Castle on a Hill

Wednesday, Jun 21 2006

TARA, THE 92-YEAR-OLD white Colonial mansion at 1343 N. Laurel Ave., is so named because of its resemblance to the house featured in Gone With the Wind, the late owner Elsie Linick-Weisman’s favorite film. The massive two-story rectangular wooden structure split into four apartments sits estatelike in the middle of the lot like a castle on a hill. Residents of Tara used to celebrate the end of each day by gathering convivially for an open-air dinner on the expansive outdoor terrace, set wedding style on even the most ordinary of occasions. The house has hosted an illustrious list of guests as the first stop of the two-part Modern Forum — a kind of intellectual salon where people like Ayn Rand, Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein once deliberated on important topics and current affairs.

Traveling down Laurel from Sunset and the Virgin Megastore, Tara juts out from the row of houses and apartments, a dark green recess with what could be a bayou beckoning inside. The house is shrouded by a 60-foot-tall tree canopy containing a dizzying variety of species: Brazilian pepper, Indian laurel fig, eucalyptus and tangerine, among many others. Looking up at the treescape, you feel you’re at the edge of a green snow globe enclosing the property and atmosphere in a literal time capsule. Crucial to the property’s heterogeneous character is the scale of its open space and skyscraping trees, something the development proposal stands to effectively destroy. The height of the trees is perhaps the most obvious and organic testament to Tara’s age. Removing them — whatever the city’s plans to “save” a few — would be a drastic erasure of the past.

Tara easily evokes a regal colonial hedonism made up of iced tea, lemonade, rocking chairs and knowing the Latin name of each plant. Many of those who support the city’s plans have latched onto the colonial motif in their attempts to discredit the building’s import. The initial developer of the property, Paul Zimmerman, said about Elsie Weisman’s chosen name for the property: “?‘Tara’ was a slave plantation in the South, and that carries all sorts of negative implications for me.”

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