The LookOut columns | What I Say

A Landmark Tale of Two Garages

By Frank Gruber

Don't ask me how I did it, but in last week's column I misreported how much money planning staff was asking the Lantana developers to contribute to childcare scholarships by a factor of five.

I said staff wanted Lantana to contribute nearly a million dollars a year; the number was correct, but the time frame was wrong. The staff proposal was $925,000 over five years.

Lantana's proposal was $80,000 per year, for five years, and that is what City Council agreed to at last week's meeting when the council approved the two new projects in the city's light manufacturing and studio district (LMSD). ("Lantana Expansion Approved," September 16, 2004)

My apologies to both readers and staff for the error.

These projects perfectly express the goals the City Council had when it established in the LMSD, and the Council should have approved them in 2002, but the fault was not primarily the council's.

The blame falls mostly on planning staff, and then somewhat on the Planning Commission.

At the time, neither staff nor the commission could find a way to take a proactive role and facilitate negotiations between a model developer and nearby residents who may have at times exaggerated their legitimate concerns, but who also showed appreciation, most of the time, for the big picture.

Everything the City got last week from Lantana could have been on the table in 2002; meanwhile, a good developer has spent millions in holding costs and may have lost the moment to build.

The statements of three residents who spoke at the hearing last week were particularly instructive. One speaker was Ken Ward, who lives in the mobile home park on Stewart Street. He had spoken against the first Lantana development back in the 90s and he wanted to apologize for opposing it and predicting horrible traffic.

Mr. Ward told the council that that he had never noticed any increase in traffic after Lantana was built.

Another speaker was Linda Sullivan, who lives in the neighborhood adjacent to the development site. She reminded the Council with some eloquence that within Lantana something of value would be created; specifically, movies, and that this inspired her.

The third speaker was a woman who lived on Euclid Street, far to the west of the project. She complained that Lantana would contribute to the gridlock that affected her; without any sense of irony she complained about her commute to downtown L.A.

Obviously, when she drives her 15 miles back and forth each day, her contribution to gridlock doesn't count.

* * *

Santa Monica has a new landmark, the little bungalow at 921 19th Street I wrote about last week.

921 19th Street (Photos by Frank Gruber)

This is big news. Guidebooks will be rewritten. Architecture students from Europe and Japan will find their way to 19th Street, followed by regular tourists. Postcards will be printed.

What will the neighbors think when the tour buses are parked up and down the street?

Having reported last week that the Landmarks Commission would be hearing its own application to designate the bungalow as a landmark, I had to attend the meeting.

The irony was that before getting to the bungalow the Commission initiated action to designate the Bay Cities Guarantee Building at 225 Santa Monica Boulevard (a/k/a the old Crocker Bank Building, a/k/a the Clock Tower Building) a landmark.

What's ironic is that in the 29 years of its existence the Commission never got around to designating as a landmark a building that truly is a landmark, a classic Art Deco tower from 1929 with an iconic clock, yet has found plenty of time to sanctify little faux this and that houses.

Do thirteen-story bank headquarters offend the prevailing nostalgia for Santa Monica as a leafy suburb?

Might the Commission have an agenda besides preserving what deserves to be preserved?

* * *

After dealing with the Clock Tower (which new owners have beautifully restored without help from the Commission), the Commission devoted an hour of discussion to a garage door in the Third Street Historic District.

This was no ordinary garage door. Although it will be barely visible from the street, this garage door will be the door to a new garage that Bea Nemlaha, one of the originators of the historic district, wants to build to replace an original historic garage that is, according to Ms. Nemlaha's testimony, beyond repair.

Historic garage door, as seen from street

Ms. Nemlaha testified that in designing the new garage she and her architect, Ralph Mechur, had followed the Secretary of the Interior's guidelines for renovations in historic districts. The Secretary, apparently not a proponent of faux historicism, instructs renovators not to build in such a way that anyone might confuse the new construction with what is historical.

Mr. Mechur had therefore designed a more or less modern structure, with a roof deck, using traditional materials.

In case you can't imagine what happened next, go read something by Kafka. As bad luck would have it for Ms. Nemlaha, only four commissioners who could vote on the matter were present; two other commissioners were absent, and Chair Roger Genser had to recuse himself because he owns nearby property.

Ms. Nemlaha needed four out of four votes to approve her garage. This can be difficult, but she made it clear that she was willing to do whatever the commission wanted her to do.

Unfortunately, the commissioners couldn't make up their minds. Or, rather, they could sometimes make up their own minds, but they could never agree; they gave at least four different opinions, and ultimately tried to punt the whole thing over to staff, who said, no thanks, not unless you're going to tell us what to do.

The upshot is that Ms. Nemlaha and Mr. Mechur have to figure out what it all means and return with a revised plan.

* * *

The garage door was a good warm-up for the bungalow on 19th Street and its "craftsman-style elements." (Those were planning staff's words; architectural historians sometimes refer to "craftsman-style elements" as "Arts & Crafts Movement program related activities.")

There's no purpose served in arguing over the merits of this house point by point; the overall argument against landmarking a common pattern book type house like this one is like the one I made a couple months ago when the Commission landmarked a "Spanish" pastiche on Ocean Avenue. Heaven forbid that I repeat myself; but you can find the old column. ("WHAT I SAY: Faux Pastiche Revival," July 19, 2004)

But what struck me from watching the commissioners deliberate was how casual they were. They were making a decision to freeze forever in time a building and a site, and their level of discourse was along the lines of "it's a gem," or "it's lovely," or it's "exquisite."

Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer, an architectural historian, tried to put the matter on a more scholarly plane, and called the house an example of the "late phase" of craftsman bungalows.

"Late craftsman?" What does that mean?

Try this: google "late craftsman" (in quotes) along with "architecture." You get all of about eight hits.

Not that the term has much meaning, but if you look at those eight hits and try to find out what "late craftsman" means, you find that it simply refers, if anything, to houses built, in the ten of thousands, mostly from pattern books after World War I; i.e, after Gustav Stickley's The Craftsman magazine ceased publication and after the Arts & Crafts style ceased to be its own architectural movement, having evolved into various forms of modernism.

Since Stickley published in The Craftsman Southern California architects as diverse as Greene & Greene and Irving Gill, it's not surprising that many different aesthetics can fall under the category of "craftsman;" but that doesn't mean that any old house that combines a little bit of this with a little bit of poorly proportioned that should be a craftsman landmark.

Fact is, the Commission wasn't landmarking the building for what it was, but for what it represented, and that was an old Santa Monica they had nostalgia for: specifically, the old Santa Monica of single-family houses.

What most impressed the commissioners, in fact, was that one family, the original family who had built the house, had lived in the house for 74 years. For that alone, Commissioner John Berley wanted to call the house a landmark.

I don't mean to say that a building with sociological significance rather than architectural distinction is not eligible to be landmarked, but vast areas of Santa Monica are still zoned single-family residential and we have many houses that reflect the era of 921 19th Street.

When I rode my bicycle through the neighborhood one Sunday morning to see the house on 19th Street, I found the neighborhood to be delightful. People were out jogging, pushing strollers, walking. Mid-Wilshire is one of the more dense, but also one of the more desirable neighborhoods in the city.

But the commissioners made it clear that to them, the neighborhood has gone down since developers started replacing little bungalows with apartments and condominiums.

The architecture of today's apartments and condos may not be distinguished, but then neither was the architecture of the original neighborhood, notwithstanding Ms. Lehrer's retrospective appreciation for "late phase" craftsman.

Now 921 19th Street is a precedent. If it's a landmark, then dozens of similar houses in Santa Monica, if not more, are landmarks. In effect, the commission has down-zoned a significant portion of Santa Monica's multi-family districts.

Has anyone notified the state housing department?

What the commissioners are protecting are not physical landmarks, as is their charge under the ordinance, but their own prejudices and fear of change.

One more thing. The commissioners also included the garage at 921 19th Street in the landmark designation, preventing the owners from developing any part of the property. Here's a picture of Santa Monica's latest landmark:

"Santa Monica's Latest Landmark"

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at . If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.
Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon