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Battling to preserve old L.A.

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Los Angeles has lots of properties that may consider historical for one reason or another, and its seems many of those properties are under siege.

In Beverly Hills, despite a letter-writing campaign by preservationists, a house where George and Ira Gershwin composed musical numbers and where singer Rosemary Clooney later lived for half a century is all but gone.

The recent demolition of the palatial, 77-year-old home spotlights the clash between people who want to preserve the tony town's rich history and wealthy new property owners who desire more modern dwellings.

"Obviously, this is a significant loss to the musical legacy of our nation and the history of Beverly Hills and its role in shaping American culture," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. "Despite repeated pleas from local residents, Beverly Hills still has no mechanism to protect its historic and cultural treasures."

But it's not feasible to protect all historically significant structures, said Mahdi Aluzri, the city's community development director.

"This city has so many properties associated with celebrities," he said. "We'd pretty much have to put a hold on a substantial amount of housing stock."

In downtown L.A., a recent deal reached between school officials and a conservancy group paves the way to demolish the landmark Ambassador Hotel where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, but would allocate money to help preserve historic schools around the district.

Under the agreement passed by the Los Angeles Unified School District board, a group of historic preservationists will drop lawsuits seeking to prevent the district from razing the hotel, in exchange for the district giving $4.9 million to a nonprofit group that works to conserve school buildings.

"This is a landmark settlement to preserve historic schools for generations to come," said Marlene Canter, school board president.

The school district bought the hotel out of U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 2001 and planned to tear it down to build three schools at the 23-acre site.

Preservationists consider the hotel a historic gem and sued to prevent the demolition.

The long-closed hotel was once a celebrity hotspot whose guests included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudolph Valentino and Albert Einstein.

Groups are seeking to save the last remaining L.A. Brown Derby restaurant. To young and old alike, the Brown Derbys have long symbolized the "golden days" of Hollywood. Now the last remaining of the five Derbys, nestled in the hip haven of Los Feliz, may also become a martini-soaked memory.

Originally built by movie producer Cecil B. DeMille, the lushly retro property features velvet curtains and a wooden, 30-foot-high Art Deco ceiling.

Now developers who bought the site a year ago have proposed replacing The Derby with a five-story residential and retail complex, with 81 condos and a Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFMI) market as a possible tenant.

But the Los Angeles Conservancy and "Save The Derby" -- a budding group representing old and new Hollywood alike -- hope to save the landmark, preserving yet another piece of vanishing Tinseltown trivia.

Frank Gehry is one of the world's revered architects, but that may not be enough to save two of his creations from the wrecking ball.

One building targeted for demolition is the Santa Monica Place shopping mall, the other a blockish, stucco structure on the University of California, Irvine campus in Orange County.

Some architecture critics are troubled by the planned destruction of buildings designed by the man behind the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

"I think it's much too early to start tearing down many Frank Gehry buildings," said Alan Hess, who has written nine books about 20th century architecture.

Others aren't so concerned.

Jeremy Roth, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, stood in front of the Gehry building on the UC Irvine campus one day this week.

"Does this look like an architectural masterpiece to you?" said Roth, 22. "It's all rusted, the paint's all messed up. It's an ugly little building."

Many Santa Monica residents never embraced the enclosed mall, saying it didn't mesh with the city's outdoor, beach aesthetic. A developer wants to replace it with a large commercial and residential complex, but some in the community oppose those plans.

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