In Beverly Hills, Preservation Gains a ToeholdStefano Paltera
Published: May 10, 2012
Times Topic: Alexei Barrionuevo
BEVERLY HILLS is known for many things: Rodeo Drive; Pickfair, the stylish mansion built by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks that ushered in the era of glamorous estates built by Hollywood stars; the Greystone mansion, built in 1928 and still used today as a location for movies like “The Social Network” and television shows, including “Entourage.”
But preserving historical architecture? Not so much.
“Beverly Hills has been up until now somewhat of a joke in the historical preservation community,” John A. Mirisch, a city councilman, said in January at a public meeting. “The joke was that preservation, Beverly Hills-style, was to take a picture of a building before you tore it down.”
But even the most battered reputations can change in a Hollywood minute.
Earlier this year, Beverly Hills enacted the first historical preservation ordinance in its 98-year history.
Preservationists are hoping the move will inspire others to follow suit in Los Angeles, where the instinct to tear down and build anew has long stood in stark contrast to the obsessive (and sometimes onerous) efforts of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to preserve the works of great architects.
Over a third of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County have no local ordinance protecting significant historic or architectural structures, said Linda Dishman, the executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy.
The catalyst in Beverly Hills was the battle last year to save a home designed by the modernist architect Richard Neutra. It wasn’t till the 11th hour that a former beau of Paris Hilton’s — Stavros Niarchos III, grandson of the Greek shipping tycoon — stepped in to buy the home for $12.8 million and promised to preserve it, according to two people familiar with the matter, who declined to be named citing confidentiality agreements.
But that victory for preservationists was offset by a defeat this month in nearby Palos Verdes Estates. After a three-year struggle, the owner of a wing-shaped home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. — the famed architect’s son — won approval to demolish it so he could build a dream house more in keeping with the style of the beachside neighborhood.
Historical significance is a tricky thing, especially in a place like Beverly Hills, where residents “just believe that people should be able to do what they want to do on their property,” said Leo Marmol, an architect with Marmol Radziner in Los Angeles. “There has never been a strong historic focus in the community.”
The city did take over the Greystone mansion in 1965. But after homeowners demolished John Lautner’s Shusett House and a building that once housed the Friars Club (made famous by stars like Jack Benny and Gary Cooper), news that Mr. Neutra’s Kronish House could be lost spurred the Los Angeles Conservancy to action.
The home was in such poor condition that Susan Smith, a broker at Hilton & Hyland, was trying to sell it for its land value alone, she said. When it was found to be a Neutra the conservancy pushed the Beverly Hills City Council to extend to 60 days a rule that requires 10 days’ notice before a demolition, so a buyer could be found. Mr. Niarchos, 27, agreed to buy the 6,891-square-foot home and restore it to its original condition.
The city then proposed a local preservation ordinance, which passed in a unanimous vote in January.
The ordinance requires a 30-day holding period for alterations to structures 45 years or older designed by a “master” architect. Homeowners will be eligible for property tax breaks for long-term preservation of the historic homes.
The council also established a cultural heritage commission. It will update a 1986 historical resources survey, the city’s most recent full review, which found that 323 residential homes out of 2,648 residential buildings should be considered “historic resources,” but offered little protection.
In Beverly Hills, Preservation Gains a Toehold.