LOS ANGELES TIMES
Thursday June 24, 2004
Idyllic ... and endangered
* Should it stay or should it go? It's
On this sunny Thursday afternoon, Ramona residents do what they do best -- they chat, they chill, they gather around the fountain and commune. Janelle Paradee helps her 3-year-old son, Tristan, blow bubbles, and Rich Johnson watches his dog Mr. French chase them.
Courtyard life ebbs and flows. In the evenings, tenants and neighbors sip martinis (or, in Tristan's case, juice) and debrief about their days spent beyond this garden oasis. Life out there can be tough, say these mostly single men and women. Life can get lonely. In the mornings, tenants inevitably gather again on their way to work. They can't escape camaraderie. When they talk about the Ramona, the word they keep returning to is "family."
"There is love in this building," says Johnson. The surrounding chorus nods in agreement.
Time may be running out for this Ramona family. Up and down
It's not just the tenants who are campaigning, but a growing number of petitioners pleading for the survival of the 81-year-old structure, whose fate will ultimately be decided by the West Hollywood City Council. If these activists and sympathizers lose, a Santa Monica-based developer will raze the property -- its fountain, its palms, its 12 units -- and build 17 loft-style condominiums.
What's at stake, the preservation-minded will tell you, is not just the home of a dozen people, but a classic architectural style, instantly recognizable as belonging only to
The low-rise, high-density courtyard apartment buildings provided agreeable, inexpensive housing for everyday working people, and they became as emblematic of early 20th century
James Tice, coauthor of "Courtyard Housing in
Architectural and landscaping elements combine to create a communal atmosphere that is both practical -- you can interact with tenants, and easily keep watch over who comes and goes -- and "spiritual, ethereal," says Tice.
Johnson, an architect turned furniture designer who has lived in the Ramona for seven years, says the layout of the building doesn't just allow community, it necessitates it. All doorways and windows open onto courtyards. He leaves his windows open, summer, autumn, winter, spring. "I like the contact," he explains. "Even though we're not talking to each other, I can hear people, see them walking by."
Courtyard apartments, Tice insists, should be preserved as remnants from the past and also as paradigms for the future. It is hard to calculate how many have been lost: not even the Los Angeles Conservancy knows the number. Their relative humility as landmarks, Tice explains, may have made them vulnerable.
"In a way, they are more fragile because they can begin to disappear piecemeal, and then
Consider what happened along
But the lack of care and protection of historic buildings is not just an issue in
Councilman Jeffrey Prang agrees that the council is "too quick to scrap properties just because they're old. We need to be much more cautious."
But John Duran, mayor of
The Harper district, just a block north of the Ramona, is redolent with true
The simple, unassuming Ramona has yet to house any of the
But Fred Schaeffer, a principal at GTO Development, the company that bought the Ramona in March, doesn't believe it merits cultural resource designation.
"It has no significant detailing and is not particularly well constructed," he says. Schaeffer urges journalists and
"It would be wonderful," says Richard Abramson, architect on the GTO project, "if
Eight days after Johnson submitted an application in March for cultural resource designation, GTO sent a letter to Ramona tenants informing them that they would eventually have to vacate.
The koi were the first to go.
City law forbids developers from moving forward with development while cultural resource applications pend, but in late April, GTO's insurance company said safety-related changes had to be made to the property. Most were mundane -- updating smoke detectors and so forth. But the final item was a massive blow to tenants: "The decorative fountain presents the same hazard as a swimming pool and must be enclosed or the water removed."
Instead of safety-proofing the fountain, GTO removed the koi -- which had been swimming in the fountain for as long as anyone can remember -- and drained the water. That act outraged tenants and neighbors. "As weird as it sounds," say Ben Easter, an actor who lives across the street from the Ramona, "turning off the fountain is a monumental thing. The fountain brings peace. In my crazy life, it brings me peace."
Tenants met, petitions circulated, neighbors spread the word, and Brian Boyd heard about it "from a friend of a friend of a friend." Co-owner of the Pacific Trust Group, Boyd visited the property and was hooked. "This is an architectural piece that you don't find," he says. Since each unit only has one shared wall, it "gives you the feeling that you're in a house."
Boyd has offered to buy the building from GTO so that he can restore and preserve it. If the sale goes through, Boyd and his partner intend to abandon their four-bedroom Spanish house in the Hollywood Hills and live in a single unit at the Ramona.
But GTO is not interested in selling. The developers want to build their project, Schaeffer says, and if things go their way, they will. "If we're stymied ....then I guess we'd reconsider," he says.
For now, Boyd will leave his offer on the table; the residents will continue to campaign. The Historic Preservation Commission will take up the issue July 26 and eventually pass judgment. And the Ramona's fate, like so many other dwellings before it, will be decided by the City Council.
"It's a beautiful building," says Mayor Duran, "reminiscent of a style of living in
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Preservation ordinances ensure that these
Villa Primavera (
Patio del Moro (
Villa d'Este (
Harper House (
El Pasadero (
-- Steven Barrie-Anthony