By Krista Schwimmer
There are many features on Ocean Front Walk that define its essence. Among the most noteworthy are the pagodas or pergolas, as they were first called. Clustered together like mini palm trees, these free structures welcome all against the elements. As a result, a variety of people congregate in and around them: tourists, locals, and unhoused community members.
Like many parts of Venice, these pagodas have appeared in Hollywood films. Two films from Jeffrey Stanton’s research are “Falcon and the Snowman,” starring Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton; and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” starring Nick Nolte, Bette Midler, and Richard Dreyfuss. In the latter movie, Nolte’s character is a bum. He and his homeless pals meet at the pagoda at Dudley Street and sing, “We are the bums! We are the homeless!” More recently, these same pagodas w
ere the stars in the monthly Venice Neighborhood Council (VNC) meeting held Tuesday, January 20.
On that night, Melissa Diner, Chair of the Ocean Front Walk (OFW) Committee, presented a “Pagoda Beautification” motion. The motion recommended that VNC support the “formation of an ‘Adopt-A- Pagoda” project and adjacent benches project.” Approved local artists would take a pagoda, its mini wall, bench, and trashcan, and redo it. One of the eight pagodas on Sunset Avenue, however, would be a permanent installation dedicated to Alicia Gruppioni.
What followed next was a sometimes volatile, often confusing, and even comical discussion generated by series of motions to amend and to reconsider what was just amended. In total, it took two new motions to amend and one to reconsider a previous amendment to bring the original motion to a vote.
Who would have thought innocent pagodas could pull such a punch?
It all began when Amanda Seward stood up to make a public comment. Amanda Seward is a well- known attorney who helped the Lincoln Place tenants successfully fight Aimco. She is also an avid lover of modern architect.
She began by saying that she was the person who had contacted Melissa that day about the historical nature of the pagodas. This statement directly contradicted one made earlier by Shelly Gomez, a member of the OFW Committee. After first calling the pagodas ugly, Shelly stated that she had checked with the historic society and found out they were not historic. Gomez finished her comment by saying that color and sound are vibration. “So, those pagodas, if they are colorful, it’s going to raise the vibration of that place. It will deter people from camping out.”
Amanda said the pagodas were designed by Gregory Ain, a very import ant, modern architect, particularly in the Los Angeles area. “They are not designated,” Seward continued,”but there are a lot of things in LA that are historic that are not yet designated.” In Ain’s case, however, there are other buildings he designed that are designated. One example Seward brought up is the Mar Vista Tract, consisting of 52 parcels designed by Ain. According to the Office of Historic Resources’ website, these one-story, single family homes built in 1948, were “shaped by the Fair Housing Administration’s desire to promote home ownership among modest-income families.” The Mar Vista Tract was also the city’s first post World War II Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.
As to the current color of the pagodas, according to Seward, this was carefully considered by the architect. “All I’m saying is that before you paint the pagodas, you need to look at that a little more carefully … that should be considered in the design aspect and I don’t think it was, because no one knew.”
The Venice Heritage Museum’s (VHM) website also has a brief history of the pagodas. According to them, the original ones were hand-tooled and elegant, with benches to sit under. They were believed to have been created as part of the Work Projects Administration Program that existed from 1935-1943. The older, Jewish population who frequented Ocean Front Walk in the days of yore really enjoyed them. In 2000, they were refurbished, with the benches being removed, but the overall pagoda structure maintained.
Melissa Diner, who had made the original motion, was agreeable to Seward’s suggestions. And so, a first amendment was formed that stated the project follow the guidelines of the secretary of interior design on rehabilitation of historic buildings. This amendment passed readily 15-0-3.
But the pagodas were only just getting started! Or maybe it was the revenge of the pigeons and other seafaring birds, discouraged from landing on the pagodas by reflectors added in 2014.
The next motion to amend was made by Community Officer Mike Bravo. He suggested that rather than have one, permanent memorial pagoda to Alicia Gruppioni, that one pagoda be a revolving memorial pagoda that would include other Venice residents. This second amendment carried as well with a vote of 8-4-5.
Death often comes in threes. Evidently, VNC amendments do, too.
The third, and final motion, however, to amend was the most confusing and controversial motion. Vice President Mark Salzberg asked if the board members could remove Bravo’s amendment, on the grounds that Board members did not get a chance to talk about whether there should be any dedication at all. According to the parliamentary, a motion could be made by someone on the prevailing side to reconsider the amendment only.
At this point, the public was roused somewhat; but President Mike Newhouse, aka the Dictator of Time, even more so. He wrongly chastised two women in the back for speaking when they were not. Then, he went on to threaten to adjourn the whole meeting, saying, “Folks are not up here to waste their time.” Newhouse next said there was a lot of time wasting coming from both sides. Considering that public comment was still only one minute, and that there was very little that night, one wonders just how the public was wasting the Board’s time. Telepathically?
To succeed, this third motion to reconsider a previous amendment needed a 2/3rds vote. It failed, 11-5-2, by one vote.
Finally, the entire motion to “Adopt-A-Pagoda” along with two amendments – one to follow guidelines on historical, restoration and the other to create a single, revolving, memorial pagoda – won easily by 14-2-2.
At first thought, one wonders why the idea of beautifying the pagodas on Ocean Front Walk created such heated discussion. They are, however, a perfect mirror of the battle going on here in Venice, a battle that skirts around the real issues of homelessness troubling our community.
In her public comment, Shelly Gomez spoke about how Salt Lake City, Utah is solving their homelessness by housing them. Later, however, she contradicted herself, saying that by painting the pagodas a bright color, it would deter people from camping there. Since she is part of the OFW committee who came up with the beautification project, what then is the real reason for wanting to paint the pagodas? To repel those deemed unfit for Ocean Front Walk?
In a strange twist of irony, the architect who designed these structures, Gregory Ain, was “best known for bringing elements of modern architect to lower-and-medium cost housing.”(wikipedia)
Whatever the intention of the OFW committee, if it was not for the presence and the persuasion of Amanda Seward, we in Venice would have lost the chance to understand and preserve a part of Venice that is both interesting and educational. As Amanda said in her first comment, “When you have great art, you don’t paint over it.”
By Krista Schwimmer