In historic district, a conflict builds

Times Staff Writer

Ever since developers began talking about demolishing Santa Monica’s municipal pier and other meritorious structures in the mid-1970s, the city has exhibited a strong preservationist bent, naming scores of landmarks that include the home of cosmetics czarina Merle Norman and an 1875 saloon that served as the first town hall.

Santa Monica designated its first -- and, so far, only -- historic district, the Third Street Neighborhood Historic District, in 1990. The tiny Ocean Park neighborhood features 38 bungalows and other buildings constructed between 1875 and 1930 that trace the evolution of design from the Victorian era through the revival styles of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Now one resident’s plan to erect a two-story contemporary residence behind his historic 1905 bungalow has riled neighbors, who intend to be out in force at a hearing Monday at which the city’s Landmarks Commission could vote it up or down.

To some observers, the controversy is emblematic of a larger debate that residents and preservationists have been having throughout the Los Angeles area: Can strikingly contemporary architecture coexist happily with “historic” architecture?


Opponents of the 3rd Street resident’s project say its approval could precipitate further development that would spell the district’s demise. But others say residents of historic districts should not be overly limited.

“Historic designation and historic district protection don’t mean that owners must build faux historic buildings,” said Ken Bernstein, manager of the L.A. planning department’s Office of Historic Resources. “The trick is to walk that fine line between a design that is contextual and fits with the design aesthetic of the neighborhood and yet is still differentiated in a way that reads visually as a 21st century design.”

The preservation community has struggled with this issue for years, said Ken Breisch, director of graduate programs in historic preservation at USC’s School of Architecture. A slavish adherence to preservation can backfire if developers hire architects who mimic an area’s architecture -- blandly and badly. Better, Breisch said, to have something that might be controversial but of better design.

Like the long-running debate over McMansions -- the boxy two-story houses that get built out to the lot lines -- the issue of contemporary vs. traditional has stirred acrimony in many a Los Angeles neighborhood.

“A lot of modern homes are going up in this neighborhood,” said Carol Bahoric, who serves on the board of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn. “It’s a very touchy issue. Some people don’t like them.”


Refuge from the heat

Early in the 20th century, the Ocean Park area of southern Santa Monica served as a beach playground for Los Angeles residents seeking to escape the heat and as a homey neighborhood for middle-class working people who built bungalows there. Abbot Kinney, the visionary developer who created Venice, is credited with giving Ocean Park its name and providing land so that the Santa Fe Railroad could extend its Inglewood line north into the area.

In the 1980s, developers began tearing down turn-of-the-century wood-sided houses in the neighborhood and putting up nondescript, stucco-coated condominiums and apartment buildings.

Fearing that the neighborhood’s bungalows would soon be history, residents of 3rd Street and nearby blocks asked the city to designate the area a historic district and create guidelines for any remodelings or “infill” construction on lots without historically important structures.

In their 1990 application, the residents noted the area’s many architectural styles and a number of historically significant buildings, including an 1880 farmhouse on Beach Street and the brick Church In Ocean Park at northeast Hill and 2nd streets. (The district is bounded by Ocean Park Boulevard and 2nd, Hill and 3rd streets and contains at least two examples of faux Victorian houses.)

These days the neighborhood is occupied by a prosperous array of judges, architects, lawyers, entertainment industry people and artists, including John Baldessari, whose burnt-orange front door continues to lift eyebrows.

Third Street, an easy walk from busy Main Street, is the acknowledged heart of the neighborhood. The five signature bungalows that line the street’s east side nestle into the slope of the hill and are set well back from the curb. Steps lead from the sidewalk to front lawns and gardens. From there, more steps ascend to front porches and doors.

The neighborhood’s deep lots accommodate both a one- or two-story main house and another structure in the back. Owners typically live in one building and rent out the other. Some of the backyard structures are viewed as “contributing” to the historic fabric; others are not.

As far as neighbors are concerned, the trouble began when Mark Woollen, a producer of movie trailers who lives on 3rd Street, won approval from the city’s Landmarks Commission to move his historic 1905 Craftsman main house forward by 7 feet. He then sought approval for an addition that would double the size of the “noncontributing” structure on the rear half of the property, where he lives in a 600-square-foot space.

Bea Nemlaha, a resident and co-organizer of the historic district, describes the proposal as a Modernist, two-story, rectilinear box with a flat roof and lots of windows. It would include a cantilevered section that would jut forward in front. Although Woollen said that that portion would not be visible from the street -- a point other residents dispute -- the rest definitely would be.

Opponents say the overall structure would be incompatible with the prevailing style of gables, pitched roofs, wide overhanging eaves, bay windows, front porches and horizontal wood siding.

“It’s out of scale and attention-grabbing,” said Karen Blechman, who owns one of the five signature bungalows. “The guidelines for the district say anything you put in has to be sensitive to the other structures, and similar in mass and shape.”

Woollen counters that the backyard structure would be 100 feet from the curb and “won’t disturb anything about the rest of the district.”

“We’ve been following the guide of the city all the way through this process,” he added. Woollen and his architect, Michael W. Folonis, who is chairman of the city’s Architectural Review Board, say they have made changes and added details in an effort to satisfy the concerns of commissioners and neighbors.

Woollen said the controversy has “escalated to the point where it seems to have become a bit personal. I don’t know what would satisfy them.”


‘Divisive arguments’

Many residents say the city has failed to enforce the guidelines intended to preserve the neighborhood’s character. “A failure of clear regulation left the neighborhood open to divisive arguments,” said Anne Troutman, an architect who lives in the district.

A report by the city’s planning staff recommends that the Landmarks Commission approve the project. But commission Chairwoman Nina Fresco said she and her colleagues were still wrestling with what to do. “There has to be something that refers to the Craftsman [style], even if it’s very modern, in order for it not to look like a spaceship that landed behind the house,” she said.

Before Monday’s meeting, she plans to “sit on the curb across from the property and really visualize it in the space. It’s very important how that building looks.”