After 31 years at the Los Angeles Conservancy, president and core preservationist Linda Dishman is stepping down, leaving behind a lasting legacy.
In pursuit of saving the Central Library in downtown from demolition, the L.A. Conservancy was founded in 1978 by a group of individuals who valued the historic architectural and cultural resources of L.A. County.
Today, it serves as a nonprofit – funded through membership support, private donations, grants and ticket sales – whose mission is to educate and advocate for the preservation of historic places, and the architects who built them.
It’s played a significant role in saving some of the most iconic buildings in Los Angeles from being torn down and developed over, including The Wiltern in Koreatown and Vibiana, formerly St. Vibiana Cathedral, in downtown.
“I think that the stories that buildings embody are a really important way of bringing people together,” Dishman said. “Our goal is really to bring them into the vibrancy that makes them useful and pleasurable for people today and in the future.”
Getting her start
Dishman was raised in a family that loved historic buildings. Growing up in Northern California, she was surrounded by the history of the Gold Rush, which sparked a love of learning about the past. She went on to study history at UC Davis, where she earned an internship with the state office of historic preservation.
She later worked for the city of Pasadena, where she was very involved with the development of Old Town Pasadena, and then with the National Park Service in San Francisco, before joining the conservancy in 1992, first as executive director and then as president and chief executive.
Since then, the conservancy has grown to nearly 5,000 members – the largest membership of any local preservation organization in the country.
While the conservancy itself doesn’t hold any regulatory power, it does hold the power of persuasion.
In 2009, the Century Plaza Hotel – originally built in 1966 on the former back lot of 20th Century Fox Studios, which had hosted dozens of stars – was being sold to Michael Rosenfeld, a developer who wanted to tear it down and build two mixed-use high-rises.
The conservancy sprang into action, lobbying to have the hotel placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of “America’s 11 most endangered historic places” by conducting interviews promoting its preservation.
This controversy brought the hotel to headlines, which became a hot topic for debate among the council district 5 race, in which four of the five candidates felt strongly about preserving the hotel, considered one of the most notable works of architect Minoru Yamasaki.
Paul Koretz won that race, and within his first few weeks in office he filed a motion to nominate the hotel for designation as a Historic-Cultural Monument.
Ultimately, this brought Rosenfeld to the table: Rosenfeld and the conservancy worked out a deal in which the Century Plaza Hotel would stay and his two towers could be built behind it.
“The developer got every square inch that he was entitled to,” Dishman said. “Yet, the building was saved.”
Earlier this year, the Reuben Brothers acquired the Century Plaza development from Rosenfeld for $1 billion through a foreclosure sale.
“We’re incredibly appreciative of Linda’s impassioned efforts to preserve the iconic Century Plaza hotel – now known as the Fairmont Century Plaza,” David Reuben Jr. of Reuben Brothers said in a statement. “Through meticulous preservation and visionary insight, new life has been breathed into this historical treasure, and a legacy was not only protected but completely invigorated.”
Dishman said there’s been a shift, and now the conservancy works better with developers in figuring out how best to make historic buildings the centerpiece of new development.
“We work very hard to have a good relationship with developers,” Dishman said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve been 100% successful on that, and if you talk to developers they may have a lower percentage than we do, but I think that it’s really important for property owners to understand why buildings are significant, and we work with them to find ways that makes it economically viable for them to save the historic buildings.”
Dishman said one of the things the conservancy has been very focused on is creating incentives for saving historical buildings, before they become endangered. The conservancy works closely with the planning department and office of historic resources on community plans that are being developed.
The Mills Act, enabled by state legislation in 1972, is L.A.’s primary financial incentive for historic preservation.
It offers property-tax savings for owners of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments and contributing properties within one of the city’s Historic Preservation Overlay Zones.
Living in an overlay zone means homeowners can’t remodel exteriors of properties, and any new construction must resemble the original architecture – a major effort to preserve L.A.’s historic beauty.
The conservancy was at the foreground of achieving the legislation that created the Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, beginning with Angeleno Heights in 1983. Today, there are 28 overlay zones and 11 more under consideration.
“I would say it’s probably the hardest when someone buys a house and wants to tear it down to build their dream house,” Dishman said.
Another citywide incentive to preserve original architecture, the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, was created in 1999 to facilitate the reuse of existing buildings, changing zoning requirements to allow for new residential units.
And while the conservancy aims to preserve the natural architecture and originality of historic buildings, it’s all for repurposing those buildings. There’s now more than 14,000 units of housing in historic buildings downtown.
“Sometimes the existing use just doesn’t work anymore,” Dishman said. “And we don’t want the building to sit there and be vacant. Uses change.”
When asked if there’s friction between meeting the city’s needs and preserving properties, Dishman said “there are often competing demands and competing priorities. And certainly, the need for housing right now is really significant.”
Conversions are particularly popular in areas where the population is dense and there’s a high demand for more housing, such as downtown and Koreatown.
However, Dishman emphasized that the need for affordable housing is bigger than the need for more housing units in general.
“It’s not just about how many units, because there have to be units that are affordable to people at all different levels of income,” she said.
Beyond its loud voice and action-oriented essence, one of the main goals of the conservancy is simply to educate people about L.A.’s past and share stories of the historic gems that might otherwise have been forgotten.
“Just because something has a history doesn’t mean that everyone knows it,” Dishman said. “We have found that once people know the story, they’re inspired by it.”
The conservancy loves to teach children, which it does by hosting weekly workshops with Heart of Los Angeles – an after-school program in MacArthur Park in Westlake – and by doing outreach to the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“(Educating) really changes how people perceive their neighborhood or community,” Dishman said. “And that change of perception, I think, is really important.”
Leaving a legacy
Dishman will be stepping down effective Nov. 30. A successor has not yet been named, although plans call for the successor to start on Nov. 1, giving them and Dishman a month of overlap.
As she passes on the baton, she hopes the conservancy will continue to advocate for buildings before they are threatened with demolition, keep up with its youth programs and continue to preserve history.
“The interesting thing about preservation that I think makes it exciting is that there’s always going to be new historic buildings,” Dishman said.
In retirement, Dishman and her husband, who reside in Silver Lake, are looking forward to exploring the remaining 12 states they have not yet been to together and having a more flexible schedule, although she noted that she’ll never not be excited about historic buildings.