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Century Plaza hotel preservation effort gets a boost

April 27, 2009 |  4:59 pm

Minutes after their return from the moon in 1969, the three Apollo 11 astronauts gazed out the window of their isolation chamber as President Nixon welcomed them home and invited them to a state dinner in their honor.

The setting would be a magnificent ballroom in the Century Plaza hotel in "Los Angeles’ space-age Century City complex," as the Los Angeles Times described it.

Forty years later, the crescent-shaped monument of midcentury modernism where guests enjoyed specially created "moon rocks" of green almond paste dusted with chocolate, is poised to become the focus of what promises to be an intense battle over preservation.

New owners have revealed plans to demolish the hotel, no longer the VIP magnet it once was, and replace it with a $2-billion complex including two 50-story towers containing condos, offices, shops and a smaller luxury hotel.

The Los Angeles Conservancy is determined to stop them. To bolster its campaign, it has enlisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which Tuesday put the 726-room Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel on its annual list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places.

"By naming this structure to the list, the National Trust is demonstrating that the preservation of recent past and modern buildings is as important to our cultural record as preserving architecture that’s from the Victorian period or Art Deco era," said Christine Madrid French, director of the trust’s nascent Modernism + Recent Past Initiative.

Of course, there is some debate about whether a hotel less than half a century old deserves the same level of protection as century-old structures.

When Los Angeles developer Michael Rosenfeld announced his redevelopment plans last December, he said the hotel’s nearly 600-foot length impeded pedestrians’ connections with other parts of the neighborhood. The new design, he said, would feature an open, tree-lined area between two 50-story towers that would facilitate people’s meanderings among offices, shops and restaurants.

"While the Century Plaza holds an important nostalgic place on the Westside, the benefits of the redesign greatly outweigh those values," Rosenfeld said in a December interview.

But the notion of razing the Century Plaza alarmed the Los Angeles Conservancy. It nominated the structure for the trust’s endangered list. Previously, other sites it suggested had made the list, including the original McDonald’s restaurant in Downey, Santa Anita Race Track, St. Vibiana’s Cathedral and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, one of the first residences constructed from concrete block.

Having seen the demolition of other Century City landmarks in recent years -- notably the ABC Entertainment Center, home of the Shubert Theatre, and the headquarters of Welton Becket & Associates, the firm that first designed Century City -- the conservancy did not want to see another midcentury building destroyed.

"This building has both architectural and cultural significance," Linda Dishman, the conservancy’s executive director, said of the Century Plaza. "We really thought this was the line in the sand."

-- Martha Groves


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