Minutes after their return from the moon in 1969, the three Apollo 11 astronauts gazed out the window of their isolation chamber as President Nixon welcomed them home and invited them to a state dinner in their honor.
The setting would be a magnificent ballroom in the Century Plaza hotel in “Los Angeles’ space-age Century City complex,” as the Los Angeles Times described it.
Forty years beyond, that crescent-shaped monument of mid-century modernism, where guests enjoyed specially created “moon rocks” of green almond paste dusted with chocolate, is poised to become the focus of what promises to be an intense battle over preservation.
New owners have revealed plans to demolish the hotel, no longer the VIP magnet it once was, and replace it with a $2-billion complex that includes two 50-story towers containing condos, offices, shops and a smaller luxury hotel.
The Los Angeles Conservancy is determined to stop them. To bolster its campaign, it has enlisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which today put the 726-room Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel on its annual list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places.
“By naming this structure to the list, the National Trust is demonstrating that the preservation of recent past and modern buildings is as important to our cultural record as preserving architecture that’s from the Victorian period or Art Deco era,” said Christine Madrid French, director of the trust’s nascent Modernism + Recent Past Initiative.
Of course, there is some debate about whether a hotel less than half a century old deserves the same level of protection as century-old structures.
When Los Angeles developer Michael Rosenfeld announced his redevelopment plans last December, he said the hotel’s nearly 600-foot length impeded pedestrians’ connections with other parts of the neighborhood. The new design, he said, would feature an open, tree-lined area between the two proposed towers that would facilitate people’s meanderings among offices, shops and restaurants.
“The naming of the hotel as a historic place is not supported by the facts,” Rosenfeld said. “The building . . . does not qualify for consideration under stringent criteria for historic designation of a building of this recent age.
“We’re building a landmark for the future,” he added.
But the notion of razing the Century Plaza alarmed the Los Angeles Conservancy. It nominated the structure for the trust’s endangered list. Previously, other sites it suggested had made the list, including the original McDonald’s in Downey, the Santa Anita racetrack, St. Vibiana’s Cathedral and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, one of the first residences constructed from concrete block.
Having seen the demolition of other Century City landmarks in recent years -- notably the ABC Entertainment Center, home of the Shubert Theatre, and the headquarters of Welton Becket & Associates, the firm that first designed Century City -- the conservancy did not want to see another mid-century building destroyed.
“This building has both architectural and cultural significance,” Linda Dishman, the conservancy’s executive director, said of the Century Plaza. “We really thought this was the line in the sand.”
The 19-story hotel on Avenue of the Stars at Constellation Boulevard, which opened in 1966, was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, later to gain fame for designing New York’s World Trade Center towers.
Almost from its beginning, the hotel attracted celebrities, with Prince Andrew credited as the first international guest of renown. Politicians and other world dignitaries stayed so often that in the 1970s the hotel earned the nickname “the Western White House.” President Reagan threw two victory parties there.
More notoriously, Hollywood studio chief and embezzler David Begelman committed suicide in one of the rooms.
Dishman noted that the hotel has been an epicenter of Westside social, political and celebrity functions.
“That unique cross-section has brought many people into contact with the building,” she said.
She acknowledged that buildings typically must be at least 50 years old for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, unless they have exceptional significance. A mid-century building from the 1960s, she said, “is not the first thing people think of when they think historic preservation.
“We believe this building has exceptional significance,” she said.
Rosenfeld, who bought the property a year ago for $366.5 million with backing from D.E. Shaw Group, has said his idea was influenced by a proposal unveiled in early 2007 to make Century City greener, less car-centric and more pedestrian-friendly. His architect, Henry N. Cobb, contends that the new configuration would help connect key parts of the neighborhood and create a public gathering place.
National Trust President Richard Moe took issue with that.
“The owners bought it and called it a jewel in their hometown but now want to demolish it as part of the greening of Century City?” he said. “They’re doing just the opposite. They couldn’t do a more un-green thing.”
Moe maintains that the building contains a great deal of “embodied energy,” the energy required to manufacture the materials, transport them to the site and assemble them into a building. He has recently been speaking to groups nationwide about this notion to demonstrate that historic preservation can be a tool to achieve sustainability.
“It’s an 800,000-square-foot hotel,” Moe said. “The embodied energy is estimated to be the equivalent of 7 million gallons of gasoline. . . . If you tear the building down, you lose all that energy.”
Not every old building deserves to be saved, Moe said, but if an older building can serve a new use, then preserving it makes sense for environmental as well as architectural and cultural reasons.
“We are trying to save this building,” Moe said. “We’re going to be fully engaged with the Los Angeles Conservancy to try to use every means possible to save this building.”
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Preservation efforts failed to save these 1960s-era buildings:
* National Theater (Harold Levitt, 1969), Westwood Village: demolished in 2008 for redevelopment. Site remains vacant today.
* Orthopaedic Hospital (Albert C. Martin & Associates, 1967), 2400 S. Flower St., downtown Los Angeles: designed as pair of identical, interconnected structures; north portion demolished in March 2008.
* Valley Music Center (Hawkins & Lindsey, 1964), 20600 Ventura Blvd: demolished circa 2006.
* Azusa Foothill Drive-In Theater (1961), 675 E. Foothill Blvd., Azusa: demolished circa 2005 for Azusa Pacific University expansion; only the neon sign was retained.
* Pioneer Chicken stand (1965), 7290 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood: demolished in 2005. Fast-food stand was influenced by the design of the early McDonald’s prototype of architect Stanley Meston.
Source: Los Angeles Conservancy