Preservation or Demolition Showdown on South Union Avenue
Almost as long as we’ve been giving tours of Los Angeles, we’ve taken people to the 800 block of South Union Avenue in the Pico-Union District.
We were interested in the Castlebar Apartments, mid-block, west side, where in 1929 Mrs. Virginia Patty was beaten by her boyfriend and left to die cinched to a clothes hook in the shallow closet behind his fold up bed. The chilling jazz age crime scene has been a stop on many bus tours, and we’ve recently added the tale, and a separate location, to the new Westlake Park walk.
But as many times as we’ve idled in front of the Castlebar over the years, never once did we tell our tour guests to look out the other side of the bus and take note of the B’nai B’rith Lodge.
Obscured behind bushy street trees, with an unfortunate ground floor remodel, it was easy to overlook the lovely 1923-24 clubhouse, designed by master architect S. Tilden Norton and clad in Batchelder tile.
That all changed in February 2021, when our preservation pal David Silvas made a video pulling our sleeves to a recent demolition notice affixed to the side of the building, which had been sold for $18.5 Million in 2018 (here are the listing and offering memorandum).
We read up on the amazing history of this Jewish service club turned influential union hall, and raised the alarm about Catholic Charities’ plan to clear the lot for a shelter and transitional housing for foster youth.
After watching David’s video, Nathan Marsak wrote a wonderful blog post for R.I.P. Los Angeles, suggesting that there was a win-win solution by which Catholic Charities could restore and repurpose the historic lodge alongside new construction on the enormous surface parking lot.
And Steven Luftman went further still, preparing a Historic Cultural Monument nomination and submitting it to the city for consideration. When the owner objected on the grounds that because it was a religious charity Los Angeles could not impose an unwanted landmark designation, we published Steven’s research and hosted a live webinar to talk about the preservation crisis. You can watch the recording here.
Since 2019, Catholic Charities has asked repeatedly for a demolition permit, and the city has said no—because the building was under landmark consideration, because it’s in a redevelopment zone, because the much hyped Union Avenue Village youth housing project would require environmental review.
Last week, Catholic Charities’ lawyers filed for a Writ of Mandate seeking relief in Superior Court, asking a judge to command Los Angeles to issue the desired demolition permit. Included in their demand is the distressing claim that they no longer plan to do anything but demolish the potential landmark—no transitional housing for foster youth and homeless runaways, nothing but destruction.
You can read that filing here.
If our campaign to save the suppressed and nun-less Monastery of the Angels in Hollywood as sacred Catholic space was an introduction to the odd intersections between civil property rights and zoning, canon law and religious independence, the fight to preserve B’nai B’rith is shaping up as a graduate seminar.
But there’s no need for a fight at all. With that enormous surface parking lot ripe for redevelopment, and civic and community support for much needed transitional housing for foster kids—new mayor Karen Bass’ signature issue in Congress—Catholic Charities could easily sit down with the city and the preservationists and work together to grow this beautiful, historic building into something all of Los Angeles can be proud of.
We’re saddened that the city planners, still crawling out from the shadow more than a decade of land use corruption overseen by confessed racketeer Jose Huizar—and in this neighborhood by his unindicted partner in demolishing Parker Center, Gil Cedillo—have lost sight of their responsibility to find common ground with major property owners like Catholic Charities. It should never have come to this litigious state, and we hope all concerned can find their way back and get to work.
But for now, the next step is a court date—on May the 4th, Star Wars Day.
How remarkable to think that this all started when one concerned Angeleno saw the tattered blue demolition notice and stopped to make a video to share with their friends. Two years on, we’re glad to be lifting up the voices of Steven Luftman, Nathan Marsak and David Silvas, celebrating past generations who made history on this corner, and to be standing with the city as it takes a refreshingly firm stand for preservation, history and environmental review. Join us?
yours for Los Angeles,
Kim & Richard
Psst… If you’d like to support our efforts to be the voice of places worth preserving, we have a tip jar and a subscriber edition of this newsletter, vintage Los Angeles webinars available to stream, in-person walking tours, gift certificates and a souvenir shop you can browse in. Or just share this link with other people who care.
UPCOMING WALKING TOURS
• Saturday, February 11 - Broadway: Downtown Los Angeles’ Beautiful, Magical Mess • Saturday, February 18 - Evergreen Cemetery, 1877 • Saturday, February 25 - Westlake Park Time Travel Trip • Saturday, March 11 - Downtown Los Angeles is For Book Lovers • Saturday, March 18 - Franklin Village Old Hollywood • Saturday, March 25 - Angelino Heights & Carroll Avenue • Saturday, April 8 - John Fante’s Downtown • Saturday, April 15 - Raymond Chandler’s Downtown
CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS
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My father had a pharmacy at 9th and Union. The Crown Drug Co
I am sad to hear about the destruction of this building as it meant a lot to the neighborhood and the memories of my childhood trips to visit the drug store. Thank you for writing about this loss.