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By Frank Gruber

"'But we shall live to see the day, I trust' went on the artist, 'when no man shall build his house for posterity. ... If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses, that single change, comparatively unimportant in itself, would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for.' ...

"'How you hate everything old!' said Phoebe, in dismay. 'It makes me dizzy to think of such a shifting world!'"

--Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables.

In case it has been a few years since you read this Hawthorne's "romance," the artist and Phoebe fall in love and -- no surprise -- he has the "presentiment" that he will in the future plant trees, make fences, and even build a house for another generation.

Word is that notwithstanding the fine Victorian the artist and Phoebe built in Iowa for their posterity (after selling the creepy seven-gabled 17th century edifice Phoebe inherited back in Salem), all their grandchildren moved to California.

One bought a lot in King C. Gillette's "Regent Square" subdivision on 18th Street in Santa Monica, and built a 1,300 square foot imitation Spanish adobe that her granddaughter now wants to sell to a family of Iranian immigrants who wants to tear it down and build a 4,000 square foot imitation Cape Cod.

Phoebe's great-great-great-great granddaughter was at the meeting Tuesday night where the City's historical consultants presented their report on updating the City's Historic Resources Inventory for the North of Montana area. There she hooted and hollered and expressed great indignation because the consultants identified the Regent Square tract as a potential historic district.

I was there too, and I can report it was the nastiest meeting I have ever attended in Santa Monica.

I have been to lots of meetings with all sorts of people in attendance, but this was the first where the public couldn't control itself and follow instructions -- and common courtesy -- not to applaud some speakers while jeering others.

It wasn't only the overt rudeness, but also the fact that nearly all the outraged residents walked out before hearing what the Commission had to say.

Yet this might have been, on an average basis, the wealthiest and best-educated collection of members of the public ever assembled for one meeting in Santa Monica.

Maybe the School District can make Roosevelt School available so that immigrant workers who grew up in Central American dictatorships and who politely appear at City Council meetings to advocate for the living wage can give democracy lessons to the North of Montana mob.

(Applause, however, for Greg Poirier, a property owner on 18th Street and a leader of the anti historic district group who used a portion of his three minutes to admonish his neighbors to have better manners.)

At the same time, I've never seen a meeting in Santa Monica run so poorly. Perhaps Mike Feinstein or some of our former mayors could give Margot Alofsin, the Chair of the Commission, lessons on how to conduct a meeting.

Lesson one: don't sit up on the dais scowling and muttering dark, surly rebuttals to public testimony. Don't worry, you will have your chance to say whatever you want, and to vote, too.

Lesson two: you have no right to ask people "what they do." You don't need to know if "there are people like lawyers" addressing the commission.

But there is nothing obvious about historical preservation. Even in Hawthorne's time Americans had conflicted attitudes about the past. Our history is not so long, and that means whatever exists, whatever has survived even 50 years, feels important. Yet our culture is built on ideas like what's new is best.

In cities, the desire to preserve, particularly the idea of preserving whole districts, conflicts with the organic process of incremental growth, through countless independent decisions, that makes cities fascinating places to live and gives them a texture that is worthy of having a history.

Historic districts presume a value in homogeneity, which makes sense only if the homogeneous quality is remarkable.

As a taxpaying member of the public, I want to know where the benefits go. Owners of historically protected properties can get a 50 percent reduction in their property taxes. If the very wealthy people living on, say, Adelaide Drive, are going to pay less taxes, then I want to be sure there is a public benefit.

So judgment is in order. What I did not see in the consultant's report were convincing arguments for the historicity of the houses in the districts they propose creating, beyond that the houses are now more than 50 years old.

Perhaps these arguments will emerge later when the Commission looks at specific districts, but just because King Gillette invented the razor blade, is that a reason to preserve the (undistinguished) houses that people built on the cookie-cutter lots he drew on a map? Eli Broad has a famous art collection -- should his sprawling developments be immutable history, too?

Rich people 90 years ago may have hired the top local society architects to build their houses in the Palisades Tract, but was their work any good?

At Tuesday night's meeting, one opponent of historic districts expressed the fear that historic districts would attract bus loads of tourists. My fear is a little different -- that no tourist would care about what we are preserving.

The current battle, while ostensibly about historical districts, is in fact political.

One side wants to use historic districts as the equivalent of sumptuary laws to prevent the building of big houses: "Monster Mansions, Part 2." Recently a member of the Landmarks Commission resigned, making this very charge, that the Commission was more interested in controlling growth than preserving history.

Anyone who has paid attention to how the Planning Commission is treating appeals from the Architectural Review Board will acknowledge that the use of the Landmarks Commission as a no growth tool would be consistent with other strategies no-growth activists utilize.

But the other side is no less political. Not only do they see historical preservation as another infringement by government on sacred property rights, but they also want an issue to galvanize homeowners against the SMRR incumbents on City Council who appointed the Landmarks Commission and hired the consultants to update the Historic Resources Inventory.

As is often the case, the question is not what is history, but who would own it.

"'Now, this old Pyncheon House! Is it a wholesome place to live in, with its black shingles, and the green moss that shows how damp they are; its dark, low-studded rooms; its grime and sordidness, which are the crystallization on its walls of the human breath that has been drawn and exhaled here in discontent and anguish? The house ought to be purified with fire -- purified till only its ashes remain!'

"'Then why do you live in it?' asked Phoebe, a little piqued.

Upcoming meetings:

The Landmarks Commission will discuss the consultant's report further at its regular monthly meeting Monday, April 8, at 7:00 p.m., in City Council Chambers.

Also Monday evening, the Planning Division will conduct a Community Workshop on the development of East Colorado Avenue (Mid-City Area) Crosswalk Improvements and Street Modifications. Monday, April 8, 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., Ken Edwards Center, 1547 Fourth Street, Room 100A-B.

The next Madison Advisory Group meeting will be held at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday April 10, 2002, at the Madison Campus Cafeteria on 11th and Santa Monica Boulevard.

The group will review and discuss the Madison Theater proposed site plan and general project information. The project architect will be present to discuss the plans and design concept.

For further information, contact Adam at (310) 443-3431.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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