The Santa Monica City Council last week overturned a City of Santa Monica Landmarks Commission decision to give historic designation to a house on 921 19th St., Santa Monica.
“The [commission’s] findings are very weak and the findings never talk about how and why,” said Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor, at the Council meeting on Tuesday, July 12th.
Besides being mayor, O’Connor is a historic preservationist.
“Is historic preservation about creating little museums throughout the city or is it about the built environment and saving what is best?” O’Connor asked.
The house is a Craftsman bungalow and was built in 1923 by A. Wallace Jamieson.
According to city records, his family and descendants lived in the house until 1997.
The property owner now is 19th Street Townhomes, LLC.
A renter currently lives in the house.
The Landmarks Commission designated the house as a historic landmark last year.
The property owner appealed the Landmarks Commission decision and Councilmembers voted 5-2 to overturn the decision.
Santa Monica commission decisions can be appealed to the City Council.
“This house does not meet the criteria for designation as a historic landmark under existing policy,” said Michael Klein, an attorney for the property owner.
“Landmarking this house diminishes the other real landmarks in the city.”
The house was brought to the commission’s attention because the property owner applied for a demolition permit.
A city ordinance allows the Landmarks Commission to review demolition permits on properties built 40 years ago or older.
The property owner wants to demolish the house to build a multi-family housing unit, Klein said.
“This project is going to be commensurate with the multi-family neighborhood surrounding the house, but who likes construction in their neighborhood,” Klein said.
“Several neighbors showed up and asked the Landmarks Commission to landmark the property.”
Ruthann Lehrer, an architectural historian and commission member, defended the commission’s decision.
“We review a number of demolition permits every month and very few of them ever rise to the level of us taking a second look,” Lehrer said.
“I looked at a lot of bungalows over the years and feel this one has very special qualities.
“Factors led us to conclude that the house met two criteria ñ #1 and #4,” she said.
The Landmarks Commission or the City Council on appeal can make historic designation findings based on one or more of six criteria.
Criteria #1 states a structure is historic if “it exemplifies, symbolizes or manifests elements of the cultural, social, economic, political or architectural history of the city.”
Criteria #4 states a structure is historic if “it embodies distinguishing architectural characteristics valuable to a study of a period, style, method of construction or the use of indigenous materials or craftsmanship.”
Lehrer said the house is a “pristine and beautifully articulated example” of a Craftsman bungalow.
“What is unique about this bungalow is that it was built as a late expression of the Craftsman style and shows a transformation of the style as it evolved over time,” she said.
The house has been kept intact and maintained because the same family lived in the house for 74 years, said Roger Genser, a local historian and chair of the Landmarks Commission.
The house is one of three houses built in the 1920s remaining on the 900 block of 19th Street in Santa Monica.
Councilmembers used expert testimony to disagree with the commission.
“We would be setting a very low threshold if we landmark a residence just because it is the last one on the street or the last one on the block,” O’Connor said.
“The house is a cute house, but I have to go with the experts’ testimony and uphold the appeal,” said Councilmember Bob Holbrook.
The property owner’s expert witness was Leslie Heumann, who maintains the city Historic Resources Inventory list of 1,324 properties.
Heumann wrote a letter to Klein and stated the house was reviewed for the Historic Inventory but not included in the list.
Lehrer said Heumann and her staff were only looking at properties in historic districts and groups of properties, not individual properties sprinkled throughout the city.
City staff hired historic preservation consultant PCR Services Corporation to review the house.
“The prevalence of this particular architectural style is one that does not rise to the level of historic significance,” said Janet Ostashay, director of cultural resources management for PCR.
“The property reflects common architectural elements that define it as a typical California Craftsman bungalow — a California Craftsman, not one of those high-end Craftsmans.”
Councilmembers Ken Genser and Kevin McKeown voted against overturning the Landmarks Commission decision.
“My threshold is lower because I see so much historic flavor of these neighborhoods eroding,” Genser said.
“Our sense of community is disappearing and this is the argument to support the Landmarks Commission findings.”
McKeown is the City Council liaison to the Landmarks Commission.
“If we are looking for intact districts in the 21st century, we are too late because there are not any left,” McKeown said.
“If we want to hold on to our history, we have to look for individual buildings.”