Watts Towers

L.A. wouldn’t be L.A. without iconic buildings like the Watts Towers. Photo: Stephen Schafer Schafphoto.com

The word “preservation” traditionally evokes ancient temples, Greek columns, and grand cathedrals—and stories of lost civilizations that we know only through history books. Los Angeles has no ancient temples (unless, like me, you consider Randy’s Donuts a temple). As critics enjoy reminding us, Los Angeles is a relatively new city.

But our roots run deep. History is all around us—the pueblo called Los Angeles was founded just five years after this country became a nation. It is our responsibility to celebrate and protect the buildings that comprise our L.A. identity, the brick and stucco and glass that map out the imagination of those who came before us.

That was the message of last night’s Zócalo-Getty panel discussion, Is L.A.’s Past Worth Saving?, which welcomed writers and commentators to discuss how L.A.’s historic places provide a much-needed sense of rootedness. (See full video of the panel below.)

This year, the City of Los Angeles partnered with the Getty Conservation Institute to launch HistoricPlacesLA. What started as a portal for the City’s myriad of programs and historic designations has turned into a powerful resource connecting Angelenos to their city.

HistoricPlacesLA was specifically created to inventory, map, and help protect L.A.’s significant historic resources. But it’s also an online showcase of the real Los Angeles, one that reveals important chapters from our history.

Imagine this city without Watts Towers or the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Imagine L.A. without Welton Becket’s iconic stack of vinyl 45 records in Hollywood, which make up the Capitol Records Building. Imagine walking west over the L.A. River without heading into the heart of Olvera Street—where the 44 original pobladores settled this city.

For too many years, L.A. landmarks have been an afterthought. Each time we knock down one of our iconic buildings, we cut a connection to our past. As a city made up of over 100 unique neighborhoods, nothing about L.A. is typical. And nothing about preserving it should be, either.

Jensen's Recreation Center in Echo Park

Jensen’s Recreation Center in Echo Park. Photo: Kansas Sebastian on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One of my favorite buildings in L.A. is Jensen’s Recreation Center in Echo Park. The brick-clad building is topped with a sign that promises bowling and billiards. Every time I’d walk by my neighborhood landmark, I’d imagine the men who wandered in for a shave at the barbershop on the first floor, or families stopping by for a spot of lunch at the counter. It evokes the richness of L.A. past.

For 50 years, the sign was dark. When the building was finally designated a Historic Cultural Monument and took advantage of tax-credit programs, it lit up Sunset Boulevard once again with 1,300 incandescent bulbs. Jensen’s is a living, breathing monument to our history, a testament to our diversity and longevity.

From the old warehouse at the nation’s largest port to the Lankershim House in North Hollywood, from the adobes in Encino and Cahuenga Pass to Hollywood’s Chinese theater ceiling, from the Bradley Tower atop our city’s house of democracy to Mariachi Plaza and much, much more.

Let’s end the notion once and for all that L.A. doesn’t value its history. And work together to keep it a vital part of our everyday lives.