Preserving Places with Difficult Stories: L.A.’s Parker Center

By Special Contributor posted 04-29-2015 10:18

  

By Adrian Scott Fine

 Parker Center, exterior view. | Credit: Hunter Kerhart/L.A. Conservancy
Parker Center, exterior view. | Credit: Hunter Kerhart/L.A. Conservancy

Increasingly preservationists are finding themselves advocating for places with complicated and layered histories, especially those from the 1950s through the 1980s that may be negatively associated with civil rights and social justice issues, as well as those that came about through the loss and stigma of urban renewal and displacement. Parker Center in downtown Los Angeles is a good case in point, currently slated for demolition and redevelopment.

This is a building with a difficult and often controversial past. It is famous or infamous, depending on how you look at it. While Parker Center reflects high and low points in L.A.’s history, it helps tell the story about where we have been as a city and where we want to go. The effort to save and hopefully repurpose Parker Center allows us an opportunity to have a full and honest conversation and to understand a place and the various chapters that make up its complete story.

Many people cannot imagine preserving Parker Center given the building’s troubled history and being so mired in controversial events and personalities. While it encompasses both positive and negative associations, Parker Center is undeniably historic. It is a place with such significance that it can help teach us valuable lessons and empower us to face, and own, the totality of our history.

When Parker Center was constructed in 1955, the eight-story, International Style building with integrated art and landscaping components was a significant postwar addition to the Los Angeles Civic Center. Designed by Welton Becket & Associates and J. E. Stanton with a landscape by Ralph E. Cornell, Parker Center was then known simply as the Police Facilities Building (renamed in 1966 for Police Chief William H. Parker).

 Wide angle view of the Parker Center in the late 1950s. | Credit: Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio
Wide angle view of the Parker Center in the late 1950s. | Credit: Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio

Exemplifying Becket’s “Total Design” philosophy, the building prominently features art installations, including a piece by sculptor Bernard J. Rosenthal and one of the largest mosaics ever built, the “Theme Mural of Los Angeles” by Joseph Louis Young. The building’s innovative design, which integrated virtually all departments into a centralized facility, was critically acclaimed at the time as a model for modernizing the police force—as were the state-of-the-art crime labs and communications center. In 1956, Popular Mechanics called Parker Center “the most scientific building ever used by a law-enforcement group.”

Parker Center is perhaps best known as the backdrop for television’s long-running 1950s and 60s “Dragnet” series and home to Sergeant Joe Friday. It played a strong supporting role throughout the series and more recently in the television police drama, “The Closer.” You have likely seen Parker Center if you have watched any cop shows from the 1970s and 80s.

By all these facts alone, Parker Center’s significance is undeniable. The building has been identified as individually eligible for the California Register of Historic Resources and as a contributor to a National Register-eligible historic district of the Los Angeles Civic Center.

 Exterior of the Parker Center in the late 1950's. | Credit: Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio
Exterior of the Parker Center in the late 1950's. | Credit: Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio

Yet the stories of how Parker Center came to be and what it later symbolized make preserving it all the more challenging and compelling. Before Parker Center, the site contained two of the most vibrant blocks in Little Tokyo. It housed many small mom-and-pop businesses and cultural organizations serving the Japanese-American community. Starting in 1948, the City earmarked these blocks as part of a Civic Center expansion plan and an early form of urban renewal. The site was cleared of all existing buildings—many of which would be considered historic if still standing. The property was remade into a single superblock, with Parker Center’s construction beginning in 1952.

Despite being a federally supported program that ended more than 40 years ago, urban renewal remains a touchy subject today, especially for preservationists and for those personally affected. Thousands of historic buildings, as well as part or all of neighborhoods such as Little Tokyo and Bunker Hill, were lost during this era of massive urban redevelopment. Parker Center’s construction was particularly hard felt: Besides displacing hundreds of Japanese Americans, it spurred feelings that history was repeating itself, as some of these same people had been forcibly removed just a decade earlier and confined in World War II internment camps.

Parker Center’s role in telling the story of Little Tokyo’s history is not without controversy. Yet it is also meaningful and something many do not want to forget or wipe away through demolition. “Preserving the building is important, and it should not be destroyed and forgotten after a life of only 60 years,” says Michael Okamura, president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society.

 Front sign at the Parker Center.| Credit: Hunter Kerhart/L.A. Conservancy
Front sign at the Parker Center.| Credit: Hunter Kerhart/L.A. Conservancy

In September 2014, the Little Tokyo Historical Society joined the Los Angeles Conservancy in urging the City to support a preservation alternative that calls for preserving the main portion of Parker Center while allowing for an expansion at the rear of the site.

Besides Parker Center’s early urban renewal roots, its subsequent layers of history were not always perceived as positive. William H. Parker, who oversaw the building’s construction, was one of the most distinguished–and controversial–police chiefs in Los Angeles’ history. During his leadership (1950-1966), he professionalized the police force and developed crime-fighting concepts that are now standard practice. Yet his tenure was also marred with discrimination against the African American and Latino communities, a deep-rooted problem brought into the national spotlight during the 1965 Watts Riots. Even after Parker’s death in 1966, for many people, the building continued to symbolize racial inequalities and police brutality in the city. The most visible example occurred in 1992, when violent protesters surrounded the building following the acquittal of four officers accused of brutally beating Rodney King.

Some argue that it is counter-intuitive, or at the very least ironic, to now want to preserve a place like Parker Center. Yet without the physical place in which these events happened, it is infinitely harder to tell the stories and demonstrate just how far we have come. The fact that Parker Center brings out so many strong feelings only underscores its role in Los Angeles’ history and how it helps us remember our past while also allowing us to move forward.

 Parker Center, exterior view. | Credit: Hunter Kerhart/L.A. Conservancy
Parker Center, exterior view. | Credit: Hunter Kerhart/L.A. Conservancy

In early May the City of Los Angeles is poised to decide whether to support a pending motion to designate Parker Center, which is now vacant, as a local historic landmark. While this move does not necessarily secure Parker Center’s preservation as demolition may still occur, it will slow down the process and require additional discussions regarding the merits of keeping or demolishing the building in the future. Similar conversations are taking place in urban areas all over the country right now, as aspects of growth and politics come together either for or against preservation.

Please visit the Los Angeles Conservancy’s website to learn more about the latest efforts to save Parker Center at laconservancy/parkercenter and help by signing the Change.org petition at change.org/reuse-parker-center.

Editor's Note: For more on telling difficult stories of historic places, read Max Page's article "Why We Need Bad Places" in the Spring 2015 issue of Forum Journal. This issue is available for members and non-members.

Adrian Scott Fine is the Director of Advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy. Since 2011 Adrian has overseen the organization’s outreach, advocacy and response on key preservation issues within the greater Los Angeles area. Previously he was with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, from 2000 to 2011. In 2014 he was selected as a Fitch Mid-Career Fellow by the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation for the project, “Picking up the Pieces: Preserving Urban Renewal’s Modern Legacy.”

 



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