Historic Status Can’t Save Lytton
Historic designation may not save the former Lytton Savings building, with its Googie accordion roof and mid-century modern design, from demolition.
The building, located at the east end of the Sunset Strip, is in danger of being torn down to make way for a mixed-use apartment complex, designed by Frank Gehry and approved by the Los Angeles City Planning Commission at a July hearing.
Designed in 1960 by Swiss-born architect Kurt Meyer and considered by many to be an iconic example of post-war architecture, the building may soon become a historic cultural monument, thanks to the efforts of two non-profit organizations, Friends of Lytton and the Los Angeles Conservancy.
The Cultural Heritage Commission voted unanimously in August to consider Lytton for landmark status, with two commissioners referring to the decision as a “no-brainer.” The issue will go back in front of the heritage commission for a second vote September 15th, but regardless of the outcome, their vote may be for naught.
According to Ken Bernstein with the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, historic designation would delay the process, but not necessarily save the bank from demolition.
“Historic cultural monuments can still be demolished in the city of L.A.,” said Bernstein.
According to Bernstein, if a building is designated a historic cultural monument, the Cultural Heritage Commission may object to its demolition for a period of 180 days, while the developer conducts a “fuller exploration of preservation options.”
Additionally, he said, the Los Angeles City Council may vote to extend the delay by another 180 days.
However, according to Bernstein, the developer can still choose to demolish the building at the end of those 360 days, and developer Townscape Partners has indicated they will do just that.
“We explored ways to incorporate the structure into our plans but could not find a way to do so feasibly and still realize Frank Gehry’s vision for the site,” said Townscape Partners in a statement to the Ledger. “The Frank Gehry design for 8150 Sunset Boulevard received unanimous approval from the Los Angeles City Planning Commission…and we continue to move forward with these plans.”
But while the developer calls preservation unfeasible, others have said the decision to demolish the bank is more a matter of taste than necessity.
“That [Gehry] would prefer to start from a clean slate at this site and not integrate the historic Lytton Savings building is not a relevant factor in determining the feasibility of the [p]reservation [a]lternatives,” wrote attorneys for the Los Angeles Conservancy in a July letter to the City Planning Commission.
According to the conservancy’s Adrian Scott Fine, Townscape Partners consulted with the organization during the project’s early stages, and were initially open to saving the Lytton building.
Previous versions of the 334,000 square-foot, mixed-use complex included two “preservation alternatives,” said Fine, which would incorporate the Lytton building into the new project’s design, rather than demolishing it.
However, according to Fine, Townscape abandoned that concept once Gehry came on board.
“We were having really fruitful conversations with the developers,” said Fine. “When they pursued Mr. Gehry, that changed.”
Fine said he knows that historic status won’t necessarily save Lytton, but hopes it will “raise the flag of awareness” about the demolishing of historic resources for new development, which he said has become all too common.
At a City Planning Commission meeting in July, members of the public spent five hours commenting on the proposed development, with some decrying the project as “egregious overdevelopment” and “celebrity architecture overreach,” while others praised it as an iconic piece of art, likening Gehry to Michelangelo. Others took no issue with Gehry’s vision, but demanded that Lytton be saved if the project were approved.
When the Cultural Heritage Commission heard the case for Lytton’s preservation in August, Commissioner Richard Barron warned speakers not to let Gehry’s prestige color the issue.
“We’re all aware of a project that’s being planned for this site by a famous architect, and I don’t want to go into that,” said Barron. “That’s not what we do here. We’ll only talk about the merits of [the Lytton] building.”
According to several speakers at the hearing, those merits include the building’s unique zigzag folded plate roof, a floating staircase and a stained glass partition designed by the pioneering French glass muralist Roger Darricarrere.
“It’s a rare type of architecture,” said area resident Tony Villanueva. “I travel a lot for work, and in other parts of the world, you don’t see things like this.”
Additionally, according to Friends of Lytton Co-Founder Steven Lufftman, the building was Meyer’s first major commission and likely altered the course of the architect’s career.
“Kurt Meyer was a very important architect in L.A.’s history,” said Lufftman. “You shouldn’t destroy one masterpiece to create another.”
Gehry has said he took inspiration for the new development’s design from the Garden of Allah Hotel, a fixture of Hollywood’s golden age, once frequented by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marlene Dietrich. That hotel was demolished in 1959 and replaced by Lytton Savings.