Idyllic ... and endangered

Idyllic ... and endangered
Janelle Paradee and son Tristan entertain Mr. French and his owner, Rich Johnson, at the Ramona's now-dry fountain. Johnson is behind the effort to save the 12-unit complex, which developers want to replace with 17 loft-style condos. (Anne Cusack / LAT)
On this sunny Thursday afternoon, Ramona residents do what they do best — they chat, they chill, they gather around the fountain and commune. Janelle Paradee helps her 3-year-old son, Tristan, blow bubbles, and Rich Johnson watches his dog Mr. French chase them.

Courtyard life ebbs and flows. In the evenings, tenants and neighbors sip martinis (or, in Tristan's case, juice) and debrief about their days spent beyond this garden oasis. Life out there can be tough, say these mostly single men and women. Life can get lonely. In the mornings, tenants inevitably gather again on their way to work. They can't escape camaraderie. When they talk about the Ramona, the word they keep returning to is "family."

FOR THE RECORD: Apartments —An article in last week's Home section about courtyard apartments misspelled San Vicente Boulevard as San Vincente Boulevard. The article also misidentified actor Gilbert Roland as Roland Gilbert.

"There is love in this building," says Johnson. The surrounding chorus nods in agreement.

Time may be running out for this Ramona family. Up and down Harper Avenue, neon signs blatantly announce themselves from windows and lawns, all demanding one thing: "Save the Ramona from Demolition." Residents of the West Hollywood neighborhood don't have much time. The courtyard building they're rallying to protect is in danger of being taken down, like so many before it and like others once on the block; the Ramona is the last standing.

It's not just the tenants who are campaigning, but a growing number of petitioners pleading for the survival of the 81-year-old structure, whose fate will ultimately be decided by the West Hollywood City Council. If these activists and sympathizers lose, a Santa Monica-based developer will raze the property — its fountain, its palms, its 12 units — and build 17 loft-style condominiums.

What's at stake, the preservation-minded will tell you, is not just the home of a dozen people, but a classic architectural style, instantly recognizable as belonging only to L.A. It is probably the one most associated with the city in our collective memories because of the courtyard apartments' starring roles in movies such as the 1950 Humphrey Bogart mystery "In a Lonely Place" and the more recent (and more mysterious) "Mulholland Drive."

Imagine Los Angeles, and you imagine courtyard buildings and Hollywood in its heyday. Colonies of "courts," as they're often called for short, were built blocks away from the big studios for technicians, extras and aspiring actors. More elaborate versions became the homes of movie moguls.

The low-rise, high-density courtyard apartment buildings provided agreeable, inexpensive housing for everyday working people, and they became as emblematic of early 20th century Los Angeles as bungalows or Spanish Colonial Revival houses.

James Tice, coauthor of "Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles," says he's not surprised by the allegiance of tenants and neighbors to the Ramona: Courtyard apartments are uniquely suited to L.A. living. Spanish mission-style courtyards like the Ramona usually feature thick adobe walls, ornamental tile, wrought iron balconies and mosaic fountains bounded by greenery.

Architectural and landscaping elements combine to create a communal atmosphere that is both practical — you can interact with tenants, and easily keep watch over who comes and goes — and "spiritual, ethereal," says Tice.

Johnson, an architect turned furniture designer who has lived in the Ramona for seven years, says the layout of the building doesn't just allow community, it necessitates it. All doorways and windows open onto courtyards. He leaves his windows open, summer, autumn, winter, spring. "I like the contact," he explains. "Even though we're not talking to each other, I can hear people, see them walking by."

Courtyard apartments, Tice insists, should be preserved as remnants from the past and also as paradigms for the future. It is hard to calculate how many have been lost: not even the Los Angeles Conservancy knows the number. Their relative humility as landmarks, Tice explains, may have made them vulnerable.

"In a way, they are more fragile because they can begin to disappear piecemeal, and then Hollywood is just like Burbank, and Burbank is just like La Cañada, and La Cañada is just like everywhere else," Tice says.

Consider what happened along North San Vicente Boulevard. Until five years ago, many of the tiny stand-alone bungalows built for Pacific Electric Railway workers remained, "a window into the modest beginnings of a community," says Ken Bernstein, the conservancy's director of preservation issues. When developers spotted the potential for the land, preservationists applied to have the bungalows designated "cultural resources." The City Council thought otherwise. Condominiums now loom where the bungalows once stood; only five original houses were spared.

But the lack of care and protection of historic buildings is not just an issue in West Hollywood, according to Charles Lockwood, author of seven architectural books. "Southern California really lags behind most of the country," he says. "You have many communities that haven't even bothered to designate all their potential landmarks. The respect and reuse of historic structures is not just some warm and fuzzy thing that we should do. These buildings create distinctive neighborhoods, and they're instrumental in attracting tourists. You get enough historical buildings together and you have an economic engine that's never going to wear out. Look at Santa Barbara."

Although West Hollywood is known for the strides it has made in preserving worthy structures, tenants and preservationists say they've been frustrated numerous times by the City Council's decision to ignore recommendations of the Historic Preservation Commission and side with property owners.

Councilman Jeffrey Prang agrees that the council is "too quick to scrap properties just because they're old. We need to be much more cautious."

But John Duran, mayor of West Hollywood, says the council has a duty to balance conservation issues with private property rights. And he is quick to point out that his community has preserved plenty of courtyards in two major districts, the Courtyard Thematic District and the Harper Historic District.

The Harper district, just a block north of the Ramona, is redolent with true Hollywood pedigree. Katharine Hepburn and James Dean lived in Villa Primavera, and Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland in Harper House.

The simple, unassuming Ramona has yet to house any of the Hollywood elite in its three buildings, but it is no less worthy of consideration than its grander, more glamorous neighbors, says Johnson, who is spearheading the movement to keep it alive. The Ramona, built in 1923, is one of the oldest courtyards in the city, and, except for the Primavera, built the same year, is the grande dame of the neighborhood.

But Fred Schaeffer, a principal at GTO Development, the company that bought the Ramona in March, doesn't believe it merits cultural resource designation.

"It has no significant detailing and is not particularly well constructed," he says. Schaeffer urges journalists and West Hollywood residents to resist the cliché of the evil developer versus the righteous tenant. Instead of protecting this "tired old building," he suggests that the city embrace his vision of environmentally conscious condos.

"It would be wonderful," says Richard Abramson, architect on the GTO project, "if West Hollywood becomes known as a place where living in the 21st century starts to take shape."

Eight days after Johnson submitted an application in March for cultural resource designation, GTO sent a letter to Ramona tenants informing them that they would eventually have to vacate.

The koi were the first to go.

City law forbids developers from moving forward with development while cultural resource applications pend, but in late April, GTO's insurance company said safety-related changes had to be made to the property. Most were mundane — updating smoke detectors and so forth. But the final item was a massive blow to tenants: "The decorative fountain presents the same hazard as a swimming pool and must be enclosed or the water removed."

Instead of safety-proofing the fountain, GTO removed the koi — which had been swimming in the fountain for as long as anyone can remember — and drained the water. That act outraged tenants and neighbors. "As weird as it sounds," say Ben Easter, an actor who lives across the street from the Ramona, "turning off the fountain is a monumental thing. The fountain brings peace. In my crazy life, it brings me peace."

Tenants met, petitions circulated, neighbors spread the word, and Brian Boyd heard about it "from a friend of a friend of a friend." Co-owner of the Pacific Trust Group, Boyd visited the property and was hooked. "This is an architectural piece that you don't find," he says. Since each unit only has one shared wall, it "gives you the feeling that you're in a house."

Boyd has offered to buy the building from GTO so that he can restore and preserve it. If the sale goes through, Boyd and his partner intend to abandon their four-bedroom Spanish house in the Hollywood Hills and live in a single unit at the Ramona.

But GTO is not interested in selling. The developers want to build their project, Schaeffer says, and if things go their way, they will. "If we're stymied ….then I guess we'd reconsider," he says.

For now, Boyd will leave his offer on the table; the residents will continue to campaign. The Historic Preservation Commission will take up the issue July 26 and eventually pass judgment. And the Ramona's fate, like so many other dwellings before it, will be decided by the City Council.

"It's a beautiful building," says Mayor Duran, "reminiscent of a style of living in Southern California that one doesn't see any longer. If it meets the criteria, I hope we preserve it."



Enduring visions

Preservation ordinances ensure that these West Hollywood area apartments remain standing:

Villa Primavera (1300-1308 N. Harper Ave.): Husband-and-wife architect duo Arthur and Nina Zwebell's first foray into Spanish Revival courtyards features an outdoor fireplace and mature foliage.

Patio del Moro (8225-8229 Fountain Ave.): Since 1926, these Zwebell apartments have stood apart because of prominent Arab influences — pointed and horseshoe arches, latticed openings and surface arabesque patterns.

Andalusia (1471-1475 Havenhurst Drive): The most celebrated Zwebell court, built in 1926, has three courtyards: a paved one for cars, a picturesque Andalusian patio and another inside the complex that has provided privacy for the many actors, including Cesar Romero and Clara Bow, who have called the Andalusia home.

Villa d'Este (1355 Laurel Ave.): Italian villas in rural Tuscany inspired architect brothers F. Pierpont Davis and Walter S. Davis when they designed the complex in 1928. Here, water cascades from the mouths of lions into multiple pools and waterways.

Roman Gardens (2000 N. Highland Ave.): Designed by the Davis brothers in 1926, the complex has one of the most romantic courtyards — a Spanish-Moorish tower pokes above eucalyptus, palm and citrus trees.

Harper House (1334-1336 N. Harper Ave.): Drawn in 1929 by architect Leland Bryant a luxury courtyard with Churrigueresque stylings.

El Pasadero (1330 N. Harper Ave.): Jason and Irene Reese designed a 1931 structure in the Spanish-Revival tradition with a central court that resembles a Spanish street.

— Steven Barrie-Anthony