How One Quirky Museum Preserves LA's Victorian Houses
- Jan 28 Expand MessagesView Source
Tuesday, January 28, 2014, by Hadley Hall Meares
Just before the Avenue 43 exit on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, amidst the working-class homes and small businesses of Montecito Heights, sits a small, shabby but picturesque Victorian village. A clutch of nineteenth-century houses, a massive Carpenter Gothic church, a red trolley car, a shingled mustard colored depot. Blink and they're gone. The assembled buildings are the Heritage Square Museum, a "living history museum" that has been quietly working to preserve LA's Victorian architectural history, without the assistance of big donors or crowds, for more than 40 years.
Heritage Square Museum was established in 1969 by the Cultural Heritage Board. The board itself was a response to the rapid destruction of Los Angeles's historic landmarks and neighborhoods; the five-member panel was given the authority to designate Historic-Cultural Monuments in the city of Los Angeles. Surprisingly, given LA's dismal preservation track record, it was one of the first of its kind in the country, predating New York's Landmarks Preservation Law by three years. At its first meeting, the board designated five Historic-Cultural Monuments, all threatened with demolition. These included the "Salt Box," a famous mansion atop the once grand neighborhood of Bunker Hill.
Over the next few years, more and more historic buildings were threatened with demolition. These included many that had sprung out of the first LA land boom of the 1880s. Some of these structures stood nearly alone in neighborhoods, like Bunker Hill, which had been razed to make way for modern developments. Others no longer fit in with their neighborhoods, like the Palms Depot that sat condemned behind a furniture store. Still others had been converted to boarding houses or apartments by the 1930s and were later abandoned—the Perry Residence was "almost smothered" by weeds. The board had limited time to figure out what to do with the buildings. Even when they succeeded in designating structures as monuments, this only meant that a no-funds "hold" was placed on them for one year, nothing more than a stay of execution.
The Cultural Heritage Board, in particular long-time executive assistant Nancy Fernandez, worked with private cultural groups to find a permanent refuge for some of these buildings. In 1969, the LA Department of Parks and Recreation leased them a rather unremarkable 10-acre parcel of excess parkland adjacent to the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Heritage Square Museum was born. The goal was to move structures facing demolition to the site, restore them, and open them to the public.