Can Pickfair overhaul preserve Lot’s essence?

Allison Anders rallies bizzers to protect historic backlot

Just a month ago, the silent-to-sound-era film “The Artist” was showered with Oscars and many other awards. This month, there’s alarm about what’s about to happen to real-life remnants from that fabled period of movie history.

The Lot, the 11-acre West Hollywood campus of soundstages and wood-frame offices with 90 years of history, will soon start the first phase of an extensive upgrade, with plans to demolish two structures to make way for a new five-story, 93,000-square-foot office building.

Developers say it’s needed to make the studio competitive in the digital era. But filmmakers, residents and preservationists are mobilizing to save the character of what they call Pickfair Studios.

It’s labeled such because the backlot along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood was the spot where Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks — “The Artist” featured shades of their story — set up shop in 1928 for United Artists, the studio they formed with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

The hundreds of classic movies shot and legendary antics that took place on the lot leave little doubt of its importance. For instance, Howard Hughes kept offices there, even though he owned RKO down the street, and would spend hours alone watching movies in a projection room, or could be found sleeping in his car parked next to his quarters.

The city of West Hollywood has the site listed among its historic and cultural resources, and even promotes the fact that it played a hand in the National Trust for Historic Preservation designating the city one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations.

The problem is that just identifying an historic property, or even puttting a marker in front of it, doesn’t mean all of it will be saved.

In the first phase of the planned upgrade, according to city officials, owner CIM Group plans to raze and demolish the Pickford Building and the Goldwyn Building on the southeast corner of the property, with plans for a much larger glass-and-steel structure that evokes the era of “Mad Men” more than the time of the birth of the studio business. The Pickford Building dates to the 1920s, and, according to a city preservation report, the Goldwyn Building dates to 1982.

CIM has not told the city which additional buildings it will demolish in future phases, or a timeline, but the Los Angeles Times reported that plans would involve removal of the Writers Building, the Fairbanks Building and Editorial Building.

The original development plan for the lot, approved in 1993, included a survey of all of the structures on the lot, identifying them by historic value. Slated for preservation are the Mill Building and the Mill Ancillary Buildings, all of the soundstages except Stage 7, as well as Santa Monica East Building and the Santa Monica Building and the facade along Santa Monica boulevard, city officials said.

In a 4-1 vote, the city approved the plan with the CIM Group in 2007, with supporters citing the need to balance preservation and development. As was pointed out, the Lot is not a museum but a working property competing against a host of other lots with more extensive upgrades. And compared to other nearby cities, like Beverly Hills, West Hollywood is actually one of the better ones when it comes to attention to preservation. CIM says that its upgrade will maintain the property as a “dynamic studio campus” and a “hub for creative businesses,” with its new building having a “loft-like feel.” Production on soundstages won’t be affected during construction.

But talking to the many who are upset about the plans for the site, and hearing about its history at the birth of the studio era, the sentiment is that it’s still akin to trying to upgrade Philadelphia’s Independence Hall with a more chic design.

Film director Allison Anders, who is helping lead a Save Pickfair Studios petition drive, worries that the upgrade “really will change the character of the studio completely.” She said advocates are not saying no to any renovation, but striving to preserve the atmosphere presently there.

“Buildings that people were told were being protected don’t seem to be,” Anders said, adding that the group has collected about 2,000 signatures, including those from Roger Ebert, Jason Schwartzman and Tony Shalhoub. Joe Dante sent her a list of hundreds of movies that have shot there, starting with “His Majesty, the American” in 1919 to “West Side Story” and “Some Like It Hot” and some shots from “Star Wars.”

Other studios have gone through extensive upgrades while maintaining their historic integrity. The Michael Eisner-era transformation of the Disney lot led to some rather “grotesque” buildings, Anders notes, but the animation building and others on the campus are still there. Plans are in the works to upgrade Paramount, but that lot has retained its character, Anders says. She argues that a rich sense of history in the environment of bungalows and storied structures “has an impact on the work being done.”

The pioneers of the biz “knew how to create the sense of community that makes sense for making movies,” says Anders. She’s concerned that will be lost.

Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said the org opposed the demolition plans in 2007, but since it has already been approved, “legally there is not much that can be done.”

Anders says that “if enough people care about it, there will be enough people who will care to protect it.”

The Pickford and Fairbanks narrative didn’t end like “The Artist,” but they had their happier moments. Anders points out that they were married 92 years ago Wednesday.