What may have been the final chapter in the ongoing saga of the Tower Records building at 8801 Sunset Blvd. closed Monday night when the West Hollywood City Council voted unanimously not to designate it as a cultural resource.
“This is not a historic structure, but a lot of history happened there,” said Councilmember John D’Amico, summing up the general feeling of the council.
Once viewed as the epicenter of the music business, the flagship store of the Tower Records chain, located at the perpetually congested Sunset-Horn-Holloway intersection, closed when the Sacramento-based chain went bankrupt in 2006.
Jerome Cleary, who lives directly behind the building, was appealing the city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC)’s unanimous decision in April not to designate it a “local cultural resource.” While the commission agreed that something socially and culturally significant happened at Tower Records, its hands were tied by the city’s preservation ordinances which state the building must retain its “integrity.” It had to still look like it did when those culturally significant events took place.
The commission said a large part of what made the Tower Records building distinctive was the red and yellow paint and the ever-changing signs advertising albums on the building’s façade. When Chicago developer Sol Barket bought the building in 2007, he painted it white and had the signs removed.
Cleary argued that the paint was not significant.
“If you took the Pacific Design Center and painted it white, it would still be the PDC,” said Cleary. “If you painted the Anne Frank House orange, it would still be the Anne Frank House . . . paint color and advertising signage are not part of the integrity.”
The council agreed the paint was not a major consideration, that the experience of going to Tower Records with its huge record catalogue, people watching and chance to bump into celebrities was what was significant.
“It was never about the yellow and red paint. It was about the music,” said Councilmember John Duran.
“Tower Records was an experience, but it was the business that was the experience,” said Mayor Abbe Land. “We need to look at what ultimately meets the [historic] criteria and designating for the experience doesn’t.”
Cleary came armed with a Change.org petition signed by more than 1,800 people saying the building should be deemed historic. However, only 44 of those signatures were from West Hollywood residents.
Ten people spoke during the public comment portion of the hearing, nine of them urging the council to designate the building, saying it was the center of the Sunset Strip’s music scene.
“This is the right place to commemorate what went on [on the Sunset Strip]” said photographer Robert Landau, who recently published the coffee table book, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip” which includes many photos of the Tower Records album signs.
Nicki Carlsen, an attorney representing Barket, said the council made the correct decision.
“This hasn’t been Tower Records since 2006,” said Carlsen who added that Barket was open to alternative ways of designating the site.
When Barket bought the property, he announced plans to build a three-story, 47,000 square-foot building called “Centrum Sunset” there with an upscale David Barton gym as its main tenant. Neighborhood outcry about the amount of extra traffic the gym would generate (an estimated 1,200 car trips per day) resulted in the City Council voting down the proposal 4-1 in April 2012.
Barket returned with a slightly scaled down version of the building without the Barton gym in August 2012, but the council again rejected it on a 4-1 vote, saying it would still generate too much traffic. Councilmember John Duran cast the sole vote in favor of the project both times.
When the commission rejected the historic designation, it recommended the council come up with an alternative way of commemorating Tower Records such as designating the Horn-Holloway-Sunset intersection as “Tower Records Square.” The council agreed that the business should be commemorated somehow, but didn’t offer any specific suggestions.