What's been most effective in helping to save buildings is CEQA [signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970]. The preservation movement got more skilled at understanding how to make sure historic preservation is considered like wildlife and water and air.
You hear complaints about CEQA — too much regulation.
There are ways to make CEQA more efficient. I'm not sure it needs to be as time-consuming as it. But the core value of CEQA is something people appreciate.
Has much changed in your 20 years doing this work?
People are becoming more vocal. The Historic Preservation Overlay Zone movement has grown; we now have 29 districts with preservation plans that fit the character of the neighborhood. Changes are reviewed by local residents and experts. This is a movement. This isn't just the conservancy. That's one of the great secrets about Los Angeles: People really identify with their neighborhoods.
What do you say to the accusation that preservation is what rich people do?
About the half the buildings that are protected [by a preservation zone] are in lower-middle-class neighborhoods — Lincoln Heights, Pico Union, Highland Park. Yes, they're [also] in wealthy neighborhoods, but it's across the economic board.
There are ways to [preserve] that are efficient, and incentives for historical preservation. I don't think the cost argument is necessarily accurate anymore. We have a track record, particularly on adaptive reuse downtown. We bring experts to the table when we're fighting to save a building and find a win-win solution.
Much of L.A.'s historic architecture is residential, not grand public buildings. Is that harder to see and to save?
Yes; that doesn't mean we still aren't trying. We've made tremendous progress with big-name architects like Schindler and Neutra. It's the lesser-known architects that we lose.
We get lots of phone calls: People drive by [an historic house] and see something [suspicious]. There's no preservation police. We really are dependent on people out and about who care.
You have victories like St. Vibiana, the Wiltern, the Cinerama Dome, and losses, like the Ambassador Hotel, torn down for a school. Neither the Cocoanut Grove nor the pantry where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated were saved.
Sometimes you just lose. [The school district] wanted to replicate [the Cocoanut Grove]. Replication is like going to Disneyland: Do you teach what real Main Streets are like by going to Main Street Disneyland? That's not the right message. We felt it could be a great educational facility. Students read "The Great Gatsby" — Scott Fitzgerald stayed at that hotel. Few places have those links that would really have excited kids. Ultimately we didn't prevail, and we've moved on.
I'm a believer in blue-plaque historical markers, like the ones in London. Can we do that in L.A.?
We're looking into doing that with smartphones!
What's your house like?
It's a 1948 Silver Lake traditional. It's just a nice little house that's not going to be an individual landmark.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.