Tuesday, October 14, 2008

THE AMBASSADOR HOTEL LESSON: Demolishing such iconic buildings not only destroys history, it wastes resources

Opinion by Diane Keaton | LA Times


October 13, 2008  - Last week, I drove past the 22-acre vacant lot once known as the Ambassador Hotel. As I looked at the rubble of our lost cause, I pulled over, sat back and gave in to a feeling I can only describe as guilt. I thought about my connection to the once-iconic hotel, about why places like it are so difficult to save, and about what it takes to be a better, more effective advocate for historic buildings.

I was just a little girl the first time I visited the Ambassador. My father held my hand and led me down a long hallway before we stopped in front of an ornate facade. I remember Dad's smile as he slowly opened the door to ... the fabulous Cocoanut Grove nightclub! In the magic of a perfect moment, I looked up and saw a parade of dreams etched across the face of the man I loved more than anyone in the world. It was at that moment that something clicked inside my little 9-year-old brain, something that helps me, even today, believe in the ability of the built world to change the trajectory of our lives.

In our battle against the Los Angeles Unified School District's decision to tear down the Ambassador and put up a new school, we made many arguments. We focused on "reuse" as an economic incentive. The LAUSD wasn't buying it. We hired a team of architects to come up with options that would transform Myron Hunt's 350,000-square-foot building into a series of classrooms, administrative offices and low- and moderate-income housing. That didn't fly either. Neither did the argument that the Ambassador was a national landmark, or that six Oscar ceremonies had been hosted there, or that Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and even Barbra Streisand broke hearts on the stage of the Cocoanut Grove. It didn't matter. Nothing stopped the Ambassador from becoming another little death of no consequence.

Preservation has always been a hard sell in Los Angeles. But maybe in the years ahead it won't be as hard as it used to be, considering several new facts. No. 1, as my Dad would have said, a building represents an enormous investment of energy -- much bigger than we thought when we were fighting to save the Ambassador. No. 2, we now know that construction of new structures alone consumes 40% of the raw materials that enter our economy every year. No. 3, according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the resources required to manufacture these materials and transport them to a site and assemble them into a structure is the equivalent of consuming 5 to 15 gallons of oil per square foot. No. 4, a Brookings Institution study indicates that the construction of new buildings alone will destroy one-third of our existing building stock by 2030. And finally, No. 5, the energy used to destroy older buildings in addition to the energy used to build new ones could power the entire state of California for 10 years, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

We've treated old buildings like we once treated plastic shopping bags -- we haven't reused them, and when we've finished with them, we've tossed them out. This has to stop. Preservation must stand alongside conservation as an equal force in the sustainability game. More older and historic buildings have to be protected from demolition, not only because it affects our pocketbooks but more important because it threatens our environment. Let's face it, our free ride at the expense of the planet is over.

I'll never understand why architecture is considered a second cousin to painting and film. We've never been married to our romance with architecture. A building, unlike a canvas or a DVD, is a massive work of art with many diverse uses. We watch movies in buildings. We look at paintings on their walls. We pray in cathedrals. We live inside places we call homes. Home gives us faith in the belief of a well-lived life. When we tear down a building, we are wiping out lessons for the future. If we think of it that way, we will begin to understand the emotional impact of wasting the energy and resources used to build it in the first place.

As for me, I'm keeping the door to the Cocoanut Grove open. I'm still holding on to my father's hand and the memory that grew to inspire my dream of a golden -- now green -- future among structures that stand as invitations to a past we can only imagine by being in their presence.

Diane Keaton is an Oscar-winning actress. She is a former board member of the Los Angeles Conservancy and is currently a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

●●smf’s 2¢:  As a member of the Bond Oversight Committee I voted to demolish the Ambassador. That was a very difficult decision – my mother and father met in the Embassy Ballroom at the grand old hotel and there was a certain amount of lobbying from both of them. In the end the public need for a school, the cost in time and money, and my fiduciary duties to the voters and taxpayers outweighed the interests of historic preservation. Ms. Keaton’s heartfelt appeal notwithstanding the school bonds were not voted to preserve old hotels – especially ones in such sad disrepair as the Ambassador. I have no problem with private money or public money being dedicated to historic preservation – but not school construction money.

That being said, there was a an excellent story on CBS Sunday Morning about that lack of historical preservation in truly important American buildings and I commend 4LAKids readers to it.  (notes below)

I also refer anyone interested in this subject to the issue of the restoration and reopening of the Southwest Museum – Los Angeles’ first museum – in Mount Washington. The museum’s truly extraordinary collection has been pirated by the Autry Museum to Griffith Park and now the Autry proposes to transfer the museum property itself to the Community College District – sticking the bill for historic preservation to the taxpayers of the Community College District …even though the Southwest Museum property appears nowhere in the master plan for the college district! 

The Los Angeles Times in their tortured justification for this – claims: “The district is only setting aside funds should space become available. If that happens, classrooms would supplement the museum, not replace it, and building them would represent an entirely legitimate use of this small portion of the bond proceeds”  - disregards Prop 39’s legal requirement for specificity in spending.

  • setting aside funds?
  • should space become available
  •    …if that happens?

– sets an entirely new Orwellian definition for the term “legitimate use of bond proceeds!”


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