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Faux Pastiche Revival

By Frank Gruber

I attended the Landmarks Commission's meeting last Monday evening because the Sears building was on the agenda. The Commission granted a continuance to Sears, but I stayed and watched the commissioners vote to designate as a city landmark a 1926, mixed-use, generically "Spanish" style building at 1337 Ocean Avenue.

1337 Ocean Avenue. (Photo by Frank Gruber)

I say "generically Spanish," but technically 1337 Ocean's style is "Spanish Colonial Revival," which had its heyday between 1915 and 1930. I say "technically," because the building lacks the details that are integral to Colonial Revival: particularly the low-relief carvings around architectural features that did the most to distinguish Colonial Revival buildings from the "Mission Revival" architecture that was popular during the latter decades of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th.

In fact, the flat simplicity of the façade of 1337 and its numerous round archways are reminiscent of the earlier Mission style; the building is more pastiche than anything else.

By the 1920s both the Colonial and Mission styles had become well corrupted.

In fact, style rot had set in even before Spanish Mission evolved into Spanish Colonial. As Karen Weitze wrote in her treatise on the Mission style, California's Mission Revival (published by Santa Monica's own Hennessey & Ingalls in 1984), Mission Revival "quickly became popular for apartments and low-cost, made-to-order bungalows. . . . Gardens, wrought-iron balconies, tile roofs, stucco ornament - all made the rectangular apartment block attractive to (newcomers to California)."

An architectural movement begun with the idea of creating a homegrown style became mere decoration, and bland, undistinguished, "faux" Spanish buildings with little in the way of craftsmanship or quality design -- buildings like 1337 Ocean -- were the result.

None of this was unknown at the Landmarks Commission meeting. In evaluating 1337 Ocean, planning staff and their historic preservation consultants noted that the building did not possess noteworthy aesthetic qualities. Nevertheless, staff recommended that it be declared a landmark.

To be landmarked under Santa Monica's landmarks ordinance a building must meet at least one of six criteria. Briefly, it must: (1) manifest elements of the city's cultural, social, economic, political or architectural history; (2) have noteworthy aesthetic or artistic value; (3) be identified with historic persons or events; (4) have distinguishing architectural characteristics, or be a unique or rare architectural example, in a way that is valuable to study; (5) be a significant example of the work of a notable builder, designer or architect; or (6) have a unique location, a singular physical characteristic, or be an established visual feature.

Staff told the Commission that 1337 Ocean met only one criterion, the first: they said it manifests elements of the city's history. Their reason was that 1337 Ocean was built during the city's first major development boom and, "for a number of years" (in the words of the staff report) defined the northern edge along the oceanfront of the downtown commercial area.

How many years 1337 Ocean played this momentous historical role the staff didn't say, but it couldn't have been many: the Shangri-La Hotel, on the northern corner of the same block, opened in 1939. Even further north, the Miramar has operated as a hotel since 1921.

So it was a definite stretch for staff to attribute historical significance to a building that during the years it was supposedly defining a commercial border was for the most part residential.

But staff's stretch was nothing compared to what the Commission did.

The commissioners must have realized that basing a landmark designation solely on the first criterion of the ordinance would be weak, and susceptible to attack by the property owner (who can appeal a designation to the City Council).

The commissioners scrambled to find two additional reasons to apply additional criteria to the building, but to do so they stretched the ordinance beyond recognition.

First, the commissioners found that 1337 Ocean satisfied the ordinance's fourth criterion because it had "distinguishing" architectural characteristics. Of course, nearly every building, including 1337 Ocean, has some characteristics that are "distinguishing;" otherwise, buildings would all look alike.

What the law requires, and what the commissioners ignored, is that to qualify as a landmark a building's distinguishing architectural characteristics must be "valuable to a study of a period, style, method of construction, or the use of indigenous materials or craftsmanship." (Italics added.)

There are no aspects of 1337 Ocean that the commissioners could find that are valuable for such study, since the building is entirely derivative, and no one on the commission even pretended to identify any.

Second, the commissioners found that 1337 Ocean satisfied the sixth criteria, by saying that 1337 had a "unique location;" but their only basis for that finding was that the property sits on Ocean Avenue. Does every property on Ocean Avenue deserve to be a landmark?

It doesn't help, in fact it hurts, the cause of historic preservation to trivialize and cheapen what a landmark is.

Imagine that Santa Monica wanted to be known for great cooking. Say we had a "Good Cooking Commission" that gave prizes to recipes made by combining canned soups and cakes made from mixes. Ultimately the quality of our cooking would decline. And if we allow our standards of what makes a good or historic building to decline to include routine jobs like 1337 Ocean, then we betray the purposes of historical preservation.

That doesn't mean that I would like to see 1337 Ocean demolished. It is cute enough, and friendly to pedestrians. Perhaps the property owner can incorporate the facade into a new development. But 1337 Ocean is not good enough or historical enough to say that no one should have the chance to do something better with the site.

Because that's what landmarking does. Landmarking is the present telling the future that the past is more important. Shouldn't that require a heavy burden of proof?

* * *

Friday I attended the memorial service at First Presbyterian Church on the anniversary of the Farmers Market accident.

I was in Italy and asleep when the accident occurred. I learned about it when I awoke the next day and turned on my computer.

I immediately thought about a friend, Bill. Bill and I take a bike ride up the beach every Wednesday at lunch. After the ride, Bill always goes to the Farmers Market and I return to my office. We usually finish riding about 1:30, so I knew it was likely that Bill was at the market when the accident occurred.

With some anxiety, I emailed to see if he was okay. He wrote back that he was, but that he had been there. He had seen the car in time to get himself up onto a vendor's table. The car missed him by about three feet.

A few weeks later I returned to Santa Monica and we resumed our weekly ride. I asked Bill about his close call. Bill said, on further reflection, that he had not truly been in danger. He said that the car was coming straight down the street, and he was already off to the side, near the vendor's table, so that the car would not have hit him even if he had not jumped onto the table.

I told Bill I thought he was in danger, by any normal notion of danger. To myself I thought that Bill's thinking was a model example of human courage when faced with this business of living.

A friend told me about his friend who suffered two broken legs at the market but considered himself lucky -- and I guess he was. I guess we're all lucky we live here, and not in the Sudan.

When my wife returned to the market later in July, a vendor told her that the fact that he survived made him more optimistic about his future, that it was a sign that things were going to get better for him.

At the memorial service, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels pointed out that when God created the heavens and the earth, God only said it was "good." Not perfect, not wonderful.

This hit home Friday. As I walked to the service at First Pres., I reached my wife on my cell phone. She had just heard from her brother-in-law that her sister's operation that morning in New York for stomach cancer had gone unexpectedly well; the doctors had found less spread of cancer than they had feared, and had been able to save much of her stomach. Everyone was happy.

Also on Friday, I was thinking about a friend here with multiple sclerosis. I planned to visit her that afternoon at St. Johns. She was there after breaking a leg, in intense pain. Yet whenever I spoke to her she cheered me up.

At the service, listening to people who had lost loved ones, watching the tears of a little boy remembering his mother, I had to wonder what a strange world we live in that we can tolerate with hope all the terrible things that are the consequence of mortality.

Good, not perfect.
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