Some California cities are famed for their love of historic and cultural attractions. Los Angeles is not one of them — an unfair omission, I’ve always thought.
Many of Southern California’s most popular landmarks are still there because Los Angeles rallied. St. Vibiana’s Cathedral downtown, once on the brink of demolition, is now a thriving events center. The gorgeous Julia Morgan building that once housed the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, where I used to work, is now a satellite Arizona State University campus. There’s a fight to save the bungalow where Marilyn Monroe died — a legend behind a wall in a cul-de-sac on a side street in Brentwood.
In a place with a history as growth-oriented as Southern California’s, the preservation of those properties has not been easy.
Next month, a leading voice in that effort, Linda Dishman, the president of the Los Angeles Conservancy, will pass the torch after 31 years at the organization, a nonprofit group that has been instrumental in saving pieces of Southern California’s past from bulldozers. The conservancy’s senior director of advocacy, Adrian Scott Fine, will succeed her.
Dishman and I chatted not long ago about history and growth in L.A., the nation’s second most populous city. Here is some of our conversation, lightly edited.
Los Angeles was just beginning to realize the value of historic preservation when you became the conservancy’s leader. What has changed since then?
Preservation has really become more of a commonly held value. I think of my first years, when we were fighting to save the Herald Examiner building. Fighting to save the Ambassador Hotel. Fighting to save the May Company. The Herald Examiner was going to be torn down for a parking lot, which seems so strange now. But that’s how little value people placed on these buildings and their history.
At the start, you had some big challenges.
I came in March, and in April was the civil unrest. Then a year and a half later was the Northridge earthquake. It was a tough couple of years.
And that was followed by some epic fights.
Yes. With St. Vibiana in 1996, we were up against the entire power structure of Los Angeles, which included the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the mayor and The Los Angeles Times, which owned property very close by and which was very concerned about those property values. They did some searing editorials.
The archdiocese wanted to level St. Vibiana and build a new cathedral, but the building was a historic cultural monument.
They used the Northridge earthquake as an excuse. The cardinal would come to the site in a red hard hat to point out the cracks.
And then they sent crews out on a Saturday morning to demolish it without a permit.
We were able to get a temporary restraining order, which no one thought we could do. Then it went to a full trial that we won and an appeal that we also won. Then they tried to revoke the building’s designation as a historic and cultural landmark. Then they went to the Legislature and tried to remove several blocks of downtown from regulation under the California Environmental Quality Act, so we had to go to Sacramento. But ultimately the archdiocese found a new location and we were able to find a new buyer. Sometimes with preservation, half the battle is just keeping the building standing, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.
What was your greatest disappointment?
Obviously losing the Ambassador Hotel was hard.
There was so much history in that building, including the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, but the Los Angeles Unified School District was desperate for the classrooms.
We did everything we could. We did plans for how to build around it, with small learning communities and even for turning the hotel into low-income housing, which the community certainly could use now. But it just came down to the fact that the school district was not interested in a vision that included the hotel.
Some projects — the Century Plaza Hotel, for instance — have blended growth and preservation. But shouldn’t history step aside now, with the acute need for affordable housing in Los Angeles?
A survey completed in 2017 found that less than 7 percent of the city is historic, so there are plenty of places to build density. We’ve also worked with the city to increase density by adding accessory dwelling units in historic districts. And we’re seeing some good success. But it’s hard when you’re trying to infill in the central city. At the same time, there used to be a myth that L.A. didn’t have history, or that L.A. had history but people didn’t care about it. That’s not true anymore. People are in these neighborhoods now. They walk more. They know the buildings. They have an attachment to place, and articulate that.
Now iconic buildings don’t seem to be as threatened as they used to be. When developers bought the Capitol Records building in Hollywood in 2006 — the famous circular building that looks like a stack of records — they proposed a lot of density around it, which we supported. But they never proposed tearing it down. That was a significant change.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Jorge Moreno, a spokesman for California State Parks. He recommends Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park:
“Nestled in the beautiful Coloma Valley, just north of Placerville, this historic park is the site of James Marshall’s 1848 gold discovery that sparked the California gold rush. Visitors can pan for gold in the American River and enjoy hikes and picnics under the riparian oak woodlands. The park includes a museum and a cluster of historic buildings and ruins. Overlooking the beautiful river canyon is the Marshall Monument, California’s first historic monument and the final resting place of James Marshall. Visit Dec. 9 to 10 to get in the holiday spirit at Christmas in Coloma!”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
For several months, readers have been emailing me their favorite places to experience art in California. Send your own suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. Please include your name and the city where you live.
And before you go, some good news
The Dixie fire, California’s largest single wildfire on record by area, devastated the forests of Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California in 2021. But new hope has blossomed from the ashes scattered on the forest floor by the fire, in the form of young plants and grasses that are now growing in the scorched soil.
Seen from the trail beside the park’s visitor center, the landscape is now alive and abundant with greenery and wildflowers, Dani Anguiano, a reporter at The Guardian wrote in a recent article.
The park, nearly 70 percent of which was burned in the fire, serves as a reminder of the dangers that drought and climate change pose to the state’s, and the country’s, network of parks and natural resources, Anguiano writes. But Lassen is also a poignant reminder of nature’s resilience and its ability to heal and regenerate.
“That’s just the way this ecosystem is,” Russell Rhoad, a ranger at the park, told Anguiano. “It gets thrown a hard pass, and then it just recovers and does something different. It doesn’t have to turn back into what it was before.”
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Monday. Enjoy your weekend.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Soumya Karlamangla, Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.