We have lost a dear neighbor and the City of Los Angeles has lost a true preservationist with the passing of Virginia “Ginny” Ernst Kazor who died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on September 8. She was 81.
I first met Kazor when my family moved into the Ridgewood Wilton neighborhood in 1989, and enjoyed learning from her and collaborating with her over the years on various neighborhood issues. Recognizing Ginny’s contribution to the community was a priority for us at the Buzz and I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with her for an interview last fall.
Kazor is widely credited with saving her neighborhood from destruction by a highway project proposed in 1972, which called for demolishing a half dozen homes to straighten out the signature curve in the street to enable more traffic to move through the neighborhood to the freeway.
To save her neighborhood as well as those adjacent to Ridgewood Wilton, Kazor turned to the state and the federal government for protection because at the time, there were no city ordinances to protect historic buildings or neighborhoods. The creation of the Wilton Historic District and the defeat of the highway project helped to preserve the adjacent neighborhoods of Windsor Square and Larchmont Village, and also catalyzed the city’s preservation movement. The effort took more than a decade before Kazor and her neighbors were able to defeat the proposed plan. Once the neighborhood received the National Historic Register Designation, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation lost access to federal funding that would have provided 97 percent of the funding for the project. Kazor recalled with delight the irony that she had to get help from officials in Washington, D. C. to prevent the city of Los Angeles from destroying the homes in her neighborhood.
Kazor was just 30 when she bought her Craftsman home at 221 Wilton Place in 1970. After she graduated from the University of Southern California she began working in the Los Angeles art world, a happening place to be in the early 1960s, when California artists were leading the national conversation on Modern Art. While working at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the Modern Art Department under Maurice Tuchman, she also found her self cast as a socialite in Edward Keinholz’s “The Beanery.”
Kazor told us she bought the house on Wilton because she liked the house and she could drive fast and get places quickly. Ironically, she would spend many years working to slow down the traffic on Wilton Place. The effort to save the neighborhood began with a happenstance conversation with a woman, visiting from Washington, D. C., who Kazor was asked to tour around various historic areas of Los Angeles. Kazor was by then working for the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department, shifting her professional focus from art to architecture.
“By now there were more discussions of historic districts,” explained Kazor. “I drove this woman around Hollywood and then headed down Wilton to get to the freeway to take her to the airport. I offered to stop at my home in case she wanted to wash her hands and have a quick sandwich before her flight. She looked around my house and said, ‘this was a lovely neighborhood,’ and I just offhandedly replied, ‘yes, until the federal government gets ahold of it.'”
According to Kazor, that simple comment proved to be the spark that ignited the preservation effort. When her guest returned to Washington, she wrote a letter to her boss at the U.S. Department of Interior about this delightful neighborhood worthy of historic designation. Unbeknownst to Kazor, a state engineer was then sent to inspect the neighborhood and he, too, concluded that Wilton Place would indeed qualify as a historic district based on the unique characteristics of its 63 residences dating from 1907-1925.
Kazor, who drafted the extensive National Register application, described the neighborhood in the following terms:
About half of the houses are two-story Craftsman bungalows while the others are Colonial Revival bungalows. The District includes the residences on both sides of Wilton Place, beginning at Third, where the street widens to 50 feet. At Second, the street narrows to 40 feet as it diverges around a one block residential island. The District includes the houses on the island as well as those on the west side of Wilton Drive and the east side of Wilton Place. It ends at First Street, just north of where Wilton Drive and Wilton Place converge again.
The houses are built on larger than normal lots, which rise 5 to 7 feet above curb level. The area has remained essentially unchanged over the years; there have been no significant alterations to any of the structures nor to the area itself.
An additional unique feature of this area is the unusual street configuration, which was developed to join the already existing alignments of Wilton Place north of First Street and south of Third. Many builders in this area effectively utilized the curving streets to give prominence to their structures, siting them with great care in order to take advantage of the interesting vistas. Such street configurations are unusual in the flatlands of Los Angeles and this, coupled with the facts that Wilton Place is a well-traveled north-south street, and that the neighborhood is essentially as it was in I925, has resulted in a greater than normal interest in this area by many Los Angeles residents.
Unaware of the support the application would receive, Kazor worked with the residents on her block to build local support for the historic designation with then CD4 Councilmember John Ferraro and other residents in the Ridgewood Wilton Neighborhood. By the,n Kazor was a veteran of City Hall and knew what it took to get things accomplished.
“Sometimes you have to do other’s people work for them,” Kazor wryly told us about how she drafted letters for Ferraro’s signature, thanking people for their support of the preservation effort. She was modest about her work even after the enormity of the task was realized, saying “oh, anyone could do it.”
If only everyone would take the care and time that Kazor did to appreciate our architectural heritage. Trained as an art historian, Kazor brought that perspective of inquiry to her work in architecture, describing how she learned on the job with all source materials at hand.
“Ginny has a wonderful talent for creating community in both her professional and private life,” recalled Marita Geraghty, long time next door neighbor of Kazor’s who also served as president of the Ridgewood-Wilton Neighborhood Association (RWNA), working alongside Kazor for many years.
“Ginny used her intellect and training to preserve two of Los Angeles’s most treasured structures AND she encouraged others to become trained docents so that those spaces could be shared with the wider community. She created community in her own neighborhood, conceiving the plan to preserve an intact architecturally significant neighborhood and doing the work, home by home, letter by letter, that led to the creation of the Wilton Historic District and its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places,” Geraghty told the Buzz.
“Her work preserved our residential area so that the community could enjoy these homes for generations to come, but Ginny didn’t stop there. For 40 years she continued creating community–welcoming new neighbors over for drinks or dinner, sharing her knowledge of the history and architecture of the neighborhood, encouraging neighbors to get involved with RWNA so they could join her in building community,” said Geraghty. “She’d often gift new residents with the history of their homes, photos included, so they could identify and preserve original details.”
“I was one of many new residents that Ginny encouraged to get involved with RWNA, and with her help we were restored our Craftsman home. The City of LA recognized the restoration of our Craftsman home, which we couldn’t have done without advice and assistance from Ginny,” said Geraghty.
“Ginny hosted the monthly RWNA Board meetings and the RWNA Annual Meeting at her home for years. The same talents that made Ginny a great site curator made her a fantastic neighborhood organizer: She could run a productive meeting, write a compelling proposal, and navigate City agencies with grace. Her warmth, enthusiasm and patience will be missed. Balancing tenacity with kindness–she was a natural leader, a passionate preservationist, a generous neighbor, and a wonderful person,” said Geraghty.
During her 40-year tenure at the City of Los Angeles, Kazor served as the first curator at Hollyhock House in Barndsall Art Park.
“Ginny came into Hollyhock after working as an assistant curator at LACMA and became the first director of the Arts Department, which became the Cultural Affairs Department,” said Grant Taylor, architect and architectural historian, who worked with Kazor for more than four years at Hollyhock House.
“A lot of the work was city politics,” said Taylor, adding, “Ginny was so good at that and she was so great with creating budgets. She was also responsible for overseeing the restoration of the Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers damaged in the 1994 earthquake.”
Taylor was brought in to help write the earthquake report for Hollyhock House.
“Ginny had already started the report for Residence A, and so it had to be done her way,” explained Taylor. “She was a force; she knew what she wanted you had to prove your way was better. We got along very well.” said Taylor, who remained friends with Kazor after he left the department.
“Ginny always wanted Hollyhock House to be a museum, open to the public, but it was very challenging working through the accessibility challenges,” explained Taylor. She was always trying to keep the historic aspect of the building, but still keep it accessible.”
Taylor also recalls how much fun it was to have the run of the house as a staff member. After five years, Taylor left the city, preferring to work on his own, but he always admired Kazor for her ability to get things done at the city, and the two stayed friends for decades.
“Ginny learned who the people were who didn’t do their jobs, and ending up doing their jobs to get things done,” said Taylor. “She was well connected in the art community from her tenure at LACMA. She had great ideas and exacting standards. She was patient and would take the time to nurture the next generation.”
Now Taylor is hoping to help Kazor’s widower, Tom Koester, organize Kazor’s extensive papers on the preservation of the neighborhood and make them accessible as part of the neighborhood’s history.
“She has material on every single house,” said Taylor. “Ginny was incredibly organized. This material belongs in the neighborhood.”
In 2002, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Group honored Kazor with its Sprit Award. Kazor was part of the organizing group and was recognized for her “wisdom and foresight to open the Hollyhock gathering not only to a few building administrators but to Wright homeowners and others. She also encouraged the local homeowners to allow us to see their houses…Ginny set the standard for what has evolved today into our annual conference.”
“But of course, the real reason Ginny is receiving this award tonight is for her outstanding work in the preservation of Hollyhock House, which began in 1978 when she was named its first curator,” noted Lynda Waggoner in her speech. “Her commitment and devotion to this mission are unequaled, and her generous spirit has inspired many volunteers and docents. Her accomplishments at Hollyhock have included the monumental undertaking of a historic structures report to guide the restoration and the actual restoration of the living room itself, the reconstruction of the living room furniture, and the establishment of a committee to restore the landscape.”
“Ginny has survived earthquakes, difficult volunteers, and unsympathetic administrations. However, with characteristic devotion and not a little pluck, she stuck with the building and held to her vision for its restoration. I can say that Ginny is a model for us all. She embodies all of those qualities required to ensure that Wright’s legacy will survive vision, dedication, tenacity, and resourcefulness. Ginny, we thank you and honor you for your endless hours and your generosity of spirit,” Waggoner concluded.
It’s a sentiment shared by a grateful neighborhood, which is better because Kazor lived there.
Click here to read Kazor’s obituary in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.