Los Angeles has a new living document of historic resources — the largest and most ambitious such undertaking in the U.S., and one that will shape city planning for generations to come.
Called SurveyLA, the citywide effort identified and evaluated historic properties, structures, districts and places that date from 1865 to 1980. The exhaustive block-by-block inventory of 880,000 parcels scattered over 470 square miles began in 2010 and was completed last year.
“The last historic survey that was even close to this scope and magnitude was in Chicago in the 1980s,” said principal city planner Ken Bernstein.
“It was a huge data-management challenge,” Bernstein said. Before this effort, only about 15% of L.A.’s historic resources had been charted.
The heart of SurveyLA — beyond mere recording of historical facts — tells a story of people and places. Included is a citywide historic context statement with 200 themes and sub-themes: from Latino and LGBTQ histories, to such topics as garden apartments, street lights, fire stations, bowling centers, skating rinks and even Quonset huts.
A recently completed 112-page “Women’s Rights in Los Angeles” context statement details a golden era of women’s clubs, as well as a 1969 rally at the Los Angeles Times protesting segregated classified ads (“Jobs of Interest to Women” and “Jobs of Interest to Men”).
With the comprehensive mapping, new development can be directed away from historic districts, and buildings can be identified for adaptive reuse. The knowledge will also assist during disaster response, helping to prevent demolition of historic structures without proper review. Findings will also benefit cultural tourism and location scouting, and will help mark neighborhoods and properties for potential historic designation.
Moreover, some 30,000 potential historic assets identified by SurveyLA are being synthesized within HistoricPlacesLA, an interactive online site that links historic places, people, cultural themes, districts, streetscapes and more, inside a vast neural network.
For example, search the site for Bel-Air’s 1931 Nicolosi estate, and a bubble map reveals the architect (Paul R. Williams), a notable owner (swimmer Johnny Weissmuller of “Tarzan” film fame), and an occupant (rocker Mick Jagger), among other details.
The HistoricPlacesLA website, launched in 2015, will be updated in early 2019 with SurveyLA’s complete data set.
The data will also be crucial to the city’s planning department as it updates 35 community plans, the blueprints for future growth among L.A.’s disparate neighborhoods. Some of the plans haven’t been revised since the 1990s, and the department set 2024 as the date to complete their modernization.
SurveyLA was funded by a $2.5-million grant from the Getty Foundation, matched by the city, while the Getty Conservation Institute partnered with the city to create HistoricPlacesLA. Getty largely sparked the impetus for the citywide field survey; after sponsoring so much conservation work worldwide, it turned to focus on its own backyard.
Overall, SurveyLA and HistoricPlacesLA fortify preservation efforts in a city that, contrary to popular belief, has been “ahead of other municipalities,” Getty Conservation Institute director Tim Whalen said.
“Los Angeles was one of the first major cities in the country to have a comprehensive preservation ordinance — it dates to 1962,” Whalen said.
In addition to the grant, Getty’s contribution includes Arches, an open-source, web-based system to “inventory and manage immovable cultural heritage,” and which powers HistoricPlacesLA. Created by the Getty Institute and the World Monuments Fund in New York, Arches’ identification abilities are “incredibly powerful,” Whalen said, and are derived from an archeological inventory system built for the Jordanian Department of Antiquities.
As Arches becomes more available to cities worldwide, the computerized data sets “will start talking to each other,” said Arches project manager Alison Dalgity. For example, “a hobbyist on the other side of the world” could enter data about an event or person associated with an L.A building or district, which Arches would then spot, she said.
“You don’t know what you’re going to find — that’s the exciting part,” she said.