Preserving Topanga’s History
Bill Buerge responds below to a recent rumor that the county was requiring the boxcar bridge—a structure that most Topangans regard as a historical landmark—to be removed. The rumor was not true, but it did spark discussion about what the community regards as historical landmarks and whether or how to protect them. Buerge went through that process 27 years ago with the Mountain Mermaid and shares his experience and insights here. “Falling in love with historic properties can break your heart,” he cautions.
Twenty-seven years ago, I applied to the state and county for historic designation for the Mountain Mermaid. Long story short, the Mermaid became a California Point of Historical Interest, the first historically declared property in Topanga, an unincorporated area.
Since then, Topanga Historical Society member, Karen Moran, managed to list the Topanga Christian Fellowship Church on the California Register of Historic Places. As far as I know, these are the only two designated historic sites in Topanga (LA County unincorporated area).
Getting a historic designation is a little complicated because there are city, county, state and federal historical programs and declarations, among them:
- California Historical Landmark—“Sites, buildings, features, or events that are of statewide significance and have anthropological, cultural, military, political, architectural, economic, scientific or technical, religious, experimental, or other value.”
- California Points of Historical Interest—Same criteria as landmarks, but on a city and county level.
- California Register of Historic Resources—State. This program is for use by state and local agencies, private groups and citizens to identify, evaluate, register and protect California’s historical resources.
- National Register of Historic Places—The official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
- Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument—L.A. City designation. (http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/pages/1056/files/reg%20prgms%20chart.pdf)
It’s possible for owners to receive property tax relief and other benefits from the government for preserving historic properties, but the process can be onerous and restrictive. I never have received anything in this regard. One can actually deed over part of a building, such as the front façade, to a historical society or some such, where it becomes deed-restricted and hopefully preserved forever.
The Topanga Community House, Theatricum Botanicum, Froggy’s, Inn of the Seventh Ray, Lower Topanga with its existing motel buildings and the Boxcar Bridge come to mind as local places that could probably acquire official historical status if someone or an organization makes the effort to apply.
“Historic fabric” is a catch-all term referring to the most essential parts— configuration, materials and aspects of an older property—that give it its historic value. It’s interesting, and sad, that if the historic fabric of an old property is substantially diminished or destroyed, the property can lose some, or all of its historic significance.
“Demolition by neglect” is a common technique used by developers to destroy a property’s historic worth. Torching them is another. The demolition of the old houses along Topanga Beach and the burning of the old Topanga Corral have, unfortunately, eroded the historic value of those sites.
In the early 1990s, I read an article in Los Angeles Magazine about a lawyer and professional historic property investigator named David Cameron who conducted “house histories.” I immediately hired him to research the Mermaid. What he came up with blew me away.
The Mermaid had a checkered past with an amazing array of prior identities. It was originally built as the Silvia Park Country Club in 1930, fell on hard times and morphed into a Jewish boarding house in the late 1930s, only to be resurrected as a resort called Rancho Topango in the early 1940s. It went on to become one of Mickey Cohen’s clandestine Los Angeles gambling establishments during the war, a brothel, and later a gay nightclub named the Canyon Club in the mid-1950s. The gay club owner, a former vice cop, disallowed African Americans and everyone stopped coming by 1972, when it was sold and re-opened as the Mermaid Tavern, a celebrated artistic haunt offering world-class chamber music on the weekends. When I bought it in 1990 it was an exhausted, leaking, water-logged wreck, literally about to fall over.
David Cameron told me about the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, the entity that approves the historical declarations in L.A. City and County. He urged and guided me in applying for declaration. The Mermaid first had to get local approval from this body, and then go to the state for the final approval. I applied and the Mermaid received a unanimous vote from the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission, and was later approved in Sacramento. The state preservation office is part of California Parks and Recreation. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-10-14/local/me-287_1_topanga-canyon.
To apply for historical status, you fill out forms detailing the historical significance of your proposed property and submit them with photos and supporting data. There are people one can consult with that can guide you through the process.
STATE CRITERIA FOR PROPOSED PROPERTIES
- Is the property the first, last, only or most significant of its type in the state or within a large geographic region (Northern, Central or Southern California)?
- Is it associated with an individual or group having a profound influence on the history of California?
- Is it a prototype of, or an outstanding example of, a period, style, architectural movement or construction or is it one of the more notable works or the best surviving work of a pioneer architect, designer or master builder?
The City of Los Angeles is relatively gung-ho about landmarking their historical properties. Los Angeles County is less so and unincorporated Topanga is under the auspices of the county. The city has more than a thousand Historic Cultural Monuments, the county a fraction of that; I was number 59 back in 1992.
In October 2015, just two years ago, the county finally adopted its first-ever preservation ordnance. “The ordinance enables the county government to designate and protect historic resources in unincorporated territory countywide, including County-owned structures, and does not require owner consent. It also allows for the designation of local historic districts. https://www.laconservancy.org/communities/los-angeles-county .
The Los Angeles Conservancy is to Los Angeles what the Topanga Historical Society is to Topanga. It is the largest historical society or club in the country. Pasadena Heritage is number two. The L.A. Conservancy publishes a guide on researching historic properties and seriously advocates landmarking. Topanga can learn a lot from them. https://www.laconservancy.org/resources/guide/historical-research-guide.
I fought for years with Hollywood Heritage, the local historical society in Hollywood, to save the iconic decaying Little Country Church of Hollywood. It received city monument status in 1992, but was purchased by a developer who wanted to turn it into a restaurant and bar. I went so far as buying the house next door and would peer out the bedroom window hoping that someday I could afford to buy the church and restore it to its former magnificence. Tragically, the little church mysteriously burned to the ground on Christmas eve of 2007.
Another historic property I am emotionally involved with is the1890’s-era Aldersgate Retreat Center in my hometown of Pacific Palisades. I was born and raised just down the street and the shape of its distinctive Mission-Revival façade is somehow etched deep in my consciousness. It is the oldest building in town, owned and operated by the Methodist Church, and physically located within the boundaries of Los Angeles city. In the early 1990s, I initiated a much-needed million-dollar restoration of the property and built Buerge Chapel on the property next door to the retreat building with the church’s blessings. Later, I worked with the Palisades Historical Society to acquire official city monument-status for the site. The Methodist Church wasn’t particularly excited about having their properties acquire historic status, but signed off on it.
Now, after 90 years of continuous ownership, the Methodist Church is considering selling the Aldersgate Retreat Center in the Pacific Palisades, along with our family chapel.
Falling in love with historic properties can break your heart.