History Lost in a City near You

by David Jackson

The tear down of historical properties is happening at an alarming rate across the United States.  This happens even when the property is old, historically relevant in nature and in excellent to very good condition.  The following story was front page news in the Saturday, September 28, 2013 edition of the Los Angeles Times.  The name of the article was titled, “History Lost in Beverly Hills”.

The house that was highlighted was known as the “George Gershwin Home”, a stately Mediterranean home built in 1928, located at 1019 North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills, California.  This beautiful home was 8,100 square feet, had five bedrooms, six baths, a backyard swimming pool, tennis court, beautifully landscaping and had been remodeled by master architect John Elgin Woolf in the 1930’s by the owner of the house, Ira Gershwin.  During his stay at this home Ira Gershwin, George’s Gershwin’s brother had penned several famous lyrics in the house including, “The Man That Got Away”.  Although George and Ira passed away in the late 1930’s he had entertained many Hollywood stars at the property including Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Fanny Brice, Lillian Hellman and many more.  After the Gershwins, it was owned by band singer Ginny Simms who sold the house to the legendary Rosemary Clooney who lived there for over 50 years until the time of her death in 2002.  She is well known for her female lead role in the Christmas classic with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.

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Despite all of these historically relevant facts as well as a chorus of attempts by several prominent individuals and groups such as the Los Angeles Conservancy, The Society of Composers and Lyricists, ASCAP and B’nai B’rith to preserve the property the city of Beverly Hills issued a demolition permit to a local developer which resulted in demolition in 2005.  Although the city admits that it overlooked the fact that it had been remodeled by the master architect Elgin Woolf this fact alone would have most likely only slowed the demolition process.  The reason most commonly cited in cases like this is that the new owners have different tastes and have the right to do whatever they want with their property.

Although this is one of the more glaring cases of ignoring historical significance and the value to a city and community it is a classic example of the ongoing battle of historical importance vs. individual property rights.  It is a very touchy and wildly debated subject but it always seems that some cities and communities do a much better job dealing with this issue than others.  One only has to look to the south in the city of Pasadena, or in a perfect world the island of Nantucket, in the state of Massachusetts as locations in the United States that have been able to save the majority of their historic and important structures.  If you have never visited Nantucket I strongly urge you to put it on your ‘bucket list” as there over 300 pre-Civil War structures on the island.  It seems like that there has not been enough clarity in the law that governs this area.  If an area is not careful they will lose most of the monuments to their past.

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