I had a mysterious call last week from someone who wanted to know what the chances are that change can happen at city hall. Not only did he want the answer to that question, but there was a condition in his question, “Can we make change happen without the effort ruining my whole life?”
He has a group of friends who are upset with city government, it sounds like for many different reasons, from unruly police to rudeness at the counter, to mixed messages from staff. Some of my friends are upset with city government for lack of enforcement of codes, non-compliance by the city with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), lack of thoughtfulness and concern for historic preservation. As a landscape architect representing clients, I see how the small stuff can hold up a permit for a long time, yet sometimes the big picture and the important policy concerns seem to be overlooked.
This past weeks we have been experiencing another tragic example.
Portions of the Halliburton house have been demolished without the review process outlined in the Municipal Code.
The Richard Halliburton house, the modern concrete house on the ridge overlooking Aliso Beach and Canyon, is eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places, both because of the significance of its original owner and because of its pioneering architectural design.
“Richard Halliburton, was the world’s most famous and widely published travel adventurer and writer in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a professional explorer, who wrote about his adventures in a series of ‘grand tours’ that he took across most of the world’s continents,” Eric Jessen and Ted Wells write. His books were widely read especially by youth of his era, inspiring a lifelong interest in geography, as related by South Laguna Civic Association president Bill Rihn, one of his devoted fans.
This concrete and glass house designed by William Alexander Levy was innovative and daring, suiting its perched location perfectly, taking advantage of the dramatic ocean and canyon vistas, and providing for longterm stability on the cliff top as well as protection from fire with its simple concrete construction. The house was featured in Architectural Record, a national architectural journal, in 1938, and has been a little known gem among the more celebrated houses of Schindler and Neutra that dominate discussions of modern architecture in our region. This is partly because the house was in the ownership of one family, the Scotts, since the house was sold by Halliburton’s family after his death at sea in 1938. As far as we can remember, the house was not open to public view during that time.
After Zolita Scott died in 2009, the house was put on the market. Some of us were invited to a preview. Except for the badly remodeled kitchen, the house looked like little change had been overlaid since Halliburton had left on his final journey. His map of the world, 1938 New Yorker magazine covers papering the inside of the closet, the cabinets, all still there. Even the remains of Levy’s antique construction trailer scrambled on the slope in front of the house.
“Surely this time-capsule treasure will be carefully studied to evolve just the right approach to restore it and make it suitable for today’s living,” we thought naively.
Yet staff issued a demolition permit to remove the concrete slab in the bedroom wing. That work took with it all the bedroom and bathroom walls.
How many weeks or months for a project to go through zoning plan check? To prepare for Design Review? The noticing, the fees, the waiting to be on the agenda, the responding to public and board comments. I have been through these reasonable, but lengthy and scrutinizing processes with my clients many times.
Surely the Halliburton House deserves at least as much review before such severe destruction is allowed. The Municipal Code says so; it dictates compliance with CEQA and review by the Heritage Committee and Design Review before demolition is permitted.
Still neighbors woke up to jack hammering on April 4. Despite letters and expressions of concern, and testimony at the Heritage Committee, no stop order has been issued. The Council has directed that a stop work order be issued. Community Development Director John Montgomery is investigating and will report back at the next council meeting. Will clarity and thoughtful solutions emerge? We hope so.
How can I answer my caller’s query about effecting change? Urging change and working for it doesn’t ruin your life, but it surely focuses it. We have to believe it’s worth that intensity. I hope he and his friends will join in working for constructive change, reducing the frustrations and losses to our historical character, working for the positive issues we all support, so that Laguna stays Laguna, and becomes even better.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former City Council member.