Ready for Her Close Up

How a New Survey Will Change the Face of Los Angeles.

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Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Credit: Griffith Observatory

Later this year, the last piece of the famous Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (the remnants of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub) will come down. In exchange for the Los Angeles Conservancy dropping a lawsuit that had been preventing the destruction, the Los Angeles Unified School District will pay $4 million to fund historic school conservation. While that's certainly a good thing, many say it's still sad to see another bit of history bite the dust in a city in need of a makeover in the realm of preservation.

As it turns out, that makeover is in the works. Ken Bernstein, manager of the Office of Historic Resources for the city of Los Angeles, is anxious to tout the work his office is doing, and why, rather than burying the preservation efforts in Los Angeles, it might be a good time to praise them. After all, what's happening in the City of Angels is more than just ambitious—it's a program that, properly executed, could serve as the future model for every other major metropolitan area faced with the challenge of having to create a thorough, "historic inventory" of itself.

Dubbed "SurveyLA - the Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey," it's defined as "Los Angeles' first-ever comprehensive program to identify significant historic resources throughout our city. The survey marks a coming-of-age for Los Angeles' historic preservation movement and will serve as a centerpiece for the City's first truly comprehensive preservation program."

"SurveyLA is about identifying sites of architectural significance because, contrary to what people think, in Los Angeles we have everything from grandiose movie houses, art deco Craftsman homes, the bungalow tradition, cutting-edge modernism—it's incredible," Bernstein says. "But this program is also about identifying and protecting sites that helped shape the cultural identity of the city—sites that were important in how Los Angeles evolved and important to the diversity of the city's varied ethnic communities.

The J. Paul Getty Trust helped get the ball rolling for SurveyLA seven years ago (through their Conservation Institute arm), and today a Getty grant agreement is helping fund the project.

For Los Angeles, it's the first time a comprehensive inventory of the city's historic resources has ever been undertaken. In fact, it's a major reason why the Office of Historic Resources was created. And as Bernstein explains, the lay of the land presents challenges that are pure L.A.

"I give presentations occasionally, and I have a diagram where I illustrate how eight major cities would fit neatly within the area we are working with," he said. "Los Angeles is about 466 square miles and consists of approximately 880,000 legal parcels." (It may be impossible to survey all of that within the five-year time frame).

SurveyLA will be rolled out in two phases. Phase I, already under way, is the two-year initiation process. In Phase II, most of the survey field work will take place over the course of three years. First up will be the creation of a citywide "Historic Context Statement," a blueprint that will provide a framework for survey evaluation. As Bernstein explains, "The Historic Context Statement will ensure that evaluation teams are not starting out cold when they go out into the field. It will be frontloaded with all relevant information about a type of property, so everyone doing the evaluations will be guided by a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of the potential historic resource they're evaluating."

Once the context statement is finished, its contents will be loaded into a Field Guide to Survey Evaluation–a database that will allow researchers and historians to access this important information in the field on tablet PCs. Having all of the information at hand will allow evaluators to analyze the properties faster and easier.

According to Bernstein, only about 15% of Los Angeles (mostly within several miles of downtown) has ever been surveyed, which means 85% of the city is uncharted terrain for SurveyLA.

A Web site created for the program, www.surveyla.org, offers the public opportunities to get involved in the city's first survey. A volunteer speakers bureau is being created, and there's a place for Internet users to shed light on lesser-known sites. "The Web site will be key in helping solicit information from the public," Bernstein says. "Getting stories about those little known gems—places we otherwise might not be able to find out about—will hopefully become an institutionalized part of the process."

The program should also help dispel myths about Los Angeles, Bernstein says. "With SurveyLA, we'll be able to dig deeper than standard architectural surveys. Los Angeles has always been a place of multiple centers that developed in different ways, and now we'll be able to chart these histories accurately and efficiently."

Bernstein's optimism is echoed by Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. "We're tremendously excited about SurveyLA," she says. "It represents the absolute state-of-the-art in surveying and could easily become the model for other cities."

This project has a visionary quality to it that no doubt will change the way Los Angeles treats its history—primarily because now the history will truly be a matter of permanent record. What a wonderful thing in a city where things can sometimes seem transient.

Chris Epting, the author of 10 books, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Westways, and Travel + Leisure magazine and is the national spokesman for Hampton Hotel's Hidden Landmarks program. He also hosts The Pop Culture Road Trip radio show at www.webtalkradio.net.  

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