By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Until a few years ago, Allegra Allison was a happy tenant at “Tara.” The daughter of Latvian immigrants, the fiery blonde designer and frequent smoker possesses the weathered voice of someone who has often had to yell. Her eviction in August 2005 from the house she had lived in for 27 years gave her many reasons to raise her voice. She’s donned the armor of a smart business suit, developed a confident strut and never missed City Council meetings in which Tara’s future might come up. She longs for the old times, and often resorts to asking her former next-door neighbors for permission to enter their properties so she can catch a sidelong glimpse of Tara. She hasn’t stopped caring for the property, making frequent trips just to water the neglected plants.
Elsie Weisman, Tara’s longtime matriarch and owner, died in 2000 at the age of 101; she had named Tara after the house in Gone With the Wind, her favorite film. “She was reputedly watching it when she died,” says George Credle, a former Historic Preservation commissioner. Weisman’s friends and family say her dying wish was to preserve Tara for WeHo’s future generations. She even declined her own son Dick’s request to tear down the house and build apartment buildings. When she was 98 and her son was away on business, Weisman received a special visit from the city. “She had no legal representation,” recounts Roy Oldenkamp, co-chair of the West Hollywood Neighborhood Alliance, an endangered-property watchdog group. “A person came over with the historic designation form and said, ‘Sign this and give it to us, we’ll protect it.’?” When Elsie Weisman gave Tara to the city, she probably did not suspect that one day it would try to turn the land surrounding her house into affordable housing. Plans call for developing 27,452 of the lot’s 30,080 square feet. The city argues that Tara’s historic designation does not cover the grounds, even though it cited the property’s low density and heavy landscaping in the resolution. Yet alterations are also planned for the main structure.
Some spoke of the tackiness of reneging on the promises made to Weisman. “Elsie gave the property to us,” said City Councilman Jeffrey Prang. “This project is going to entail giving the property to someone else. We should maintain it in the public trust in perpetuity.” Other officials were less sympathetic to Tara’s plight. Allyne Winderman, the city’s director of rent stabilization and housing, interrupted me when I said the word Tara, refusing to use that term of endearment. “Oh, you mean the property at 1343 North Laurel?”
With its highest concentration anywhere of designers and decorators, a cherished historic Courtyard District, and an ambitious Historic Preservation Plan, West Hollywood has long been a sanctuary for those who care about old buildings. But the city’s preservation mantra has recently suffered two heavy blows — the threats to Tara and the demolition of Carlton Manor, a property farther down Laurel. Many other endangered historic properties exist, but these two cases show what has gone awry since a reshuffled, development-friendly WeHo City Council stopped caring about history.
For the advocates of Tara, the going seemed pretty bleak, and the machinery of development destiny ineluctable, until a surprising meeting with the West Hollywood Historic Preservation Commission. Usually a rubber stamp for city projects — since it is an advisory board with its members appointed by the City Council — the commission issued a rebellious opinion that completely departed from the city’s plans for Tara: It refused to give its stamp of approval to the redevelopment project, decrying its scale and the impact it would have on the original building. It was the Tara activists’ first victory after a long series of deflating losses. An anonymous City Hall source said that city staff were “shouted at like children” for the unfavorable result. However, this momentum was soon lost. The city Historic Preservation Commission on May 22 approved a revised version of the affordable-housing plan; it’s still three stories, but reduced in scale.
The city plans to hand over the property to the developer, Laurel Place West Hollywood Inc., a joint partnership between Waset, another nonprofit housing developer, and the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation — transferring it for a “nominal consideration.” It also would loan the developer $1 million in two separate payments. The final environment report says that the project would still harm the historic site. Tara’s backers are now left with the Planning Commission, which will take up the issue in July. According to Save Tara’s attorney, Katherine Trisolini of Chatten-Brown & Associates, either the Planning Commission or the city “will absolutely have to issue a Statement of Overriding Considerations” — a rarely used rule basically stating that the need for housing exceeds the need for preservation — acknowledging that the damage inflicted on the historic property is done for the “greater” good.
Allegra Allison calls the proposed project “Taracide”: “It is still massive, ugly and ruins the historic integrity.”