In an effort to raise public awareness of and support for the endangered historic Lincoln Place Garden Apartments in Venice, tenants and Los Angeles Conservancy members led free walking tours of four rental units in the complex on Sunday, December 18.
The current owner, AIMCO (Apartment Investment and Management Company) has given the remaining tenants — 78 households comprised mostly of senior citizens and people with disabilities – until March 20 2006 to vacate their apartments so that their buildings can be demolished.
Seven buildings have already been torn down. Chicken wire-fenced empty lots are all that remain. AIMCO has proposed replacing the buildings with 1,008 condominiums where there originally had been 795 rental units.
Two signs along the tour succinctly summarized the polarized positions of the tenants and the property owner. Nestled against some plants on the landing of Ingrid Mueller’s one-bedroom apartment, is her sign reading “There’s No Place Like Home.”
Mueller, an 18-year Lincoln Place resident and cancer survivor, was initially attracted to the complex because it reminded her of the garden-style apartment building in which she grew up in her native Germany. If forced to leave, Mueller claims that the sheriff will have to carry her out in a pine coffin that she will have custom-made for the occasion.
In sharp contrast were numerous signs posted on apartment doors, in windows and on posts stuck into the grass throughout the 33-acre site. The red lettering on the white signs warned: “Private Property, No Trespassing, Violators Will Be Prosecuted.”
The intimidating signs were reinforced by the noticeably visible security guards patrolling in cars and on foot to keep a continual watch of the tours. Before setting out, docents warned participants to avoid trespassing charges by staying on public sidewalks and entering buildings only when invited in by the tenants who opened their homes for public viewing.
In respect for the cautionary warnings, the tour proceeded without major incident. Although when a friend tried to visit another tenant who was vacating her apartment, a security guard told the tenant that no one could come in, not even to help her remove her belongings as that would be trespassing.
The tour started from the Lincoln Place tent city where some of the locked-out tenants have held a vigil. Groups of 10 to 15 people, escorted by docents, walked the meandering paths through expansive lawns, mature trees, and landscaped courtyards.
Lincoln Place was built in 1950 in a Hollywood stylized version of Modernist architecture. The complex was unanimously awarded Historic District designation by the California State Historical Resources Commission in August, 2005.
The Commission determined that Lincoln Place met California Register criteria as an excellent enduring example of both the “garden apartment” property type and of Modernist architecture. It also found that is was a major and intact example of the low and moderate income rental housing built in Los Angeles after World War II in response to a severe housing shortage.
“The historic designation doesn’t provide iron-clad protection from demolition,” said Ken Bernstein, Director of Preservation Issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, “But it does mandate a review process.”
The listing on the California Register, combined with a recent victory in Appeals Court, requires that Lincoln Place be treated as a significant historical resource under state law and local ordinances. Demolition won’t be allowed unless an Environmental Impact Report process finds that there are no feasible alternatives.
One of the many things that drew activist Amanda Seward of 20th Century Architecture Alliance to the project was that it was designed by a multi-ethnic team, i.e. a Jewish developer, an African-American architect, a white architect whose family had been slave owners, and an Asian draftsman.
None of the apartment buildings exceed two stories in height and some have one-story cottages attached. Painted in exterior colors of pale peach, gold, white, and tan, the buildings are set well back from the surrounding streets to create a park-like setting that masks its high density. The buildings were purposely staggered to create a sense of privacy and afford good ventilation.
“The architecture of the complex was designed to foster social interaction, to make the automobile secondary, and emphasize common open spaces,” noted Ken Bernstein of the Los Angeles Conservancy. “It was the antithesis of post-war housing which was architecture of isolation.”
Michael Palumbo, a tenant with diabetes, welcomed the first set of tour-goers to his second-story, one-bedroom apartment where he has lived for ten years. He proudly announced that 99 percent of his apartment was original, including the hardwood floors throughout and the tiles and fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom.
Palumbo also pointed out that although the apartments had slightly different layouts, all front and back doors corresponded to each other to encourage neighborliness. He recounted how he and his neighbor kept their back doors open to chat while cooking in their separate apartments. He was also thankful that a fellow tenant who was a nurse once saved him when he suffered a severe insulin reaction. Other tenants told similar stories of the benefits of communal living.
Since early December, the sheriff has locked out 92 residents, including 23 children, which many tenants point out was particularly mean-spirited in light of the upcoming holiday season.
Los Angeles City Council member Bill Rosendahl, who was present at the tour, said this was the largest, single-day eviction in the history of the City of Los Angeles. “These evictions are intolerable. We cannot continue to see the middle class and affordable housing be squeezed out of the Westside.”
Litigation started a couple years ago to block the demolition and ensure that AIMCO followed the law regarding future development of the site. Now the tenants are trying to get the eviction orders reversed and stop the issuance of any new ones.
William Delvac, an attorney at Latham & Watkins, the law firm that represents the property owner, participated in the tour “to see what was historic about the buildings,” but he declined to comment when asked about the dispute and suggested that a representative of AIMCO be contacted instead.
To raise funds, the tenants have recorded a CD of holiday music, available for $5.00 with proceeds going to the grassroots effort to save the complex. Additional tax-deductible donations are being sought to cover the cost of legal fees and outreach activities. For further information, visit the Lincoln Place Tenant’s Association website at www.lincolnplace.net.
Ed. Note: Sherrill Kushner is a member of both the Los Angeles and Santa Monica Conservancies and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and is President of Santa Monica’s the Shotgun House Project.