When Judie Schoening and her husband went house hunting 2 1/2 years ago, the historic West Adams district near USC fit their taste and their budget. For $200,000, they bought a classic, 12-room Craftsman 10 minutes from downtown.
Judie Schoening, who is white, said she felt welcomed by neighbors who are black, Latino and Korean. But when a prominent local minister characterized her and other white newcomers as “the sons and daughters” of people who “burned KKK-type crosses,” she was stunned and offended.
Schoening and other whites found themselves branded as racists by virtue of their membership in the West Adams Heritage Assn. (WAHA), an organization more commonly known for its efforts to preserve the early 20th-Century architecture of Schoening’s neighborhood. After years of often friendly, sometimes tense relations between preservationists and longtime residents, an 18-month battle over the fate of a mansion once owned by the founder of Pepperdine University degenerated into an unexpected exercise in racial politics.
On one side is the predominantly white WAHA, which claims that the home should be preserved because of its association with self-made millionaire George Pepperdine, who founded Pepperdine University in 1937. The home was designed by Myron Hunt, better known for designing the Rose Bowl and Huntington Library.
On the other side is the predominantly African-American congregation of Holman United Methodist Church, which owns the Pepperdine home and says it stands in the way of their plans to expand. Unless an 11th-hour attempt to spare the Pepperdine home proves successful, preservationists soon will be grieving its demise.
When the home is gone, many will remember the contentious battle and the heated prose it inspired from the Rev. James M. Lawson, Holman’s politically influential pastor.
Preservationists--including some blacks--say Lawson turned a scholarly debate over historic and architectural merits of the Pepperdine home into a divisive racial issue. Lawson and his supporters, meanwhile, accuse the preservationists of insensitivity and pushing too hard to save the mansion, which the church purchased from Pepperdine in 1951.
Both sides blame the other for a lack of communication that created many hard feelings. As WAHA board of directors president Kathie Adams put it: “I know Rev. Lawson says we never contacted them. I know on our side there are feelings that all we did is try to contact them.”
When the 82-year-old Mediterranean Revival home is demolished or, less likely, moved in the days to come, it will mark the end of the battle that began when WAHA began efforts to save the building in late 1989.
The drama peaked last August when Lawson ripped WAHA and its motives in his column in the widely circulated church newsletter.
Lawson wrote: “WAHA is a white organized and led organization. They are largely the sons and daughters of the generation which did not want ethnic people in this area, formed housing covenants to keep us out, burned KKK-type crosses to scare us away and then fled as we continued to buy housing to suit ourselves.”
Lawson’s column prompted oral and written protests. Race is irrelevant, said WAHA members and other preservationists.
“I don’t see that as the issue at all,” said Carson Anderson, an architectural historian who prepared WAHA’s successful application for the Pepperdine home to be registered as a state historic resource. “I viewed that as a tactic--a very divisive tactic to silence opposition.”
Anderson, who is black and grew up in West Adams, said Lawson’s column was an effort “to silence whites who don’t want to be called racists and to silence blacks who favor preservation but don’t want to be accused of selling out the race or being Uncle Toms.”
The church, Anderson and other preservationists argue, could have both preserved the Pepperdine home and expanded its facilities. Lawson not only says the home stood in the way of the church’s mission, but also dismissed its architectural and historic significance.
Lawson’s controversial column was preceded by months of petitions, appeals and politicking before various city and state agencies over the home’s historic significance. The process cost the church time and money.
When he wrote his column, Lawson said he “was using the language symbolically"--not literally--in portraying WAHA members as children of white supremacists. But the pastor said he regrets none of his words, saying that the WAHA agenda represents a more subtle form of racism that, in generations past, took the form of housing covenants in West Adams.
“In my view they represent a re-gentrification group. They do not represent a diversification group,” Lawson said.
WAHA members deny that assertion as well. Although their membership, numbering about 200 households, is largely white, it includes several members of minority groups, including a black board member. During a recent WAHA social gathering, several members said they considered ethnic diversity an asset of the neighborhood. “I didn’t want to live in the Valley,” Adams said.
Mitzi Mogul, who is white and has lived in the neighborhood four years, said the only racial hostility she has encountered was that expressed by Lawson.
Ethnic pride and ethnic tensions at the root of the Pepperdine dispute have long played a prominent role in the history of West Adams, an area that architectural historian Anderson described as “the Bel-Air of its time.” Early in the century, the rich and powerful lived in large Victorian, Colonial Revival and Craftsman homes in the neighborhood.
Racial covenants ensured that the only non-Caucasians in the area were servants. That changed in 1947 when a black accountant named James Shifflett moved his family into a house on 20th Street. Neighbors sued the Shiffletts and the white person who sold them the house for violating the deed restrictions. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the restrictive covenants.
As whites left the area during the 1950s, black professionals moved into the mansions, creating a stable, proud neighborhood. Many blacks, Lawson said, resented the arrival of white preservationists and saw racist undertones in talk of a need to “rescue” the neighborhood.
WAHA members say that preservation and economic growth to the community can be accomplished without altering the district’s ethnic diversity.
City Councilman Nate Holden sided with the church, saying WAHA was to blame for antagonizing the congregation.
But Holden, who is black, said he disagreed with Lawson’s assessment of WAHA’s role in the community.
“No, I don’t think these people are sons and daughters of cross-burners,” he said, laughing. “They’re of the more liberal persuasion.”