In 1958, a small group of volunteers, as members of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Historic Building Committee, became alarmed by the destruction of historic landmarks created by the explosion of growth in post-World War II Los Angeles. The AIA Committee and the City’s Municipal Art Commission began working on an ordinance that would create a citizens board to survey, identify and protect historic sites throughout the city.
This early work culminated in the passage of the City’s Cultural Heritage Ordinance in 1962. Los Angeles’ ordinance was one of the earliest pieces of historic preservation legislation in a major urban center, predating by three years the 1965 passage of New York City’s renowned Landmarks Preservation Law. The Cultural Heritage Ordinance created a five-member Cultural Heritage Board, giving the Board the responsibility to designate as Historic-Cultural Monuments any building, structure, or site important to the development and preservation of the history of Los Angeles, the state, and the nation.
The Board’s first meeting on August 6, 1962 was both a landmark event and a pressure-packed, memorable day. The first five Historic-Cultural Monuments declared were sites that were all considered threatened to some extent. The Leonis Adobe, located on the border of Calabasas, was under immediate threat of demolition. Immediately upon the Board’s designation, a stop work order was issued to stay the demolition of this significant landmark. The Adobe was ultimately saved, and has the honor of being designated as Historic-Cultural Monument #1. Bolton Hall in Tujunga, the Plaza Church at El Pueblo, Angels Flight, and the “Salt Box” on Bunker Hill (later destroyed by fire) were also designated at the first meeting.
William Woolett, FAIA, was the first elected President of the Cultural Heritage Board. Carl Dentzel, longtime director of the Southwest Museum, was an original Board member, later served as the Board President, and remained on the Board until 1980. Prominent architectural historian and author Robert Winter also served on the Board, from 1972 to 1984.
When Bunker Hill redevelopment in downtown Los Angeles led to the wholesale destruction of historic Victorian-era architecture, the Cultural Heritage Board played a leadership role in relocating some of Bunker Hill’s most significant architectural works. Nancy Fernandez, the longtime Commission Executive Assistant, worked tirelessly with community members to create “Heritage Square” in 1969, on a parcel of land alongside the Pasadena Freeway that would become a home for historic architecture that otherwise would have been demolished. Heritage Square remains an active museum today interpreting the architecture and history of Southern California.
Originally, the Cultural Heritage Board had the unilateral power to declare Historic-Cultural Monuments. In 1980, a code amendment required that the City Council confirm the Board’s action before a property becomes an Historic-Cultural Monument. In 1985, the Cultural Heritage Board became a full-fledged City Commission.
Under Mayor Tom Bradley, Dr. Amarjit S. Marwah served as one of the longest-running Commission Presidents, heading up the Commission from 1985 to 1993. Staff Architect Jay Oren also provided significant leadership to the Cultural Heritage Commission for two decades, before his retirement in 2006. In 2004, the Commission’s staffing moved from the City’s Cultural Affairs Department to the Department of City Planning, leading to the creation of a comprehensive Office of Historic Resources in 2006.