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What Makes a Historic-Cultural Monument?: A Short Primer

The staff of the Office of Historic Resources are often asked: “How do you determine whether a building or site merits designation as a Historic-Cultural Monument?”  This short primer on historic designation aims to demystify how a resource (building or site) is determined to be “monument-worthy,” or eligible to be designated a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM).

Age Alone is Not Enough

Contrary to common belief, the age of a building or site does not deem it significant or eligible for designation.  Not all aged buildings are “historic”; it’s possible for a building that is over 100 years old to not meet any of the criteria necessary for its designation as a historic building. 

The converse is also not necessarily true as not every HCM is “old.” The City of Los Angeles does not have a minimum age requirement that a building or site must meet in order to be eligible for designation. Cinerama Dome Theatre in Hollywood opened in 1963 and was designated HCM #659 in 1998, only 35 years after it opened.  The Greek Orthodox Saint Sophia Cathedral opened in 1952 and was designated HCM #120 in 1973, 21 years after it opened. “Binoculars” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen at the Chiat/Day Building in Venice was 9 years old and also the “youngest” landmark at the time it was designated HCM #656 in 1998.

In general, to be eligible for HCM designation, it is necessary for enough time to pass since the completion of the resource to provide sufficient perspective to evaluate its significance within a historical context.

What can be nominated?

The City’s Cultural Heritage Ordinance criteria for designation allows for the designation of “any site (including significant trees or other plant life located on the site), building or structure of particular historic or cultural significance to the City of Los Angeles.”  Note that the ordinance allows for the designation of a wide array of resources.  Buildings make up the majority of HCMs, including varied residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial buildings. HCM designation may also be bestowed to “structures,” including bridges, stairways, traffic medians, and public art. Open spaces such as Griffith Park and Echo Park are HCMs and include historic structures, individual trees, and tree groupings. Other examples of HCMs include the grouping of Deodar Cedar trees in Granada Hills, the Mexican Fan Palms of Avalon Boulevard in Wilmington, Eagle Rock and its natural features in the community of Eagle Rock, and the Stoney Point Outcroppings of Chatsworth.

Designation Criteria

The City’s criteria for designation are fairly straightforward: there are only three.  In an amendment to the Cultural Heritage Ordinance that took effect in April 2018, these criteria were numbered for the first time and slightly reorganized so that their content and order also mirror similar criteria used for the National Register of Historic Places and California Register of Historical Resources. 

A Monument may be designated if it:

1. Is identified with important events of national, state, or local history, or exemplifies significant contributions to the broad cultural, economic or social history of the nation, state, city or community;

2. Is associated with the lives of historic personages important to national, state, city, or local history; or

3. Embodies the distinctive characteristics of a style, type, period, or method of construction; or represents a notable work of a master designer, builder, or architect whose individual genius influenced his or her age.

Note that a Monument does not need to meet all three criteria to be eligible, it only needs to meet one.  Some Monuments meet two or three of the criteria. However, a potential Monument could be significant for its role in only history, only for its association with an important person, or only for its architecture or design, in order to be considered worthy of designation. 

Let’s take a closer look at each of the criteria for designation:

1. Historic Events and Broad Historic Patterns

To meet the first criterion requires a finding that the place in question “is identified with important events of national, state, or local history or exemplifies significant contributions to the broad cultural, economic or social history of the nation, state, city or community.”  Sometimes these historic associations are tied to a specific “event.” The site of Campo de Cahuenga, HCM #29, was recognized as the site of the signing of the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War in California, and led to California’s transfer from Mexican to American rule.  The Black Cat, HCM #939, a Silver Lake bar, was designated for its role in a police raid on New Year’s Day, 1967, and subsequent protests at the site that constituted the first significant LGBT civil rights demonstrations, pre-dating New York’s Stonewall riots by more than two years. 

Other times, the historic associations are more with broad patterns or trends in history.  The Venice West Café, HCM #979, was designated as a significant gathering place for the “Beat Generation” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, influencing the development of mid-20th century Bohemian counter-culture in the Venice community. 

The language in the Ordinance also allows for the designation of places that reflect the broader “cultural history” of Los Angeles.  For example, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, HCM #958, was designated for its more than half-century-long association with the history of puppeteering in Los Angeles and with puppeteer Bob Baker, who entertained generations of Los Angeles families.

2. Historic Personages

To meet the second criterion requires a finding that the potential Monument “is associated with the lives of historic personages important to national, state, city, or local history.”  Some “historic personages” are political figures, such as the boyhood home in Southeast Los Angeles of the Nobel Prize winning diplomat Ralph J. Bunche, HCM #159, or the nearby Gilbert W. Lindsay Home, HCM #726, which was the residence of a long-serving African American City Councilmember.

The criterion for “historic personages” demands that the Cultural Heritage Commission and City Council determine the historic importance of an individual, the strength of an individual’s association with a proposed Monument, and the ability for the associated place to convey its significance. Bukowski Court, HCM #912, is a multi-family complex in Hollywood that was the home of internationally recognized novelist and poet Charles Bukowski from 1963-1972.  Although it was not Bukowski’s only residence in Los Angeles, these courtyard apartments were his residence during one of the most productive periods of his career and the complex itself figured heavily in his work. 

The Charlotte and Robert Disney House in Los Feliz, HCM #1132, where Walt Disney first lived when he moved to Los Angeles is an instructive example.  Although Walt Disney lived at the home for less than a year, it was at this location that he created his first animation studio that would become the Disney empire. 

In contrast, a Valley Village apartment where Norma Jean Dougherty (later Marilyn Monroe) lived for one year with her in-laws as a teenager during World War II, before she became famous, was declined for HCM designation because the association with her career was not as strong and because she lived in many other Los Angeles area residences during the peak of her career. 

3. Architectural Style and Architects/Designers

The third criterion – “Embodies the distinctive characteristics of a style, type, period, or method of construction; or represents a notable work of a master designer, builder, or architect whose individual genius influenced his or her age” – is really in two parts.  The first portion asks whether the nominated resource “embodies,” or is an excellent example of, a particular architectural style or a property type.  A large number of Historic-Cultural Monuments are designated as important examples of their architectural style.  The Stahl House (Case Study House #22), HCM #670, is designated as an iconic example of a Mid-Century Modern residence.  La Casa de las Campanas, HCM #238, in Hancock Park is an outstanding example of Spanish Colonial Revival residential architecture.

Other HCMs are designated because they embody a property type, rather than an architectural style.  The Edinburgh Bungalow Court (HCM #1105) was designated as a type. The bungalow court is a multi-family housing property type that is distinctively Southern Californian.  Similarly, the Munch Box (HCM #750), a small 1950s hamburger stand in Chatsworth, was designated as an excellent example of a walk-up food stand. 

The second part of the third criterion, “represents a notable work of a master designer, builder, or architect whose individual genius influenced his or her age,” refers to the architect or designer who created the proposed Monument in question.  This criterion asks, first, whether the architect, builder, designer (or sometimes engineer) was a “master” who had broad influence during their time.  And secondly, it asks the Cultural Heritage Commission and City Council to determine, even if the individual was a “master” architect, builder, or designer, and whether the building or structure in question is “notable” within the context of the individual’s entire body of work. 

Numerous HCMs have been designated based on associations with master architects, including the Laurelwood Apartments in Studio City (HCM #228) by R.M. Schindler, the Freeman House (HCM #247) by Frank Lloyd Wright in the Hollywood Hills, and Richard and Dion Neutra’s VDL Research House (HCM #640) in Silver Lake.

Other proposed Monuments have been declined either because the architect did not have widespread influence or because the proposed Monument was not as significant within the designer’s body of work. For example, a single-family residence in the Rampart Village neighborhood built by architect Winchton L. Risley did not qualify for designation since Risley appears to have worked on only a handful of projects over his career.  The Goldman House in Encino, while designed by Richard Neutra, who is clearly recognized as a “master architect” was declined because the house had been significantly altered and no longer qualified as a “notable work” of Neutra.

The staff of the Office of Historic Resources evaluate nominations for Historic-Cultural Monument based on these criteria and prepare a professional staff recommendation for consideration by the Cultural Heritage Commission and, if approved by the Commission, the City Council.