The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission voted 3-1 on June 3 to deny an application seeking to designate the Fairfax Theatre as a cultural historic resource.
The Fairfax Theatre, which is located at the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, has been closed since January after rain caused damage to the roof and ceiling. The owner, Alex Gorby, plans to convert the theatre and some adjacent retail shops into a 71-unit housing complex, with ground level retail space.
Several preservation groups formed the Friends of the Fairfax Theatre last year to fight the project, and applied to have the city designate the structure as a historic resource. The groups contended that the theatre, which was built in 1930, is one of the last remaining examples of a neighborhood movie theatre; its art deco architecture is unique, and the theatre was at the center of the development of the Fairfax District and the local Jewish community. In addition to showing films, the theatre hosted musical presentations and stage performances during its early days, and was a gathering place for the Jewish community during World War II.
Prior to its closure, the theatre had been operated by Regency Theatres, and mostly showed independent films. The auditorium had been subdivided into three theaters during the 1980s, but still retains a large stage and some of the behind-the-scenes equipment for moving stage props.
Edgar Garcia, preservation planner for the City of Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, said officials toured the theatre in May to analyze whether it should be designated as a historic resource, and a staff report recommended the commission approve the Friends of Fairfax’s application. The commission voted against the designation, however, based on the findings that the auditorium had been divided, and that the façade had been altered significantly when windows were installed, according to Garcia. The commission also found that there was not enough evidence to show that the theatre played a pivotal role in the development of the Fairfax District or the growth of the local Jewish community.
“The commission didn’t feel that it rose to that level. The exterior has had some window change-outs, and some of the storefronts are in various levels of renovation. There is billboard signage on top, and alterations to the interior as well,” Garcia said. “They just didn’t feel it met the criteria for a cultural heritage monument.”
Members of the Friends of the Fairfax Theatre strongly disagree, and have vowed to continue to fight for the theatre’s preservation when the project is considered by the city planning department. Mitzi Mogul, president of the Los Angeles Historical Theatre Foundation, one of the groups comprising the Friends of the Fairfax Theatre, said the structure is architecturally significant and that it does represent the history of the surrounding area.
“I think it is an excellent example of art deco, and I think we made our case,” Mogul said. “The Fairfax was the first theatre in Los Angeles wired to show sound films, so purely from a film history point of view, it more than meets the standard. From a cultural historical point of view, I think we introduced an overwhelming amount of evidence that this theatre was intrinsic to the development of what we now know as the Fairfax District.”
Ira Handelman, a consultant who represents the developer, said the project will now continue to move forward. An environmental impact report is currently being conducted, and Handelman said it will likely be completed within two to four months. He said the next step is for the project to be considered by the planning commission, but a date has not yet been scheduled.
“We presented our case and we agree with their decision,” Handelman said. “They didn’t make the finding that it was architecturally significant and they didn’t make the finding that it had anything to do with the cultural history of Fairfax, and that is what we contended all along.”
Handelman said the project will go forward as originally planned, but the developer will seek to create apartments instead of condominiums, as was previously announced. He added, however, that the building will be constructed to condominium standards, and the developer may change the project back to condominiums in the future.
“This was a fair process, and now we are moving ahead,” Handelman added. “This was a step we had to go through, but there are still many other steps.”
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