Los Angeles cultural heritage officials are waging a last-ditch effort to save Hollywood's Ontra Cafeteria from the wrecking ball.
The fate of the abandoned cafe now lies in the hands of the City Council, following a protracted legal tussle between the building's owners and the city Cultural Heritage Commission.
On one side is the commission, which argues that the Ontra--home of Hollywood's first post office and a former cafeteria to movie stars--is a Hollywood institution, with such unique architectural and historical relevance that the city needs to keep it intact. On the other side is the building's owner, Herman Properties, which says the former cafeteria is a charred eyesore that is a potentially deadly safety hazard.
The dispute has underscored the larger controversy of how, and when, the city should go about protecting a building from demolition.
Despite the commission's desire the save the building, it could be demolished under a recent judge's ruling.
Herman Properties filed suit against the city after the commission declared the structure at 1717 Vine St. a monument. The designation allowed the commission to hold up demolition for up to one year to give preservationists a chance to find ways to save the building, such as through a private purchase.
Superior Court Judge William Masterson on June 5 found in favor of the building's owner, Herman Properties, which wants to tear down the building to make way for a parking lot.
Masterson ordered Cultural Heritage officials to remove the Ontra Cafeteria from its list of more than 400 protected monuments, saying they had abused their authority when they voted to shield the building from demolition. He chastised the commissioners for failing to make their case when they declared the cafeteria a historic monument.
The City Code gives the commission broad guidelines for determining what is a protected monument. It says that buildings that reflect a "broad cultural, political, economic or social history of the nation, state or community" are eligible for designation as monuments.
A lawyer for the Ontra's owner said the building poses safety hazards. Even the city has said the building needs earthquake reinforcement--something that Herman Properties has indicated it does not want to do.
But Commission Chairman Dr. Amarjit Marwah has strongly defended the commission's actions. "The commission did not overextend its powers. It is an historic and an architectural monument," Marwah said. "The judge has made the wrong decision, without looking at the building."
Marwah said the judge was "not culturally oriented or architecturally oriented," and thus lacked the foundation for understanding how important the building is. The building, designed by architectural firm Morgan, Walls & Clements, served as a post office until 1937, and later as a cafeteria. The firm also designed the Pico House, the Stock Exchange building on Spring Street and the Paramount Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, Brown said.
In recent years, however, the abandoned cafe has become a gathering place for transients. Three months ago, the structure was badly damaged in a fire that authorities say may have been accidentally set, perhaps by a transient trying to keep warm or cook food.
Marwah acknowledged that the Ontra Cafeteria was "half demolished" in the fire, and that the inside is destroyed. But, he said, "the outside shouldn't be that bad, because it is a concrete building."
The day after Masterson's ruling, the commission asked the City Council to file an appeal.
The council has not set a date to discuss the issue, according to Assistant City Atty. Mark Brown, who advises the commission.
Doug Ring, an attorney for Herman Properties, said he does not think the council will file an appeal of the ruling, and he echoed the judge's sharp criticism of the commission's attempts to protect the building.
"It's an interesting little piece of insanity. This is an example of Kafka comes to Los Angeles," Ring said in describing his client's frustrations in getting approval to tear down the building.
"The commission is too eager to declare things historic without a factual determination, and thus it is being used by no-growth advocates to block projects rather than as a tool for preserving our heritage," Ring said.
Councilman Michael Woo, who represents Hollywood, had supported declaring the building a landmark, but said late last week that he would vote against an appeal because Masterson's ruling was so critical of the commission's attempts to save the building.
The city attorney's office has asked for a closed-door meeting to advise the council on the merits of an appeal, but Brown refused to say whether City Atty. James Hahn would recommend further legal action.
Christy McAvoy, a board member of Hollywood Heritage, a nonprofit historic preservation organization, said her group has not taken a position on whether the building should be saved. But she said that even without an appeal, additional steps must be taken before the building can be demolished, such as an environmental review by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.
The cafeteria is considered part of the Hollywood Boulevard National Register Historic District, an area compiled by the federal government's National Register of Historic Places, McAvoy said.
Although it is considered a "visually non-contributing" part of the Hollywood district, "there is evidence that its original architectural features were intact underneath that facade," at least before the fire, McAvoy said.
McAvoy said that because there are more than 300,000 pre-1950 buildings in Los Angeles, many have not been assessed for their historical and architectural significance. That creates problems like the legal battle over the Ontra Cafeteria.
"While various groups try to be pro-active about nominating groups, it is often only when the building becomes threatened that a designation (in order to protect it) becomes a priority," McAvoy said.
"The reality is, there is not enough time and resources to officially designate every significant structure in Los Angeles," she said.