The City’s Cultural Heritage Commission agreed to further consider the application for Beneficial Plaza and Liberty Park at 3700 Wilshire Blvd to be designated a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) at a hearing on Thursday.
“The commissioners voted unanimously to take the next step with the application,” said Annette Van Duren, a nearby resident and applicant for the HCM nomination who introduced the nomination and presented a brief overview regarding the historical significance of Beneficial Plaza and Liberty Park at the hearing.
“Based on the report, they felt there was enough to go onto the next step which is another hearing in a few months including a site visit by the commission,” Van Duren told the Buzz. “This park turns 50 years old next year, we want to make sure it’s around for another 50 years.”
Beneficial Plaza was designed by architects Gordon Bunshaft and Edward Charles Bassett of renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and Liberty Park was designed by noted landscape architect Peter Walker of Sasaki, Walker & Associates (SWA) and completed in the 1960s during the height of development of Wilshire Center’s corporate development.
The effort to landmark the office building and plaza was motivated by a proposal from the building’s owner, Jamison Services, one of Southern California’s largest office landlords based in Koreatown, who filed plans last year to construct a 36-story tower with 506 residential units and approximately 62,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space on the large open green space that fronts Wilshire Blvd.
Residents of Koreatown, concerned about losing one of the few green spaces in the neighborhood, formed the Save Liberty Park coalition to raise awareness and funds to hire a firm which prepared and filed the application for landmark status in order to preserve the unique open space. If landmark designation is granted, the site would be protected from immediate demolition and allow the Cultural Heritage Commission to review modifications to site. It would also entitle the building owner to certain property tax reductions.
According to Van Duren, support for preservation of the park which quickly became a gathering point for the community has always existed for years.
“In 1968, the City’s Planning Commission voted to protect the park using the only means of preservation available to them at the time,” said Van Duren.
According to the HCM application:
The Los Angeles City Planning Commission, through its own initiative, voted on August 22, 1968 to change the zoning of the parcel containing Liberty Park from commercial (C4-4) to parking (P-4) via City Planning Case No. 21684.31 Though the P zone is most often used as a means to ensure that land is only developed for specific uses (typically surface parking), the City used the P zoning designation in an effort to protect Liberty Park from future development, acknowledging its benefit to the general public. As noted in Case No. 21684, the City utilized its zoning authority in the interest of “public necessity, convenience and general welfare” in order to retain Liberty Park as an “open space asset to the community and preclude further intensification of land use” in the 3700 block of Wilshire. 32 Liberty Park remains the only landscaped community space on corporate property along Wilshire Boulevard.
The 93-page application prepared by Architectural Resources Group (ARG) was presented by Evanne St. Charles, Architectural Historian and Preservation Planner. Members of Save Liberty Park coalition read letters of support into the hearing record.
Support letters include one sent Stephen Sass, President of the Jewish Historical Society noting the historical significance of the Edward and Joseph Mitchell and Oscar Pattiz, founders of Beneficial Standard Life Insurance Co, one of the five largest life insurers though the industry virtually excluded Jews and other minorities at the time, who chose to give back to Los Angeles by setting the building 315-feet back from the street creating the park.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation wrote in support of the nomination because of it’s significance as a “prominent cultural landscape on corporate property in Los Angeles’ Wilshire Center business district that exemplifies both the city’s postwar commercial development and the value of community open space during that period of the city’s growth.”
“The concept of dedicating private corporate property as community open space, particularly on a major commercial corridor such as Wilshire, was uncommon at the time and remains so today. In size and scope, the 315‐foot setback of Liberty Park was described by the Los Angeles Times at the time of its construction as the deepest setback of any major office building in the nation,” wrote Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR, President & CEO The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Additional letters of support were submitted by The Los Angeles Conservancy, Architectural Historian Alan Hess and Landscape Architect Mia Lehrer, a past Cultural Heritage Commissioner, who advocated for the importance of preserving green space now more than ever.
On a more personal note, Elaine Mitchell Attias, daughter of Beneficial Standard Life founder Edward Mitchell, and sister of Joseph Mitchell, who as president of the company built Beneficial Plaza, wrote:
The concept of the 315-foot building set back and a park as community space came from Joesph and was noted at the time of completion as the deepest setback for a commercial building in the nation. My brother’s grand gesture of community park space on the privately held property was a response to the general lack of landscaping around office buildings at the time. Joseph was honored by a proclamation from the City of Los Angeles in 1966 and by the highest award of the U.S. Treasury Depart, Saving Bond Division in 1969 for his contribution to the community – decades ahead of this time when developers now insert pocket parks for community benefit.
In addition to serving as community open space, Liberty Park was originally intended by Beneficial Insurance Group as a monument to the nation’s heritage and an outdoor museum of patriotic objects heralding great moments in American history. Postwar optimism was highlighted by the display of a replica of the Mercury space capsule in 1968, a full-scale model of the Apollo space capsule for lunar missions in 1969, and an actual Titan rocket in 1970. The first object to go on display, an exact replica of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell cast by the same London foundry and in the same molds as the original, has been a permanent feature of Liberty Park since its unveiling on July 4, 1968. Beneficial Plaza was dedicated the previous year on Veterans Day, November 11, 1967.
“The commissioners were very impressed with the application,” said Van Duren. She said several commissioners had personal connections to the space and suggested her group consider an application for the Wilshire Colonnade (originally called the Ahmanson Center) designed by Edward Durell Stone located directly across the street. But first, Van Duren said she’d like to make sure Liberty Park is protected.