The Rip Post                                Riposte Special Report


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Aug. 30, 2006

          Do the Teriton Apartments in Santa Monica have historical value? You might as well ask, does Santa Monica have historical value? Does Los Angeles?
          Once upon an increasingly long time ago, Southern California was substantially made of Teriton Apartments. That is, modest enclaves of comfortable living quarters arranged around lyrical courtyards of soft flowerbeds and wandering cats, lined up in pastel rows on side streets that were not just somebody’s commuting shortcut.
          This was a Southern California of short lines and uncrowded freeways---hell, of no freeways---and supermarket checkers who knew your name, whistling Helms trucks, morning milk bottles, cul-de-sac baseball, turn signals, full stops. . .
          People used to opt to live in apartments then. These were homes, not hotels. There was no shame in renting, no embarrassed declaration along the lines of “This is just temporary” or “I’m saving for a condo” or “My wife cleaned me out.”
          They had preposterously swanky names, like “The Brockton Arms,” “The Versailles,” or just preposterous, like “The Tiki Lanai.” Some had high style, with castle turrets and wishing wells, and some were serious, businesslike. All were affordable. Apartment living was a wonderful option for working people. Remember $50 a month? Okay, $250?
          This was before the late ‘70’s when New Yorkers discovered Los Angeles, moved west like escaped inmates, and everyone went money-mad. Before Reagan, million-dollar condos, million-dollar “fixer-upper” houses, before developers began to think only in terms of dollars and density.
 “San Vicente is three blocks long and has some apartment buildings on it, and somebody had a wild hair and said let’s make that an apartment district. Ha ha.”---Rosario Perry.

           Today, many of the old buildings endure, but the humane rents and contented single working tenants are mostly gone. A lot of Lanais and Arms and Manors are jammed with roommates and immigrant families of ten, and have barred windows, thundering stereos, and lots of no new paint. Others have boxed-steel fences and security gates and rents that are no problem if you deal coke on the side.
          Thousands of other buildings have been razed to make way for rectangular boxes of $800,000 condos that gobble every square inch of available lot space. Where pepper trees and azaleas were once artfully arranged around stair and walkway, now there is only concrete. “Gardens” sprout at the edges like crabgrass in sidewalk cracks. Blocks fill up with blockhouses.
          All over town, from Beverly Hills to Reseda to Pasadena to Westwood, apartment-lined boulevards are becoming death rows of old Southern California. Whole streets of venerable edifices suddenly find themselves cordoned off by temporary chain-link fencing and “notification of pending development” signs. Realtors pronounce time of death, bulldozers remove the corpses. A few escape by dressing up in skylights and double-paned windows and posing as condos, but they won’t get away with it for long.
          Some of the old places, like the Teriton, have held out. Thanks to rent control, there are pockets that retain the old sense of neighborhood, and tenants who regard their one-bedroom upper with tiled kitchen and jacaranda tree outside the window as. . .home. It has reached a point where these areas are referred to, jaw-droppingly enough, as “historical apartment districts.” One such place is the west end of San Vicente Bouelvard in Santa Monica, the coral-tree-bisected byway where the Teriton unobtrusively nestles.
          You’d drive right past the Teriton without noticing. It’s on the first curve as you enter San Vicente heading east from Ocean Avenue, and it’s gone in two beige seconds. It was not built to be noticed, when architect Sanford White designed it in 1949. It was built to gracefully and organically fit into and complement its grassy, florid environment, rather like White’s other various other Los Angeles area buildings. No, the San Vicente Courtyard Apartment District, as it is listed in the Santa Monica Historical Resource Inventory, is not so much an “apartment district” as it is a botanical garden that happens to contain apartments.
          Ever watch a few backhoes wreck a building? It’s amazing how easily accomplished this is. A structure that for 40 or 50 years hosted marriages, melodramas, musicians, babies, deaths, triumphs, breakdowns, epiphanies is in a matter of a few hours reduced to chunk and splinter, scooped into trucks, hauled away. Bulwark walls are stripped indecently to skeletons. Bedrooms fold over on to crushed kitchens, toilets tumble in porcelain jumble, front doors lose the worlds they long introduced, windows frame only ground.
          Rabbi Hertzel Illulian’s non-profit religious organization, Or Haim Hashalom, wants to do this to the Teriton---and in its place install a complex to allegedly contain a “refugee center,” (details of which the Rabbi does not reveal), expensive “life lease” condos, (details of which the Rabbi does not reveal), a temple (details of which the Rabbi does not reveal.)
          Many Teriton residents suspect this is a ploy to develop the incredibly lucrative property, tax-free, but even if it is not, it is hard to figure how this religious center would fit into the San Vicente Historic Apartment District---aesthetically, architecturally, functionally, or ethically. This is, after all, a neighborhood of mixed race, religion, and ethnicity. Installing housing available only to one ethnic or religious group, whatever the pretext, does not feel exactly integrated into the immediate community. So to speak..
          One can only wonder, as many have, why did the Rabbi select this $ 11-million-piece of property, where people would have to lose their homes of years, decades? Why not a larger, less expensive property, with less restrictions on the number of units to be built? No evictions? No fighting the city and residents pushing for landmark status for their home?
          That’s what is happening with the Teriton. Residents and neighbors want to have it declared a landmark.
          “The Teriton,” said Louis Scaduto, “is a gem. It is one of the few remaining post-war modem courtyard intact structures boding the unique tenets of the international style. If this building is gone, part of the richness of Santa Monica’s architectural heritage will disappear.”
          Scaduto knows of what he speaks. He is an architect, born and raised in Santa Monica. He was on a waiting list for five years---five years!---just to move into the Teriton, where he has lived since 1997 (doubling his rent in the process.)
          “The Teriton reflects a moment in time when the International Style attempted to equalize varying cultural, social and economic backgrounds in an architectural language,” he said. “From the air, the Teriton shows a remarkable similarity to the 1925 Bahaus ‘pinwheel building composition.’ We believe Sanford Kent was clearly influenced by Water Gropius, particularly his home in Lincoln, Mass., built in 1938, and Le Corbusier’s Quartiers Modernes, sharing similar short grouping of ribbon windows with steel post supports, and the distinctive upper level terrace roof gardens.”
           Rosario Perry, attorney/CEO/CFO for Or Haim Hashalom, put things in less erudite language. He calls the buidling's possible landmark status a “sham” and a “ruse” and he lashed out at one resident, whom he identified as “an architect,” for “abusing the system” because he is paying comparatively low rent.
          “This historical landmark design,” said Perry, “is just being used by some tenants in the building who are opponents of the development to stop us from doing our project. It’s a ruse. But it’s politics. But it’s something we need to say. That’s my two cents on that. It’s just a sham that some people are trying to use the city to do it.”
          Yet such efforts date back decades.Paul Gleye, architectural consultant to the City of Santa Monica, wrote this in his 1983 report to the city:
          “San Vicente Boulevard retains a relatively recent but unique ensemble of Southern California apartment courts. These courts, larger scale descendants of the bungalow style court and small apartment court of the 20th century, were designed in many styles, but in concept and plan they are a southern California architectural type.”
          Here is Perry’s considered opinion of the matter:
          “San Vicente is three blocks long and has some apartment buildings on it, and somebody had a wild hair and said let’s make that an apartment district. Ha ha.”
“I love living in an older building. I love having an almost fully tiled bathroom. I love the soap dish in the kitchen. I love the linoleum floor in the kitchen that reminds me of my childhood."---Christie Savage.

          Perry and Or Haim Hashalom reportedly are invoking a California state law (AB 133) to exempt the Teriton from landmark status. The bill was passed after the ’89 earthquake in San Francisco, to provide for the demolition of badly damaged churches.
Teriton resident Christie Savage said that it is being improperly applied, as it was designed for buildings that already serve a religious function.
          “The Teriton Apartments have merit architecturally and historically and should be preserved, “said Savage, who has lived in the building for 32 years(!)
          “I moved here in 1974, before rent control,” she added. “He (Perry) spoke about tenants doing this (fighting for landmark status) merely to keep their rent control apartment. I moved here before rent control. I’m not here now because of rent control. I’m here because of the quality of the building. And I resent his implication that I’m doing this solely for monetary reasons.”
          So if not low rent, why is Savage so attached to the place? Answer: a word that Perry, during two long phone interviews with The Rip Post, never used even once. . .
          “This is going to sound silly,” she said. “I love the location. I love living in an older building. I love having an almost fully tiled bathroom. I love the soap dish in the kitchen. I love the linoleum floor in the kitchen that reminds me of my childhood. I love having a front door and back door and porch. These are things that you don’t get in a new building. Although if I move, I will move to a newer building, because if I live in something of this vintage, it’s probably going to get knocked down.”
          As I said, whole streets have become death rows for an older and better Southern California.
          Of course, you don’t need to invoke Sanford White or Bauhaus to establish historical and architectural significance here. It is the Teriton’s very grace, clean lines, subtlety, and aesthetic fit that make it all the more precious in this neighborhood-killing era of monstrous, garish condo boxes. It is the Teriton’s increasing rarity, its importance as a fast-vanishing piece of a gentler time that seals its historical importance. It is its function as a still-vibrant habitat for those who love the idea of modest apartments as homes that secures its significance in a time of WWII-era houses converted into gaudy, bloated 21st century palaces.
          These factors should, in the end, turn Perry’s charges that Teriton residents are engaging in a “sham” and “ruse” right back on him, Rabbi Illulian, and Or Haim Hashalom.
          Otherwise, you might as well just go ahead and tear down the rest of old Santa Monica.

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