The Ambassador Hotel lesson
I was just a little girl the first time I visited the Ambassador. My father held my hand and led me down a long hallway before we stopped in front of an ornate facade. I remember Dad’s smile as he slowly opened the door to … the fabulous Cocoanut Grove nightclub! In the magic of a perfect moment, I looked up and saw a parade of dreams etched across the face of the man I loved more than anyone in the world. It was at that moment that something clicked inside my little 9-year-old brain, something that helps me, even today, believe in the ability of the built world to change the trajectory of our lives.
Preservation has always been a hard sell in Los Angeles. But maybe in the years ahead it won’t be as hard as it used to be, considering several new facts. No. 1, as my Dad would have said, a building represents an enormous investment of energy — much bigger than we thought when we were fighting to save the Ambassador. No. 2, we now know that construction of new structures alone consumes 40% of the raw materials that enter our economy every year. No. 3, according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the resources required to manufacture these materials and transport them to a site and assemble them into a structure is the equivalent of consuming 5 to 15 gallons of oil per square foot. No. 4, a Brookings Institution study indicates that the construction of new buildings alone will destroy one-third of our existing building stock by 2030. And finally, No. 5, the energy used to destroy older buildings in addition to the energy used to build new ones could power the entire state of California for 10 years, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
We’ve treated old buildings like we once treated plastic shopping bags — we haven’t reused them, and when we’ve finished with them, we’ve tossed them out. This has to stop. Preservation must stand alongside conservation as an equal force in the sustainability game. More older and historic buildings have to be protected from demolition, not only because it affects our pocketbooks but more important because it threatens our environment. Let’s face it, our free ride at the expense of the planet is over.
As for me, I’m keeping the door to the Cocoanut Grove open. I’m still holding on to my father’s hand and the memory that grew to inspire my dream of a golden — now green — future among structures that stand as invitations to a past we can only imagine by being in their presence.
Diane Keaton is an Oscar-winning actress. She is a former board member of the Los Angeles Conservancy and is currently a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.