enclosing a very contemporary scene.

“To reconcile old and new, one must bring a respect and an understanding of both,” New York designer William Pedersen says, “and then search for an architectural strategy that fuses these two polarities. Architecture that excludes one or the other is profoundly pessimistic.”


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