Disney Honcho Helps to Halt Demolition of Historically Important L.A. Home

Not the under-threat property in question but groundbreaking African-American architect Paul R. Williams' own similarly sized self-designed home. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

When he’s not busy acquiring computer animation studios and serving on the board of directors for some totally obscure tech company named after a fruit, TV meteorologist-turned-Disney CEO Bob Iger (he’s still very much rockin’ that weatherman hair) has emerged as somewhat of an unlikely preservation angel in the Los Angeles Westside neighborhood of Brentwood where he resides with his wife, Huffington Post senior editor Willow Bay.

Last week, Iger — who apparently performed a lot of “last-minute work with L.A. city planning” according to the Los Angeles Times — along with a group of concerned (and similarly rich) neighbors in Brentwood’s super-swank Oakmont section all but dramatically threw themselves in front of bulldozers (okay, maybe a few folks including Willow Bay “stood” in front of them) in order to halt the razing of a rather modest ranch home designed in 1940 by trailblazing architect Paul Revere Williams, the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects.

In fact, demolition work had already begun on the 3,900-square-foot home at 7 Oakmont Drive with contractors taking sledgehammers to the roof and tearing off wood siding. But when a band of concerned neighbors arrived on the scene armed with a very last minute stop-work order issued by city building officials, the destruction of the home ceased. And when Bob Iger, who himself lives in a Williams-designed home, tells you to stop doing something, you probably should.

Los Angeles certainly isn’t short on Williams-designed buildings both private and public: churches, department stores, courthouses, schools, celebrity homes, the recently LEED Gold retrofitted 28th Street YMCA, and on and. The city is lousy with them. But what makes 7 Oakmont Drive — built originally as a home for the widow of a paper company executive and at one point owned by Michelle Pfeiffer and David E. Kelley who used it as a guest house — so special is its petite size and style as Williams was normally commissioned to take on larger scale projects for folks (Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, etc.) with money to spare.

Paul R. Williams promotional card
Paul R. Williams promotional card. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Image: Wikimedia Commons)

“I think that was part of the argument for significance," Ken Bernstein, principal city planner and manager of the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, says in reference to the home’s size. "Many Williams homes were grand period-revival-style architecture. He worked less frequently in traditional ranch style.”

Tthe home’s current owner, Robert Hanasab, is none to pleased with the preservation-minded do-goodery of his neighbors.

Up until last week, he had planned to tear down the entire thing and erect a 23,000-square-foot palace complete with five-car garage in its place. As explained by the L.A. Times, the city’s eleventh hour decision to designate the home as a local historic-cultural landmark after initially issuing demolition permits will not render it completely invincible but will result in a giant, review process-centric headache for Hanasab should he continue to go forward with his plans. In other words, the designation won't fully protect the home from the wrecking ball but will make it much more difficult for the wrecking ball to enter the picture.

Says Baret C. Fink, Hanasab’s attorney: "The simple facts are that the building permit had been issued without any variances; the demolition permit had been issued. Very influential neighbors decided, in my opinion, that they didn't want a large house built on the lot and used technicalities ... to seek historical status."

"Their houses are monuments,” Fink says in reference to the properties of the “influential neighbors” who moved to save the Williams ranch house. "And this house is way below the standards of the neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, thinks that Hanasab shouldn’t be too outraged over the halting of the demolition: "Owners of a house designed by a marquee architect like Paul Williams should not be surprised when there is an outcry [over] its proposed demolition."