Some California cities are famous for their love of historical and cultural attractions. Los Angeles is not one of them — an unfair omission, I’ve always believed.
Many of Southern California’s most popular landmarks still exist because Los Angeles rallied. Cathedral of Saint Vibiana The city center, once on the brink of demolition, is now a thriving event center. Julia Morgan’s beautiful building that once housed her the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, where I worked, is now a satellite campus of Arizona State University. There’s a fight to save the bungalow where Marilyn Monroe died – a legend behind a wall in a cul-de-sac in Brentwood.
In a place with as much growth-oriented history as Southern California, preserving these properties has not been easy.
Next month, a leading voice in that effort, Linda Dishman, the president of the Los Angeles Conservancy, will pass the torch after 31 years with the organization, a nonprofit group that has helped save pieces of Southern California’s past from bulldozers . The Conservative department’s senior director of advocacy, Adrian Scott Fine, will succeed her.
Dishman and I spoke a while back about the history and development in LA, the nation’s second most populous city. Here are some of our conversations, slightly edited.
Los Angeles was just beginning to realize the value of historic preservation when you became chief of preservation. What has changed since then?
Conservation has really become more of a shared value. I think back to my early years, when we were fighting to save the Herald Examiner building. Battle to save the Ambassador Hotel. Battle to save the May company. The Herald Examiner was going to be torn down for a parking lot, which seems so strange now. But so little value did people place on these buildings and their history.
In the beginning you had great challenges.
I came in March and in April there was civil unrest. Then a year and a half later the Northridge earthquake happened. It was a difficult two years.
And this was followed by some epic battles.
Yes. With Saint Vibiana in 1996, we were up against the entire power structure of Los Angeles, which included the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the mayor, and the Los Angeles Times, who owned property very close by and were very concerned about those property values. They did some spicy editorials.
The archdiocese wanted to raze St. Vibiana and build a new cathedral, but the building was a historical cultural monument.
They used the Northridge earthquake as an excuse. The cardinal would come to the site with a red hat to mark the cracks.
And then they sent crews on Saturday morning to demolish it without a permit.
We managed to get a temporary ban, which no one thought we could do. Then it went to a full trial which we won and an appeal which we also won. They then tried to revoke the building’s designation as a historical and cultural landmark. Then they went to the Legislature and tried to remove several blocks of downtown from regulation under the California Environmental Quality Act, so we had to go to Sacramento. But eventually the archdiocese found a new location and we were able to find a new buyer. Sometimes with preservation, half the battle is just keeping the building standing, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.
What was your biggest disappointment?
Obviously losing the Ambassador Hotel was difficult.
There was so much history in this building, including the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, but the Los Angeles Unified School District was desperate for classrooms.
We did everything we could. We made plans on how to build around that, with small learning communities, and even turn the hotel into low-income housing, which the community could certainly use now. But it just came down to the fact that the school district wasn’t interested in a vision that included the hotel.
Some works — the Century Plaza Hotel, for example — combined development and conservation. But shouldn’t the story be set aside now, with the dire need for affordable housing in Los Angeles?
A survey completed in 2017 found that less than 7 percent of the city is historic, so there is plenty of room for building density. We also worked with the city to increase density by adding accessory housing in historic districts. And we’re seeing some good success. But it’s hard when you’re trying to fill the central city. At the same time, there was a myth that LA had no history, or that LA had history but people didn’t care about it. This is no longer the case. People are now in these neighborhoods. They walk more. They know the buildings. They have an attachment to the place and articulate it.
Now iconic buildings don’t seem to be under as much threat as they used to be. When developers bought the Capitol Records building in Hollywood in 2006—the famous circular building that looks like a record stack—they proposed a lot of density around it, which we supported. But they never proposed to tear it down. This was a major change.
Where we travel
Today’s tip comes from Jorge Moreno, California State Parks spokesman. Recommends Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park:
“Nestled in the beautiful Coloma Valley, just north of Placerville, this historic park is the site of James Marshall’s 1848 gold discovery that sparked the California Gold Rush. Visitors can pan for gold in the American River and enjoy hiking and picnicking under the riparian oak forests. The park includes a museum and a complex of historic buildings and ruins. Overlooking the beautiful river canyon is the Marshall Monument, California’s first historical monument and the final resting place of James Marshall. Visit December 9-10 to get into the holiday spirit at Christmas in Coloma!”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Send your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.
For several months, readers have been emailing me their favorite places to experience art in California. Send your own suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. Include your name and the city where you live.
And before you go, some good news
The Dixie Fire, California’s largest single wildfire on record by area, devastated the forests of Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California in 2021. But new hope has blossomed from the ashes scattered across the forest by the fire, in the form of young plants and grasses now growing on the burnt soil.
From the trail next to the park’s visitor center, the landscape is now alive and abundant with greenery and wildflowers, Dani Anguiano, reporter The Guardian wrote in a recent article.
The park, nearly 70 percent of which was burned in the fire, serves as a reminder of the dangers drought and climate change pose to the state and nation’s network of parks and natural resources, Anguiano writes. But Lassen is also a poignant reminder of nature’s resilience and its ability to heal and regenerate.
“That’s just the way this ecosystem is,” Russell Rhoad, a park ranger, told Anguiano. “He takes a hard pass and then recovers and does something different. He doesn’t need to go back to what he was before.”
Thanks for reading. We will be back on Monday. Enjoy your weekend.
PS Here we go today’s Mini Crossword.
Soumya Karlamangla, Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the group at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
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