Hermitage Avenue is a small residential street in the Valley Village district of the San Fernando Valley. The two block stretch of Hermitage, just west of Laurel Canyon Boulevard between Magnolia and Chandler, remains a quaint area of small houses and older apartment buildings. Recently on June 15, two of the oldest houses in the neighborhood were illegally demolished, three days before they were up for a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) hearing with the Office of Historic Resources (OHR). One of the houses, at 5258 Hermitage, is a home Marilyn Monroe occupied in the 1940s with her mother-in-law. Residents on the block are deeply disappointed because their efforts to save the houses and others on the same street have fallen on deaf ears. This week L.A. Letters shares the story of this fight for historic preservation in Valley Village.
Jennifer Getz is a native of the San Fernando Valley and her family has lived in the area for several generations. She has lived on Hermitage for over 20 years now. Getz lives across the street from the demolished homes and is upset that the Council Office in District 2 has not returned any of her phone calls or emails. Back in February, Getz and local historian Charlie Fisher submitted an application for HCM status for the homes with the OHR, and it was put on the agenda for the Cultural-Heritage Commission on June 18. Getz is outraged that the homes were demolished three days before the hearing. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, "The owner, Joe Salem of Hermitage Enterprises LLC, could not be reached for comment. City officials said he'd sought a demolition permit last year to build condos."
"Buildings and homes over 45 years old are supposed to be sent to the OHR for research of historical significance," Getz says. "Local ordinances are not being enforced, where 30 days notice of demolition is required on site prior to demolition." Getz is also upset because there was no asbestos testing and they broke a gas line during the demolition. "The AQMD and the Los Angeles County of Public Health shut the project down, but it was too late," she says.
Research conducted by Charlie Fisher revealed that one of the homes was built in 1905, as one of the first structures built and owned by the Lankershim Water and Ranch Company. Back in the late 19th century, Isaac Lankershim raised sheep and cultivated wheat fields on his large holdings across much of the San Fernando Valley. Lankershim's son founded the city of Toluca in 1888, which is now better known as North Hollywood. The legacy of the Lankershim family is explored by Kevin Roderick in his book, "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb."
Getz is trying to preserve some of this early history by not letting anymore sites on her block be demolished. Her landlady Jean Lathrop had purchased the land at 5303 Hermitage in 1934. Lathrop's parents and family built and owned seven parcels of land on the block through the 1930s and 1940s. Lathrop's property was the nucleus of the neighborhood, and in the 1950s she officially opened a day care, "since all the children were there anyway," says Getz. Lathrop's place was a site where "children learned to swim, ride their bikes, and the wives initiated a local sewing group." Lathrop was very involved in the community and in later years her property became the voting location for the neighborhood. Lathrop passed on January 1, 2013 at 100 years old, and according to Getz, during the last few months of her life the only words that came out of her mouth were, "how is my house? Check on my house, make sure my house is okay."
Getz was very close to Lathrop and took care of her property for over 20 years. Lathrop would be outside on her walker ordering Getz around and telling her where to plant the tomatoes. Together they shared a vision of urban farming, gardening, preservation, and conservation. "I have always worked in the spirit of the property's original and intended use," Getz says.
In the last years of Lathrop's life they had begun developing the neighborhood's first community organic fruit and vegetable garden. "A place local residents could walk to grow their own food, to get involved, and be outside. To save some money, to become more community oriented and sustainable as a whole," Getz says. Getz has started a nonprofit organization called Something Bigger, which focuses on urban farming with special attention on local history and the roots of the San Fernando Valley.
Developers have had their eyes on the Lathrop property for years, and according to Getz they would from time to time ask Lathrop if she was interested in selling. "Jean always used to tell them, 'unless you see a FOR SALE sign in my yard, get the hell out of here!'" Jean's son Clint Lathrop Jr. died less than a year after his mother in September 2013. Clint wanted the property to be preserved in the same way that his mother did. The property is currently in litigation.
Jennifer Getz is disappointed that her local Council District is not interested in preserving some of the original and native structures in their community. She also thinks that the Neighborhood Council is more interested in accommodating developers than local residents. She says that in the last Neighborhood Council meeting, "the members of our community were appalled to find nothing but silence after a woman had expressed how sick her son got from another illegal demolition that took place across the street from her, just down the street from here. Waking up to construction as early as 6:15 in the morning, with all of her landscape dead, covered an inch thick with asbestos on her window screens. Her son had a bloody nose for a week. The board had not one word to say about it and they moved on to the next item on their agenda."
Getz's efforts to preserve the block have had the support of the Museum of the San Fernando Valley and close to 70 hand written letters from members of their local community in full support of historic designation. "Why are we having to work so hard to enforce the laws that are already there?" she laments. "What are we doing that is so wrong in wanting to preserve the very culture that got us here? To be able to have our city's legacy actually mean something. To be able to see what it meant and where it came from. This should not have to be such a fight. We have an incredibly special and irreplaceable block. Once it is gone, it is gone forever and there is never getting it back."
Dozens of similar battles have occurred across the San Fernando Valley and Southern California. Most of the time the developers win, but in a few cases, similar historic sites have been preserved. Getz and other members of her community are doing all they can to preserve their block. The home that Marilyn Monroe lived in may be gone, but several other historic structures on her street are still standing, and this is what she is fighting for. She does not want her street to be another Valley block filled with nondescript condos. She wishes she had the support of her Council District.
As noted above, the property with the community garden started by Getz and Jean Lathrop is now in litigation. She hopes to preserve the old home on the site and leave the large open space in front of the home for the public garden. Getz deeply loves the San Fernando Valley and feels that this site is a space that honors its' early agrarian history. Only time will tell what will happen, but her efforts must be commended. Too many similar streets have been demolished. Salute to Jennifer Getz and the coalition of local residents on her street that are doing their best to preserve this pocket of Valley Village. Together they are critical caretakers in the landscape of L.A. Letters.