Op-Ed: Should we preserve ugly but important buildings — like the former Studio One in West Hollywood?
The National Trust for Historic Preservation maintains a list of endangered places, most of which are of great scenic or architectural value. The list includes the old San Francisco Mint, a crumbling New Orleans courthouse and the Grand Canyon, which is threatened by copper mining operations.
But a few sites seem out of place: visually unremarkable buildings of political and cultural significance. One of them is the Factory, a dingy former nightclub in West Hollywood, notable because it was once the home of Studio One, a pioneering gay disco.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the club was that rare space where gay men could be open and proud about their identities. It drew gay icons such as Joan Rivers and Liza Minnelli. And it hosted some of the country’s first AIDS fundraisers.
Culturally rather than aesthetically motivated preservation efforts come with unusual challenges. We’re used to seeing commemorative plaques on buildings with tall columns and soaring ceilings — not on crumbling former nightclubs. The Factory is painted a dull black and stands in contrast to many of the sleek neighboring buildings in West Hollywood’s design district.
Studio One closed in 1988, and it hasn’t been a hub of gay culture in many years. The value of the building is not apparent to those who don’t know the story of what happened there.
That may explain why, in 1995, the West Hollywood City Council rejected an effort to have Studio One designated a cultural resource. The building earned its spot on the National Trust’s endangered list after developers acquired it and announced last year that the Factory would be knocked down to create a 250-room hotel, shops and restaurants.
Since then, the redevelopment plan has been adjusted so that the Factory won’t be demolished, and plans now call for the building to be renovated and repurposed as part of the new shopping corridor, with some kind of installation celebrating the history of Studio One.
[Places like] the Factory turn conventional wisdom about historic preservation on its head: Sometimes, ugly architecture is important because of its ugliness.
It’s not out of jeopardy yet, though. The risk here is that the renovation of the Factory will neutralize the rebellious spirit of the original location. Often, efforts to maintain slices of historic places while building shops and restaurants around them come off as cynical rather than preservationist. Consider the high-end men’s store John Varvatos, which moved into the old CBGB punk club in New York and kept certain fixtures of the old site. The club wasn’t “preserved” so much as converted into faux edgy decor.
Even with a thoughtful renovation, the installation will have to do the tricky work of conveying, in culturally liberal West Hollywood, amid shiny surroundings, that it was not always thus — that the rights Americans increasingly take for granted were hard-won.
Last month, President Obama designated New York’s Stonewall Inn, the site of gay-rights riots in 1969, as a national monument. “The riots became protests,” Obama said. “The protests became a movement. The movement ultimately became an integral part of America.”
Stonewall is synonymous with early efforts to secure gay rights. But lesser-known places like the former Studio One, where marginalized groups found refuge and created subcultures and made political change together, also serve as a physical reminder of an era when things were different.
Places like Stonewall and the Factory turn conventional wisdom about historic preservation on its head: Sometimes, ugly architecture is important because of its ugliness. Many old gay bars have no windows, just some glass bricks, because the patrons wouldn’t have been safe drinking and flirting and dancing and conversing openly behind glass. Today, gay bars with wide windows and open patios and prominent rainbow flags surround the Factory — which is a great reason to preserve it.
Ann Friedman lives in Los Angeles. She is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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