ON WEST HOLLYWOOD’S LAUREL AVENUE, below the bustle of Sunset Boulevard and the Virgin Megastore, is a big white house with a human name.
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.”
FARTHER DOWN LAUREL AVENUE used to sit the “garden” apartment complex known as Carlton Manor. A boisterous former tenant — the clever, pun-issuing gay intellectual and bombshell of a drag queen William Neish (a.k.a. Cookie Crawford) — sued the city over its refusal to perform an environment report before approving its demolition. Instead of pursuing an environment report — necessary whenever an alteration to a potentially historic site carries significant effects — the city applied for a categorical exemption. Neish recently settled his lawsuit out of court for a sum in the low six figures. During the height of his battles to save the complex, Neish was famous for showing up at public meetings in the guise of his alter ego, channeling something like a furious Bette Davis to shame officials with a woman’s scorn.
Carlton Manor was demolished in April after it was sold to 1248 N. Laurel Investors, LLC, a condo developer. Although many city officials would beg to differ on Carlton Manor’s historical merits, several architectural historians believed it was worth saving and wrote passionate letters of protest upon hearing of its prospective demolition. They place Carlton Manor in a special, fleeting, transitional design period, between pre–World War II “courtyard” apartments (where the common green space is enclosed) and postwar “garden” apartments (exposed). One obstacle to protecting properties like Carlton Manor was that, at the time of West Hollywood’s last historical survey in 1986, the building did not make it into the city registry, being less than 50 years old. Yet at the time of its demolition this spring, it was well over 50.
In the mid-’80s, West Hollywood set a goal to survey historic resources every five years, but until this year, when the city prepared to restart the survey, one hadn’t been done for more than 20 years. City Council Members Abbe Land, Jeffrey Prang and John Duran weren’t immediately aware of the five-year timeline. Though Prang was instrumental in restarting the survey, he admitted that “there are a lot of things we’re supposed to do that we don’t get around to doing.” Oddly, WeHo’s own Historic Preservation Plan exactly anticipated the problems unearthed by cases like Carlton Manor’s: In its rationale for the five-year timeline, “additional resources might and have surfaced,” namely, “post World War II buildings will become eligible for listing in the National Register.”
Under California law, structures do not have to be on a historic register to require an environment report if a “fair argument” for their value is presented. Yet the city maintained it could find no “fair argument” for the property’s historical worth. The city at one point made itself Carlton Manor’s applicant before the West Hollywood Historic Preservation Commission, asking that the building be deemed ineligible for preservation.
Neish presented letter after letter from academics, including one from James Tice of the University of Oregon, one of the foremost authorities on Hollywood Courtyard housing. This epistolary war escalated to the point where an official from the state Office of Historic Preservation, Michelle Messinger, intervened to remind the city of state law. In a letter to the city, she said that West Hollywood was incorrectly interpreting the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). She contended that it had flouted two key principles: namely, that lead agencies are supposed to “err on the side of caution” if there is disagreement among qualified professionals about a new project’s impact, and that “if a fair argument is presented from even one expert that the project is not exempt [from an environmental report], the City of West Hollywood cannot pursuant to CEQA utilize a Categorical Exemption.” Meaning, the city would have to disclose the effects of the threatened demolition if just one expert presented an argument supporting Carlton Manor’s historical worth. Bypassing the usual protocol and going straight for a categorical exemption — normally used in cases where the lack of historical merit is uncontested — seemed anything but cautious. Critics theorized the city wanted to skip the environment report, an expensive and lengthy process, for financial reasons.
After the city dismissed the Historic Preservation Office’s argument, Messinger’s higher-ups reinforced her views in a letter to the city confirming her argument as well as her qualifications to speak on the matter of categorical exemption. Somewhere along the way, the testy exchange between the city and Messinger degenerated into insults. The city’s assistant attorney, Christi Hogin, wrote: “You can imagine that the staff was disappointed to receive your letter given that you had made no effort to become familiar with the facts,” and she also called Messinger “irresponsible.” Despite three letters from the Historic Preservation Office to Hogin and other officials, the city still claimed that the “fair argument” standard for an environment report had not been met, and approved Carlton Manor’s demolition. To compound the loss, a couple of elderly tenants died around the time of the eviction period: 78-year-old Bill Courtney and 84-year-old Ruth Manning.
After getting evicted, Neish stayed with various friends until his lawsuit was settled, but he needed to find a new apartment fast, and ended up with a neighbor who had been through much of the same traumas: Allegra Allison. Together in a new courtyard apartment, complex, quaint, lush, with its own subtle charm and potential for historical import, they’ve established a new headquarters to make sure what happened to them doesn’t happen again.
On the day that Carlton Manor got demolished, I found Neish and Allison standing protectively at the gate of their new courtyard. Neish yelled, “The next wave of preservation activism starts here!”