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Landmarks Commission Denied Legal Say in Mural "Cover-Up," Conservancy Contends

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By Jorge Casuso

July 26, 2021 -- Calling it "a cover-up of the cover-up" Santa Monica historic preservationists are denouncing the City's decision to veil City's Hall's iconic murals without the Landmarks Commission's approval.

The first push-back came on July 12, when City staff informed the Commission that it had no say in placing a scrim in front the more than 80-year-old murals the City Council has deemed potentially racist.

City Urban Designer Stephanie Reich said installing the scrims do not require a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Commission because they are not permanent.

"The character defining features (of the murals) are not being touched," said Reich, likening the scrims to installing "a piece of furniture."

Several Commissioners disagreed.

"This is not the same thing as bringing chairs into a lobby," said Commissioner Barry Rosenbaum, calling the comparison a "false equivalency."

The murals, said Commissioner Ken Breisch, are "just too important to just slip behind a scrim."

On Monday, the Santa Monica Conservancy jumped into the fray, saying that "bypassing the legally required review" by the Landmarks Commission was "a stunning development."

"City staff is justifying this deviation from the legal process by creating 'alternative facts' and describing the fabric as merely interior decoration, a minor adjustment of furnishings in City Hall like putting in a new desk or sign," the Conservancy wrote in a public email.

"This is a cover-up of the cover-up!" the Conservancy wrote. "The decision to evade the responsibilities of Landmark designation is unprecedented. It’s all the more egregious for taking place at the heart of our City government."

The latest controversy comes after the Council on May 11 voted 6 to 1 to cover with a woven scrim the panels depicting Native Americans kneeling before Spanish conquistadors, giving the community time to debate the mural's future ("Council Votes to Cover Historic Mural in City Hall Lobby," May 14, 2021).

It also included in the motion covering another mural in the lobby depicting Anglos enjoying polo, tennis, sailing and auto racing, which are viewed as the pursuits of the white privileged class.

The debate over the historic mural is "part of the City's efforts to eliminate and mitigate the vestiges of white supremacy and racial injustice in the City," said the Councilmember item.

But the Conservancy, as well as other critics of the Council's move, see it as outright censorship.

"Covering the murals, which prevents thoughtful preparation for a public process of engagement in this history, is an act of politicized censorship," the Conservancy wrote.

"It is not what we expect from a City that considers itself progressive and enlightened."

Reich said the scrims -- which have not yet been planned in detail -- would be "somewhat transparent" and be movable like a curtain, allowing viewers to peer behind.

The scrims, she said, "do not prevent viewing the murals if one wants to see them."

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