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Architecture & Design

Historic 1938 Building Could Complicate Massive WeHo Development

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Wed, Jul 16, 2014 at 7:00 AM
click to enlarge 9080 Santa Monica Boulevard as it looks now. - HUNTER KERHART PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Hunter Kerhart Photography
  • 9080 Santa Monica Boulevard as it looks now.
Plans to build a massive mixed-use development in West Hollywood's Melrose Triangle have been slowed — thanks to some surprising information about a historic building on the site that had been hidden in plain sight.

The Charles Company, a development firm owned by Arman Gabay, hoped to build on a swath of Santa Monica Boulevard stretching from Almont to Melrose, on WeHo's border with Beverly Hills, for more than a decade. Its Melrose Triangle Project aimed to, in the words of principal architect Alan Pullman of Studio 111, "take a dead block in West Hollywood and make it come alive," with 45,000 square feet of retail space, 76 apartments, 882 underground parking spots, and a pedestrian pathway connecting Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue.

After years of delay — which Pullman attributes to "lots of different options being considered," but others speculate were due to lack of funding — the project was finally moving forward. At a West Hollywood planning commission hearing June 19, commissioners lauded the building's design, which uses three separate buildings to break up the large-scale development. A unanimous resolution recommended city council approval, asserting that the benefits of the project outweigh the cons (namely, increased traffic at four intersections, and the demolition of a certain historic building).

But though traffic is a very real concern in already congested West Hollywood, it's that historic building — and a pair of concerned citizens — that are now complicating the developer's ambitions.

Kate Eggert and Krisy Gosney, who have lived in West Hollywood for 11 years, often drove by the neglected streamline moderne building at 9080 Santa Monica Boulevard. "We thought, maybe one day these will be our offices," Eggert says half joking, half wistful.

When they heard about the building's fast-track to demolition, they sprung into action. Their research led them to realize, says Gosney, that "we're not just dealing with a really good-looking building, now we're dealing with a really good-looking building, with all the classic features, and built by master architects."

click to enlarge BRUCE BECKET ARCHIVES
  • Bruce Becket Archives
Eggert and Gosney first got involved with historic preservation two years ago almost on a whim — as Gosney tells it, "two houses on our block were in danger of being demolished and we really liked looking at them." They saved the Palm Avenue Bungalows by securing their historic status, but later failed to stop demolition of The Palms, a historic lesbian bar. As for 9080 Santa Monica, Gosney says, "both of us being writers, it's the story we fell in love with, and the story is the building."

The women found that story in the city's own records. 

In 2004, when the developers first submitted an Environmental Impact Report for the Melrose Triangle Project, the 1938 building on site was noted as an early example of streamline moderne style, and as such, eligible for historical status at the state and local levels. More research, done in 2008, revealed that the building was designed by world-renowned architects Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket, making it eligible for historic status on two separate counts: both as an early example of a particular style, and as a work associated with master architects. 

Wurdeman and Becket had designed the building as an ultramodern, state-of-the-art office for pioneering veterinarian Dr. Eugene C. Jones, who performed the first dog cesarean and had an x-ray machine on site. The project came on the heels of the pair's Pan Pacific Auditorium, an L.A. icon listed on the National Register of Historic Places that was lost in a 1989 fire — but not before it made its mark on the world. "People talk about it as if it's still around," Gosney notes. Wurdeman and Becket continued to produce L.A. landmarks, including Bullocks Pasadena (now Macy's); after Wurdeman's untimely death, Becket's firm went on to design the Capitol Records Building, the Cinerama Dome and the Beverly Hilton Hotel (as well as master plans for Century City and UCLA).

When the Melrose Triangle Project was put on hold again in 2008, the letter revealing the architects identities' was filed away, and then apparently forgotten.

Developers are required to provide evidence of a preservation alternative when a building is eligible for historic status, according to the California Environmental Quality Act, yet that wasn't done in this case. Says Adrian Fine, Director of Advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, "There really isn't any analysis showing what the preservation alternative looks like or any reasons why it won't work... it's lacking transparency."

That kind of missing information is, says Fine, "not typical."

Some citizens are confused and upset. Eggert is frustrated that the architects' identities were not made public until this January: 9080 Santa Monica "would be a national historic landmark too, if only we knew it was a Wurdeman and Becket," Eggert says. The fact that the information was unknown until recently means that the preservation community likely won't have enough time to register 9080 before the hearing that will decide its fate.

The architect on the project, Studio 111, has plenty of experience in preservation. Pullman's private residence, in fact, recently received a preservation award from Long Beach Heritage.

"We are always interested in adaptive reuse. We take preservation very seriously," he says. So what happened in this case? “Buildings are obsolete in certain ways,” Pullman says. “This one did not work towards meeting the city's goals."

Jeff Seymour, the project representative for the Charles Company, says that the building "did not rise to the level of significance that would tip it towards preserving." In the developer's plans to create a "unique, iconic, true gateway," he says, the building "never came up... it was not considered by the community."

click to enlarge Rendering of proposed Melrose Triangle Project. - COURTESY OF STUDIO 111.
  • Courtesy of Studio 111.
  • Rendering of proposed Melrose Triangle Project.
The community is certainly considering it now. Eggert and Gosney created a Facebook page, Save the SMB Streamline Moderne. (At press time, it had 713 likes.) In the next month, they hope to continue to raise awareness for the building. "We're not trying to stop development," Gosney says. "This process just needs to slow down."

Fine, of the L.A. Conservancy, agrees. "Growth can happen, it just doesn't need to be at the expense of a historic building,” he says — especially one with a "connection to West Hollywood's early history" that "reflects the style of the period."

Says Gosney, "What a gateway to West Hollywood it would be, to have this iconic building, and someone else's iconic design built around it."

The City Council meeting to discuss the project has been pushed back one month, to August 18, at the developer's request. "We felt that because of the concerns we've been hearing, mainly from the preservation community, we needed more time,” Seymour says. “The hearing extension will allow Studio 111 to analyze all the options for the building at 9080."

Says Pullman, “We want to do the right thing.”

Seymour adds, "I'm not closing any doors," But, he admits, “The view was always that this building was going to be demolished and frankly, that is still our intent."

West Hollywood council members will be accepting emails and letters on this issue until August 10.
Currently, the City Council Hearing is scheduled for August 18. 

Email the writer via sbos@laweekly.com.

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