The equivocal city

Times Staff Writer

If you were looking for a case study in historic preservation in Los Angeles -- for first-year graduate students in urban planning, say, or an architecture critic new to the city -- it would be difficult to find one from any era as perfectly, agonizingly balanced as the debate over the Ambassador Hotel.

Designed by Myron Hunt, among the finest Southern California architects of his generation, the 84-year-old hotel on Wilshire Boulevard is a significant link in the chain that connects Spanish and Mediterranean Revival styles to California Modernism. But on the whole it’s far from Hunt’s best work.

The site of six Academy Awards ceremonies, host to starlets and presidents and famous novelists who drank too much, the hotel is a repository of as much cultural lore as any building in L.A. But those who want to raze it aren’t money-hungry developers -- they’re officials seeking to add three new public schools to a neighborhood that desperately needs them.

The Ambassador has added historical significance, of course, as the place where Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy with a .22-caliber revolver on the night of the California primary in 1968. But the Kennedy family has argued forcefully against saving the hotel, saying that new schools would make the most fitting memorial to Kennedy’s life.

The central antagonists in the drama, too, have canceled one another out -- if only in a negative sense. The school district has proved inflexible and unimaginative, congratulating itself for gestures that it sees as conciliatory and mindful of history but are more like flimsy facsimiles of preservation. The Los Angeles Conservancy, meanwhile, has filed suit against the district on the basis of a plan that even it must realize is not just politically unpalatable but architecturally suspect.

All in all, the debate has been a sadly typical one for Los Angeles, a place that, as the architect Eric Owen Moss suggested to me recently, can’t manage to shake its reputation as a fundamentally “equivocal” city. Still not sure whether it wants to be fully urban or conveniently suburban, connected or neighborly, Los Angeles confronts perhaps the most unflattering reflection of itself when it considers what to do with beloved landmarks that have lost their youth and good looks.

And if the Ambassador case is absolutely a singular one in some ways, in others it offers a sign of things to come. As Los Angeles, having reached the limits of its legendary sprawl, continues to double back on itself, more sites like the one where the Ambassador sits will likely be coming under pressure for development. There promise to be fewer pure debates like the one over Bertram Goodhue’s Central Library two decades ago, for example, where the need to save a particular building seems obvious, and more like the one that has swirled around the Ambassador.

And to judge from this particular episode, we’ve yet to figure out how to talk about preservation in a way that takes these new complexities into account. The school district has pushed its viewpoint with force. The Conservancy and a handful of community organizations have pushed back. According to Preservation Magazine, even Sirhan Sirhan has filed suit against the planned demolition, trying to make the case that the pantry holds forensic evidence that might exonerate him. But most of the city’s prominent elected officials, including the mayor, have been quiet on the issue, as has the Community Redevelopment Agency. The Planning Department -- whose director, Con Howe, announced his retirement the week before Christmas -- has also been reluctant to join the fray.

Ostensibly that’s because the school district is exempt from city zoning regulations. The only approval it needed to move ahead came from the school board, which voted by a 4-3 margin in October for a preliminary version of a plan -- officially, just an environmental impact report -- that would knock down nearly all of the existing hotel.

The Ambassador provided an unusually good opportunity for a farsighted discussion about how we should treat our cultural and architectural heritage in an era of scarce public resources and increasing density. It was a chance to figure out what the city should do when a landmark possesses a kind of cumulative value -- architecture plus culture plus history -- and separately how to decide if a section of a building, like the Ambassador’s pantry, is worth saving not for what it looks like or who designed it but for what happened there. Instead, we wound up merely propping up some old cliches about Los Angeles -- chief among them that it operates more as a scattered collection of fiefdoms, enclaves and interest groups than as a city in the collective sense.

THE BASIC QUESTION

The Ambassador’s broad-shouldered main building, engineers and architects say, is eminently salvageable. Still, the strict safety and seismic codes that govern school construction these days, not to mention the structural challenges of turning 80-year-old hotel rooms into high-tech classrooms, make that an expensive proposition.

As a result, the debate over the Ambassador’s fate came down to a relatively basic question: Is it worth spending roughly $375 million to $400 million -- as opposed to $318 million for the plan approved by the school board -- to save the building and turn it into a school serving 4,200 students?

Schools Supt. Roy Romer, not surprisingly, said no. As the leader of a $14-billion building campaign that qualifies as the second biggest public-works project in the country after Boston’s Big Dig -- “And ours doesn’t leak,” Romer quipped in a recent conversation -- he is highly wary of risk or contingency.

Indeed, Romer has been unwilling even to consider a number of complicated possible solutions to the Ambassador dilemma: trying to raise the extra money for preservation through private sources, for example. It is painfully clear that the debacle at the Belmont Learning Center, where the district struggled for years to build an expensive, ill-conceived high school on what turned out to be a contaminated site, still weighs heavily on his mind. In the same conversation, Romer mentioned Belmont, unprompted, seven or eight times. The lesson he’s taken away from it is that when it comes to construction projects it pays to be deeply suspicious of unorthodox solutions.

The superintendent has hired a number of former Navy officers to help run the district’s building effort, and he freely admits that they have made a point of setting a tone of martial, unwavering strength. When it comes to putting up schools on empty sites in essentially suburban locations -- and coming on the heels of two decades in which the school district ignored demographic trends and built almost nothing at all -- there is something to be said for that kind of single-mindedness and drive. But at the Ambassador, where the district purchased a site overflowing with architectural and historical significance, Romer’s approach practically guaranteed the hotel’s doom. Making it work as a successful school would have required limber thinking and a prolonged, good-faith effort to bridge the gap between architectural and educational priorities.

For its part, the Conservancy emerges from this debate looking better -- but not by much. After a string of preservation victories in the 1980s and ‘90s, including cases where buildings such as the 1929 Bullocks Wilshire department store were restored for educational use, the group brought a certain earned swagger to the early Ambassador talks. But its leaders were unprepared for the stubbornly unified front presented by Romer and his aides. And they didn’t have a strategy in place to combat the argument that the strongest defenders of the hotel building were wealthy dilettantes who don’t live in the immediate area.

The Conservancy’s decision to file suit against the district in the wake of an unfavorable school board vote has begun to look like a mistake even to its supporters. This is especially true when you consider that the plan now being pushed by the group -- the plan that is, indeed, at the center of its lawsuit -- calls for preserving the hotel and building the three new schools clustered around it. This is an unworkable solution, primarily because it’s unclear what use the hotel would have in this scenario.

Cowed by Romer’s over-my-dead-body conclusion that the hotel would never work as a school, the Conservancy now suggests restoring Hunt’s building for district offices. But the district itself is cold to that idea. And given the soft demand for office space in the mid-Wilshire area, it seems highly unlikely that any commercial tenants would be clamoring to rent part of a structure that sits in the middle of a school site that would be filled by several thousand students.

To a certain extent, to be fair to the Conservancy, its decision to sue reflects the limitations of the planning and preservation process in Los Angeles, which were particularly severe in this case. The group was able to make its case to the members of the school board, but they were, not surprisingly, more open to school officials’ arguments than those of preservationists. Without a broader, less partisan body to appeal to, the Conservancy felt it had nowhere to turn but the courts.

Yet if the Conservancy felt compelled to take a legal stand on this issue, it should have done so on the basis of the most logical solution for the site: restoring the hotel for use as a school. While that conversion would not have been cheap, on a per-student basis it would have been no more expensive than some of the district’s brand-new schools. And other cities have proved that seemingly difficult conversions can create workable, even highly attractive, educational settings: New York has had success turning various aging structures, including a former salami factory in the Bronx, into stylish schools.

It’s probably unfair to expect leaders of the school district to bring a thoughtful, evolved sense of architectural history to the debate over a property like the Ambassador. But the same can’t be said of City Council members or of the city’s Planning Department. Let’s hope that in future preservation battles we see at least the beginnings of a broader discussion about the relationship between preservation, growth and density. And let’s hope that the new director of city planning is able to bring back some of the vigor that marked the early part of Howe’s tenure. With several planning issues even more complicated than the Ambassador debate still unresolved -- including the Grand Avenue redevelopment and the expansion of LAX -- we are going to need it.

A PLAN’S DETAILS

Whatever you make of this process, of course, we are left now with a plan for the site that has won the requisite backing from four members of the school board. The preliminary design -- produced by the Pasadena firm Gonzalez Goodale Architects, which has just signed on to produce a final version -- is worth considering in detail, because it is in its earliest stages, and there are several elements of it that can still be improved.

In building a complex that will include an elementary, middle and high school, the plan approved by the school board over four alternatives calls for preserving just two elements of the original hotel. The coffee shop designed by Paul Williams will be turned into a teachers’ lounge, and the Cocoanut Grove will find new life as an auditorium. The Embassy Ballroom will not be salvaged, but one of its ceilings -- either the one by Hunt or a later layer added by Williams -- will be rehung (or re-created, if the original has deteriorated too much) in a library in the new high school building.

The pantry where Kennedy was shot stands in an unfortunate limbo: The district plans to appoint a “blue-ribbon panel” of historians to consider whether it ought to be sliced out of the building and shipped whole to some other site. Anyone who has walked through the pantry, as I did a month ago, can testify to the power it still holds; though it’s a cold, decaying space, filled only by a dripping ice machine, it thrums with history. No replica -- no matter how convincing, no matter how well spiced up with digital re-creations and multimedia displays -- could possibly have even a fraction of its force. The district should figure out a way to preserve the pantry where it stands, despite the Kennedy family’s calls for its demolition.

On the north side of the property, facing Wilshire Boulevard, a new facade has been proposed that would be built to look just like the original. School district officials contend that the new facade will preserve what it calls “the iconic view” of the hotel from Wilshire; as they see it, the replica will be enough to remind passing motorists of the times they spent in the Cocoanut Grove or one of the hotel’s ballrooms. Even for L.A., the world capital of inspired re-creation and brilliant fakery, this is a remarkably bad idea. It sends the message that architecture is mere stage dressing, mere backdrop for memory and nostalgia, and that there is no meaningful difference between a historically significant piece of architecture and a contemporary re-creation of it.

The architects at Gonzalez Goodale have already produced some better alternatives that preserve the open space between the hotel and Wilshire and the shape and volume of the facade without mindlessly copying its architectural details. District officials should stop pressing the firm to pursue the replica, and let the idea fade quietly away. Doing so won’t make the demolition of the Ambassador any easier to take. But it will prevent us, at the very least, from marking the site of that loss with a perverse architectural gravestone that is six stories high.

Christopher Hawthorne is The Times’ architecture critic. Contact him at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.