Home of democracy: 369 E. 1st

Times Staff Writer

On a downtown Los Angeles block already occupied by Japanese American history and contemporary art, founders of the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy today will begin construction of their new institution.

Bankrolled by $20 million in federal funding secured by U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) in 2000, the center will offer educational programming about democracy and diversity. Its development is being led by top officials at the Japanese American National Museum.

Architect Brenda Levin, a preservation specialist whose past projects include Los Angeles City Hall, is the designer of the project. Officials said they’re aiming for an opening in fall 2004.

The project site is 369 E. 1st St. in Little Tokyo, a 1925 brick building that served as this region’s first Buddhist temple, which fell from use in 1969 and is owned by the city. Under a lease agreement, the three-story building served from 1992 to 2002 as home to the Japanese American National Museum, which moved to new and larger quarters next door. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary building stands a few steps away at 152 N. Central Ave.


Levin’s expansion, which adds 9,800 square feet to the 18,800-square-foot structure, will include a 200-seat auditorium on the second floor. Exhibitions are expected on the struggles of African Americans, Japanese Americans, Latinos and Native Americans to claim their full constitutional rights during defining moments such as the Great Depression, World War II and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“The challenge is to take the building, which really has a wonderful history, and make it even more accessible to the public,” said Irene Hirano, president of the Japanese American National Museum and chief executive of the new center. She noted that the auditorium space will feature glass walls, to foster an atmosphere of open discussion. Though many nonprofit institutions across the country are devoted to democracy-related programs, Hirano said, this one will stand apart for its emphases on diversity and teacher training.

The institution’s organizers, seeking to match the federal seed money, have set a $20-million fund-raising goal, and aim to reach it by the end of 2005. But the money already in hand is expected to last through the end of 2004. Hirano said construction is expected to cost $7.5 million, with $11 million earmarked for institutional development and program development, and $1.5 million for administration.