[Interview] Talking with Linda Dishman, Executive Director of the LA Conservancy
A preservationist from the beginning, Linda Dishman is leading the local preservation movement in Los Angeles, California as Executive Director of the LA Conservancy. She's seen a lot in her over 20 years at the Conservancy, and in this interview, she reflects on past wins, losses, and what they've meant to the organization.
Update March 8, 2017: Dishman now serves as President and CEO of the LA Conservancy.
You've had an appreciation of historic places from the very beginning. What is one of the earliest memories you have of a place that captured your heart?
When I was young, we would visit my grandparents and aunts and uncles who lived about an hour away. On each trip, we would drive by the hospital where I was born. This sense of my parents celebrating something that was important to them (my birth) was meaningful and powerful, and it cemented for me the role that buildings have in telling stories.
You celebrated your 20th anniversary at the LA Conservancy this past fall (of 2013). What would you consider your biggest accomplishment? What do you still want to do?
Saving the Cathedral of St. Vibiana was a real turning point for the Conservancy. We were up against the entire power structure of the city including the Catholic Archdiocese who owned the building. The church dated to 1876 and was designed by the first licensed architect in Los Angeles. In many ways it was a defining moment for us -- a real “gut check” in how hard we would fight to save an important building. Our work saving Vibiana also helped change people’s attitudes towards the Conservancy and preservation, which is almost as important as saving the actual building.
What is really important for the Conservancy to continue doing is foster a strong preservation ethic in Los Angeles. We have the largest membership of any local preservation organization in the nation, and yet people are surprised we have a support base that large. There are stereotypes in the city that persist -- such as we don’t have a history or people in LA don’t care about our history. But the LA Conservancy is made up of many people who live and work in historic buildings who are making a daily choice to support historic preservation.
What has been your favorite save and most disappointing loss?
Hands down, my favorite win is Vibiana and the actual process of saving the building itself. We didn't just save it from demolition. We found a preservation-friendly buyer to purchase the building. We brought in eleven architectural firms to create a new vision for the building so people could see for themselves the possibilities. We stood up for this building, and people took notice. This is significant. And it demonstrates how important preserving places like Vibiana are for revitalizing downtowns.
I would say our most disappointing loss is the Ambassador Hotel, which we spent two decades trying to save, including filing several lawsuits. We tried hard to adapt the hotel into a school for a school district that wanted a new building. When adaptive reuse was no longer an option, we shifted our plans ... several times. We showed them how to build classrooms around the hotel building, and then how to turn the hotel into affordable housing. A developer is all about the bottom line, and we can often work with that and find a middle ground, but in this case, the school district steadfastly maintained that their need to tear it down was more important. There was just no getting around that.
What do you love the most about your work?
I love that people have stories about buildings. I’m fascinated that when we’re trying to save a building like the Century Plaza Hotel, people come out of the woodwork to tell their stories -- they got engaged there, attended a bar mitzvah, [etc.]. So often, people think these are just buildings, but their great value comes from people’s associations with the building.
What do you think is one of the biggest challenges for a local preservation organization such as the LA Conservancy? Also, its most rewarding opportunities?
I think where preservation has a tougher time is when you venture out away from saving iconic buildings to ones that aren’t necessarily pretty or well-known, but they tell important stories. That is something we’re working on now -- how to be more effective at building an audience for these buildings that people seldom drive by because it’s out of the way, or not perceived as significant because they’re not the most attractive of places. If we only save pretty buildings we’re only telling a small slice of the story.
One of our most rewarding opportunities lies in the ability to connect with new local neighborhoods in a meaningful way. A grant from the National Trust allowed us to hire a community outreach coordinator who was bilingual and could personally reach out to Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles. This work has been very rewarding. It’s not to say that people didn’t care before, it’s just that we weren’t speaking the same language. Now we’re bringing new people to the choir. They’ve always shared our passion, now we’re just communicating the same way about it. It is so special and heartwarming to find more kindred spirits.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to save a historic place?
Look for the win-win solution. This has been a really successful tactic for the LA Conservancy. It’s been such a good approach for us because so many times things are framed in black and white. But we want everyone to win. Like with Century Plaza, where the developer was proposing to tear it down; whereas our goal was to save the building. So we worked with him to find a solution that involved keeping the hotel, but building two high rise towers behind so that he was able to get the allowable density. Working towards a win-win solution gives you a better chance of bringing more people to the table.