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History: the new cause celeb

Special to The Times

BEFORE Brad Pitt apprenticed with Frank Gehry and Hayden Christensen said he was interested in studying architecture, TV producer Leonard Hill unwittingly sparked a trend.

It started with an offer to Diane Keaton. The actress, a devotee of architecture, wanted to see inside Hill’s Hancock Park home, a 1927 Spanish Revival that she calls “a supremely beautiful house” designed by Lester G. Scherer.

“Len said, ‘I’ll give you a tour if you promise to join the L.A. Conservancy,’ ” Keaton recalls.

Keaton held up her end of the bargain. Now, five years later, the Los Angeles Conservancy has officially entered the realm of Hollywood cause celebrity, with Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin, Ben Stiller, Ellen DeGeneres, director Curtis Hanson and others paying between $40 and $5,000 a year for membership -- and often donating much more -- to an organization devoted to preserving historic homes and other significant architecture in Los Angeles. Conservancy board meetings, book signings and galas have begun to exert the gravitational A-list pull of movie premieres. Last fall, when Keaton threw a cocktail party at her Colonial Revival-style Bel-Air home for the Conservancy, guests who turned out to raise money for the group included Linda and Jerry Bruckheimer, Alicia Silverstone, Martin Short, Helen Hunt and Raquel Welch.

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“We’ve always had industry support in the past,” says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Conservancy for the last 13 years. “The difference is that it used to be mostly behind the camera. Diane was instrumental in bringing in more in-front-of-the-camera people.”

Why the growing industry involvement? In many cases, the answer is indeed a fervent commitment to architectural preservation. But some say the Conservancy, like many other causes, attracts its share of supporters who see the organization as a networking venue or an image-building tool. The badge of membership can make certain Hollywood stars seem smarter, more culturally sophisticated or more philanthropic, turning the Conservancy into, as one longtime member wryly asserts, “the intellectual person’s ASPCA.” It’s a notion that Dishman disputes.

“A lot of actors live in architecturally important homes,” she says, “and for many of them, the history of Hollywood has a lot of meaning.”

Adriene Biondo, a longtime member and chairwoman of the organization’s executive council on modern architecture, credits the growing star power with a rise in architectural appreciation.

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“Modern architecture is now a mainstay of television commercials and magazine ads, and this brings it to the fore for a lot of people, including actors,” she says.

Though stars’ motives aren’t always clear, the effect surely is: an increased awareness of some of the city’s threatened historic structures.

“What celebrities are useful for is bringing attention to the public and making them more aware. They can be unbelievably effective,” says Keaton, who spearheaded a fundraising campaign to restore Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House after earthquakes and damage from last winter’s rains put it on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s most endangered historic places. “Ellen [DeGeneres] talked about the Ambassador on her show,” Keaton adds, referring to the since-lost campaign to save the landmark hotel. “That does so much for the Conservancy.”

Hill says Keaton’s work goes against the celebrity stereotype: unapproachable or, worse, uninvolved.

“What Keaton did was to really get involved with the Conservancy,” he says. “She’s not just a member but an activist.” He adds that he has given much money and time to the organization, but “the most important thing I will have left them is Diane’s legacy.”

Not everyone is convinced that celebrities provide a solid foundation for architecture or preservation. This June, when Ben Stiller attended the Conservancy’s annual meeting at the Cinerama Dome and joined a panel on “Looking at Los Angeles,” a photography book that he co-edited, fellow panelist and photography legend Julius Shulman was quoted in other media as saying, “This book is crud.”

On Internet message boards for the Conservancy’s Modern Committee, or ModCom, members weigh the benefits of name recognition against concerns of dilettantism.

“As far as celebrities writing letters ... they might not have the same understanding and command of language and law as longtime preservationists, so unless they are guided by such, it might seem laughable,” posted one member.

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But unlike 12-step meetings, which gained a reputation in the ‘90s as fertile ground for Hollywood hobnobbing, the fact that celebrities and industry types make up a large portion of the Conservancy’s ranks hardly seems to faze most members.

“People might know that Ben and Diane are on the board, but that’s not why they’re coming,” says Meri Pritchett, a documentary filmmaker and ModCom member.

“This isn’t about networking,” says Chris Iovenko, a writer and film director who has been in the Conservancy for 12 years. Like many of its 8,000 members, Iovenko says he discovered the group through Last Remaining Seats, a summer program in which classic films are shown in historic theaters on Broadway in downtown L.A.

“The fact that celebrities have joined is a good thing, but for everyone, it’s still about buildings that are in peril.”

Founded 27 years ago to protect the Central Library downtown from demolition, the Conservancy has lobbied to save structures such as the Wiltern theater and the former Bullocks Wilshire store, which Southwestern University restored for use as a law library. The organization recently highlighted the plight of Wright’s Ennis House and, after losing the fight over the Ambassador Hotel, got property owner Los Angeles Unified School District to pledge almost $5 million toward the preservation of historic schools.

Much of the groundwork for preservation happens during the group’s monthly meetings, two-hour gatherings in which the true Conservancy celebrities -- structures by Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, John Lautner and others -- are discussed.

“We’re mostly all kinds of nerds,” Pritchett says of the core group of members, about 40 actors and producers, journalists and architecture buffs who organize letter-writing campaigns and attend city council hearings. Among their current causes: preventing the demolition of the Brown Derby and the Columbia Square broadcast center on Sunset Boulevard.

Pritchett acknowledges that some networking is inevitable.

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“I met [author and archivist] Charles Phoenix in ModCom, and that friendship spawned two small documentaries,” she says. “It was actually one of my greatest moments in the group.”

There might be some elbows rubbing, Dishman says, “but the bottom line is about all kinds of people who care about the built environment and its preservation. Industry people are out filming in Los Angeles, so they’re very aware of what’s out there and what could be lost.”

Although Keaton speaks as fervently as anyone about the importance of the Conservancy’s work, she’s quick to distinguish work from her personal passion: “I directed a pilot in the Bradbury Building,” she says. “I love that building and I miss being in it, but when I was filming, all I was thinking was, ‘Did we get the scene?’ ”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

City sitesThe Los Angeles Conservancy is partnering with other cultural organizations to launch a campaign on the architectural significance of the Wilshire Boulevard corridor, with events planned for Sunday through Nov. 21.

Architectural tour: Six sites, many normally closed to the public, will open Sunday for docent-led tours. Stops run between MacArthur Park and the beach and include the Art Deco former Bullocks Wilshire store, now the Southwestern University law library; the Byzantine-style Wilshire Boulevard Temple; the Victorian-style Wadsworth Chapel in West L.A.; and the Miles Memorial Playhouse, a Spanish Colonial Revival venue in Santa Monica. Tickets are $12.50 to $35 and do not include transportation to the sites or parking. Information: (213) 430-4219, www.laconservancy.org.

Other events: The Wilshire project also includes a home tour, a photography exhibit, lectures and family art workshops. For a list with contact information for each event, go to www.curatingthecity.org and scroll down to “exciting events.”

Alexandria Abramian-Mott can be reached at home@latimes.com.


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