The West Hollywood Historic Preservation Commission voted Tuesday night to continue its deliberation for designating the former Tower Records building a “cultural resource,” saying it needs more information about the how the color and signage on the building must factor into its decision.
The commission agreed that the building at 8801 Sunset Blvd. and Holloway had historical and cultural significance in the city. However, the commission also said the ever-changing signs on the building advertising albums plus the red-and-yellow façade were defining characteristics of the Tower building.
When the Sacramento-based Tower Records chain declared bankruptcy in 2006, the signs were removed and the building was repainted white. Current city guidelines for historic site designation require the commission to only consider the appearance of a building as it stands today.
“We’ve never considered a building on the basis of a tenant before,” said Commissioner Ed Levin. “This is seriously unchartered territory for us. My reading (of the city guidelines) is that we can only designate what is still there.”
“There was an unknown entity whether or not paint dictates integrity,” said music writer/historian Domenic Priore. “They are going to be researching, hopefully with other cities, to see that many, many, many historic designations have been made sans the original paint. It’s almost ridiculous.”
The commission opted to continue the hearing until its April 22 meeting, asking the city attorney to provide more guidance, and the city staff to research similar cases and explore alternatives to the “cultural resource” designation.
“Paint is an upkeep issue. Brick and mortar is a preservation issue,” said Priore who filed the application. He added that the building was still in good shape structurally.
The building served as the flagship store for the Tower Records chain for 36 years, and, advocates say, was the center of music activity on the Sunset Strip.
“Tower Records should be a historic building,” said Priore, who authored “Riot on the Sunset Strip: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood.” “The music industry got its model for marketing at Tower … Tower Records was where albums were debuted.”
Attorney Nicki Carlsen, representing the building’s current owner, Centrum Partners, urged the commission to deny the application. According to Carlsen, when Centrum Partners proposed a three-story, 50,000-square-foot Centrum Sunset building for the site, the Environmental Impact Report concluded it was ineligible for the cultural resource designation.
In five years of trying to get the Centrum Sunset project approved (the City Council denied it twice), Carlsen was told to reevaluate many aspects of the proposal. “What did not come up was this,” said Carlsen.
If the designation is granted, the building could not be significantly changed or demolished without the owner going through extra legal hurdles.
“We [would be] saying historic significance trumps individual property rights,” said Levin.
About two-dozen people attended the meeting. Ten of them spoke during the public comment period. Several said the building could easily be repainted and the signs recreated.
Todd Meehan of Sun Valley, who worked at Tower Sunset for 20 years as the person in charge of arranging in-store events, cited the number of bands who did free concerts at the store, everyone from Elton John to Duran Duran to Guns N Roses. In fact, Slash and Axl Rose first met at the Tower store and went on to form Guns N Roses. He said Stevie Wonder once brought in a demo on his new album for them to play because he wanted to hear how it would sound in a large space.
“It was place to go, a place to be seen,” said Meehan, noting the many celebrities who shopped there.
Alfredo Flores of Pasadena said that as a teenager many of his friends and colleagues in his Pasadena high school gathered at Tower Sunset on weekends because it was such a happening place.
“I can’t think of any place that brings out our history, especially in Los Angeles, better than Tower,” said Flores.
“We have designated a hamburger stand and a hot dog stand. Why in the world have we not designated this building?” said resident George Credle. “The idea of Tower Records is important. This is why the Sunset Strip was the Sunset Strip.”
The commission didn’t question the cultural or social significance of the building. “It’s clear it was more than a music store,” said Commissioner Gail Ostergren.
“This tenant had such an impact on the city and that needs to be recognized,” said Commissioner Paul Rice.
The commissioners wondered if a plaque or sign at the site might be possible, but Levin said that was not the item before them, that they could only consider the historic designation.
After the hearing, Carlsen said the situation unprecedented.
“The commission is looking for some sort of ability to have a recognition on the site in some way,” said Carlsen. “I’m sure Centrum may consider some recognition whether it be a plaque or some other recognition on the property.”