Landmarks: Preserve, Protect… Alter?

Friday, 19 Oct 2012, 11:00:00 PM

Steve Stajich

Steve Stajich, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Steve Stajich, Columnist

Not everything is treasure to everyone. To you it’s just an old beat-up baseball cap, but it happens to be the one my father bought for me at the last game played by a baseball team then known as the Milwaukee Braves. Now that’s a completely made-up story; I possess no such hat. But if I did, I would offer that example to illustrate how we end up having priceless nostalgic treasures in our lives. We know that memories matter, perhaps more so now to a generation rightfully concerned about disorders that attack and destroy memory. The past, and things from it, matter.

But we can’t save everything. This becomes sharply pointed when the issue of preservation and landmarks comes into focus. Specifically, buildings… and sometimes the businesses in those buildings. I love old fashioned hardware stores, which are being crushed by Home Depot and similar big-box home improvement chains. If there were a rally to protect, say, Busy Bee Hardware on Santa Monica Boulevard I’d definitely show up and shout support. For the time being, please shop there and help sustain independent small business in our city.

The first editor of the Mirror was deeply concerned about the changing personality of our city of Santa Monica. This had been a funky beach down for many years and the past hung on, however tentative its grip. Now big hotels want whatever they can get and the City is always intoxicated at the prospect of new tax revenue. Compared to other beach communities more willing to crush the old and start anew, Santa Monica changes slowly and carefully. But it does change.

Which gets us to the decision to make Chez Jay a local landmark. There has been a possibility of closure of the long time Santa Monica eating and drinking hangout due to the construction of the Palisades Garden Walk, a project that preserves open space at ground zero for big hotels. The City wants a restaurant adjacent to the PGW that has “pavilion” type energy, “offering a generous flow of activities from exterior to interior spaces.” Chez Jay has been described by people who love it as “a dive bar and (historical) celebrity hangout.” Because it has old school SM funk, I’m in favor of leaving Chez Jay exactly as it is to at least resist having the first few blocks of Santa Monica starting at the beach become one smooth strip of Formica-encrusted hotel room interior.

Yet it appears something will have to give, despite the recent designation of Chez Jay as a landmark. The landmark status does not infer or certainly guarantee preservation of Chez Jay. It’s a little like giving Betty White an award for being historically wonderful; the award is not a serum ensuring that Ms. White stays with us another 90 years. Architecturally, Chez Jay is a box with its opening pointed at Ocean Avenue. The City has noted in reports that the current design (of Chez Jay) does not match the “themes” of the Palisades Garden Walk. Who will bend in this match-up of design versus preservation?

Don’t think me too ridiculous, but we may be at a kind of “crack in the Liberty Bell” crossroads with Chez Jay because it’s not going to be Chez Jay if it gets turned into a snack-a-teria ‘pavilion’ for the new park. Anyone with any sense of how Chez Jay must retain its funk would logically view that option as welding up the crack in the Liberty Bell… and then using it to dispense soft-serve ice cream.

From my lofty perch here on the editorial page of the Mirror, I believe any dialogue of how Chez Jay might meld with the PGW should begin with the question of why Chez Jay must meld with the PGW. In preparation for pending discussions on this, folks might check out the documentary "Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center" to see how these kinds of issues are smoothly resolved by smart people working on a much larger scale. I’m being funny; the conflicts over the Getty Center shown in the film became outsized, intense and personal.

We won’t have those exact problems with saving Chez Jay, but… is there any reason a nice all-natural materials barrier couldn’t create some pleasant boundary between the restaurant and the park areas? Is there some tightly-wound view held that the park must have complete design wholeness, forcing Chez Jay to morph into “Used to Be Chez Jay”? I’m thinking right now of the battleship USS Arizona which was left where it sank in the design for the ship’s memorial at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. Pools of oil still bubble-up from the sunken hull. It seems like we might get along with not tampering with Chez Jay and let it stand as it is, perhaps bubbling a wee bit of history into the lives of its customers.

I hope that the move to make a landmark of Chez Jay is not simply a nod and a certificate in preparation for the more emotional battle to come. Is there an argument for simply leaving it alone? Of course. Attention developers: There’s ALWAYS an argument for not tearing down the past. But that argument resonates with us at differing times and with varying strengths. I’ll just say that it would be sad if there were no way to actually prove that Santa Monica used to be a beach town before it teetered on becoming a giant corporate hotel campus.

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