THE QUESTION USED TO BE “WHY,” but now it’s simply “when” a piece of Los Angeles’ history will suddenly disappear. Even back in the 1970s, residents were fighting to save the Central Library (built in 1926), and in the mid-1990s, activists saved one of the City of Angels’ oldest structures, the Cathedral of St. Vibiana’s (1876). More recently, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House (1924) is undergoing major restoration, the Barry Building (home to Dutton’s Bookstore) was landmarked, and the Parasol restaurant was saved, becoming Mel’s Drive-In, Seal Beach.
But thanks to development, changing demographics and other factors, demolition fences are becoming much more familiar sights than architectural gems. Taken individually, each loss may seem small, but those losses are taking a toll on L.A.
Some new architecture may be destined to become future landmarks, but more likely, a community loses a favorite mom-and-pop restaurant for yet another chain drugstore. Or a San Gabriel Valley community wakes up to a mountain of dirt — that’s since become Kohl’s — abruptly ending the tradition of Sunday drives to Clearman’s Village and the original Galley.
Farther west, a 1925 National Register landmark shows its last movie, marking the end for South Pasadena’s historic theater, the Rialto. Landmark Theatres didn’t even bother to arrest the decay at the Rialto, warning that the old balcony was dangerous and out of bounds. Moviegoers sat on seats with springs popping through.
A few blocks north in Pasadena, the familiar green neon of Monty’s Steak House still lights the night sky, and there’s a thank-you to Monty’s loyal clientele for 65 years of patronage. They’ve already auctioned off the contents. The era of sipping Manhattans while dining in classic red-booth style is over.
Los Angeles has long been considered a place of unusual architecture and ties to Hollywood’s golden age. But several iconographic locales fell to the wrecking ball in 2007, or now face a dicey future:
1. Ambassador Hotel and Cocoanut Grove (1921, architect Myron Hunt): Since its spectacular opening, the impressive Ambassador and its Cocoanut Grove nightclub became a resort mecca, bar none, hosting dignitaries, celebrities, politicians and artists. It hosted the Academy Awards ceremonies throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with breathtaking galas.
In 1968, the Ambassador made tragic worldwide news when Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated there after giving a victorious California presidential-primary speech in the Embassy Ballroom. Twenty years later, the hotel closed and was purchased by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has fought attempts to preserve the historic site and its defining elements.
After years of complex negotiations to preserve the ballroom, pantry, promenade, Paul Williams–designed coffee shop, Cocoanut Grove and other historic elements, demolition began at the Cocoanut Grove, and the Los Angeles Conservancy filed suit against LAUSD for failing to protect the site. Now, the ghostly structure is in limbo, and the district faces demands that it meet its legal obligations under California’s Environmental Quality Act.
2. Trader Vic’s, Beverly Hills (1953–'55, architects Welton Becket & Associates): The restaurant having been slated for demolition for a multimillion-dollar development by Oasis West, its surprise closure on April 29, and the subsequent removal of the signature novial gold neon that read, “Trader Vic’s,” was a quiet end for this legendary establishment.
Known for its Polynesian ambiance and authentic-recipe rum cocktails served with little umbrellas, Trader Vic’s had “presence.” Today, not even a simple goodbye banner marks the more than half-century of celebrity toasts made at the bustling intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards.
3. Johnie’s Broiler, Downey (1958, architect Paul B. Clayton): Starting the year off on an eerie note, Johnie’s was illegally bulldozed on January 7. The Broiler had qualified as a California state landmark in 2003, but that designation was disputed by the owner.
“Cruising the Broiler” was a rite of passage in Downey. Carhops served up burgers and malts to soon-to-become-famous local names like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, George Barris, Larry Watson and Dean Jeffries, and just about everyone else who pulled in under the lighted boomerang-shaped canopies in their handmade customs, hot rods and roadsters. The building remains in all its demolished glory, under a building moratorium that’s about to expire.
4. Mann National Theatre, Westwood (1970, architect Harold Levitt): After nominating the Mann National for local landmark status, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission opted to “record and file” the matter — which basically puts the application on permanent hold.
Its hot location on Wilshire Boulevard, and the building’s relatively young age, are not likely to result in official recognition and preservation. Moviegoers have made their last trip up its grand staircase.
5. Tail o’ the Pup (designed in 1938, opened in 1945): As an architectural writer, probably 80 percent of my calls — even though it’s been gone for a year — are simply “Where’d the Tail o’ the Pup stand go?” It vanished after the owners lost their lease when talks of developing a retirement community on-site began. The famous hot doggy mysteriously disappeared one day, and remains officially MIA.
6. A lot of historic signs vanished, including Clayton Plumbers, a colorful animated sign on Westwood Boulevard featuring a dripping faucet that ended in a splash announcing, “The leak stops here!” and the intact 1950s examples of Googie signage at Jack’s Salad Bowl in Whittier designed by Martin Stern Jr., who also designed Ship’s Westwood (long ago leveled for a skyscraper). The former Salad Bowl now sports cheap, backlit plastic announcing “El Pulpo” restaurant.