LA’s 60-year effort to protect city’s history, cultural heritage

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The Leonis Adobe, one of the oldest remaining private homes in Los Angeles, became the city’s first cultural monument, designated by the Cultural Heritage Commission in 1962. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Laurie Avocado.

Despite the common assumption that Los Angeles is consumed by what’s fresh and new, the city has a long, rich cultural tradition, including its buildings and historic monuments. And this week the city is celebrating 60 years of preserving that cultural history. 

Ken Bernstein, the principal city planner for Los Angeles and the author of the book “Preserving Los Angeles,” says much of that preservation was made possible by a local legislation that was one of the first of its kind in the country.

“The cultural heritage ordinance in our city came about in 1962 and was really sparked by advocates for the American Institute of Architects who were alarmed by the loss of historic buildings across the city.”

Los Angeles saw explosive growth in the early 1960s. During the post-World War II era, there was a push to revitalize urban communities by clearing out and bulldozing older communities and properties.  

“With the demolition of our downtown Victorian-era neighborhood, Bunker Hill, 1962 also saw the opening of Dodger Stadium, the symbol of modernity. That had come about with the clearance of Chavez Ravine years before that.”

Los Angeles designated the Leonis Adobe as the city’s first cultural monument at the initial meeting of the Cultural Heritage Board. The historic Calabasas structure dates to the 1840s and is one of the oldest remaining private homes in the city.

The Japanese Union Church, which served as a significant religious and community center both for Japanese Americans and Black Americans, became the 312th cultural monument to be recognized by the Cultural Heritage Commission. Photo by Downtowngal (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The Cultural Heritage Commission has also been instrumental in paying tribute to the city's diverse and rich cultural history, according to Bernstein. The Japanese Union Church on San Pedro Street, for example, embodies the ethnic diversity that started taking root in the city in the 20th century as well as racial divide and discrimination which minority groups had faced.

After becoming the first permanent Christian house of worship in Little Tokyo in 1923, the Union Church served as an important religious institution and community center for Japanese American immigrants before WWII. But when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during the war, the church became a religious and social center for the Black community.

“African Americans relocated to Los Angeles during that period from the south and relocated to Little Tokyo, which had been largely vacated during the internment. It became known as the neighborhood of Brownsville during World War II,” Berstein describes. “The church played that vital role as well for African Americans. And then after World War II, it again became a vital center for the Japanese American community.”

In addition to the Leonis Adobe and the Japanese Union Church, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission has designated more than 1,200 other historic-cultural monuments, including the Angels Flight Railway and Bradbury Building downtown to the San Fernando Rey Mission and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Although some owners push back against having their properties designated as cultural monuments, Bernstein says such resistance has become less frequent as both the the city and state have created incentives to sweeten the pot:

“The majority of nominations we get — more than half — come from property owners themselves,” Bernstein says. “Wanting to designate and recognize their own buildings, their own properties as city historic cultural monuments and see them protected into the future.”




Chery Glaser