Preserving History in the San Fernando Valley

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Chris Nichols knows a good beer-barrel building when he sees one. And a group of Kennedy High School students has an eye for San Fernando Valley architectural gems.

Both are seeking to save four historic buildings, from a Lankershim Ranch reading room to a North Hills church.

And both are working to name each a city Historic-Cultural Monument, which would protect such landmarks as the onion-domed Sepulveda Unitarian church and the barrel-shaped bar once known as the Idle Hour Cafe.

The nominations for monument status, including three by the Kennedy High students, will be considered today by the Cultural Heritage Commission. If approved, the applications will likely clear the City Council this spring.

"It's particularly exciting to have four remarkable San Fernando Valley landmarks in a single Cultural Heritage agenda," said Ken Bernstein, manager of the city Office of Historic Resources.

"It's tremendously exciting that a Valley architectural magnet school is preparing an entirely new generation of preservationists to take responsibility for Valley history."

Fewer than 10 percent of the city's nearly 1,000 historic-cultural monuments are located in the San Fernando Valley.

It was Aaron Kahlenberg, a teacher at Kennedy High School's Architecture & Digital Arts Magnet, who won historic-cultural status for his pristine post-war home in Granada Hills.

But it was his 20 architectural students who, working with the Los Angeles Conservancy, researched, wrote and presented nominations for three other Valley landmarks:

The Lankershim Reading Room, an octagonal folk-Victorian built in 1904 on the sprawling Lankershim Ranch, now located behind the Pico Adobe in Mission Hills.

The Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society sanctuary - a landmark that locals know as "The Onion" - that was designed by Neutra student Frank Ehrenthal in 1964 and became a renowned haven for Vietnam War protesters.

The Corbin Palms House, an impeccable ranch-style house in Woodland Hills built in 1955 by William Krisel and Dan Palmer. The duo designed many modernist homes in the Valley and Palm Springs.

"They're taking pride in their community," Kahlenberg said of his students. "They're working together to save valuable architecture for the future.

"The neatest thing about this is that, in high school, most people don't do things that are long lasting."

Each nomination, including the Idle Hour Cafe, has the support of its property owners.

It was Nichols, an urban architecture buff, who scoured Los Angeles for its last remaining barrel building.

The Idle Hour Cafe of North Hollywood, commissioned in 1941 by former hobo Michael D. Connolly, is also among the city's last so-called "programmatic" buildings - shaped like hot dogs, doughnuts and derby hats - for which it was once world-famous.

The cafe-tavern would later become a flamenco dinner-theater called La Ca a, which closed in 1984.

"Los Angeles used to be known for being creative, outstanding for building these crazy things," said Nichols, an associate editor for Los Angeles magazine, who lives in Altadena. "It's pretty outstanding to be stopped, driving down the street, by a giant barrel.

"I didn't want to see it turned into a mini-mall."

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