October 27, 2015

What Does It Mean to Save Villa Carlotta? (Updated for 2018)

[Last updated 9/17/18 5:28 PM PT]

I didn't know what I was getting into when I signed up to go to a Halloween party at the Villa Carlotta.

I only knew that I'd missed the chance to tour it back in 2012 with the Los Angeles City Historical Society, and I'd missed the chance to visit back in August when a fellow field agent was paying it a visit and could've taken me along.

I knew there weren't many residents left. But I didn't know why.

From the outside, the once spectacular Villa Carlotta—built in 1926 and supposedly financed by William Randolph Hearst—looks way more run-down than its Old Hollywood neighbors, like the Chateau Elysee or the Hollywood Tower across the street.

If it weren't for the protesters outside chanting "Stop the evictions!", I might've thought the place was already abandoned. The security guard at the front door had his hands full with a protester who was trying to get in by saying, "I used to live here!" and then emphasizing "used to." It became very clear that this was not the most appropriate place to have a party, especially when a faction of protesters came down from one of the apartments upstairs dressed in ghostly sheets and carrying the "tombstones" of the villa's former tenants who'd been evicted.

Although the Villa Carlotta has housed its fair share of celebrities and public figures over the years—everyone from actress Marion Davies to gossip columnist Louella Parsons, both with their own unique ties to Hearst—in more recent years, its stabilized rents had attracted more of a starving artist sort.

When the apartment complex was purchased last year by a developer with plans to turn it into a hotel, its residents started getting evicted under the Ellis Act, a law that permits landlords to evict tenants if they're changing the purpose of the building, as long as they evict all of the tenants.

The Hollywood Arts Council attempted to party on, but the tension was palpable. I wasn't the only one who didn't quite get what exactly was going on, and people kept asking, "Why were they let in?" and "Where are the police?"

The kitchen staff had to climb out of a window in order to put food out on a refreshment table. Everyone—on both sides of the conflict—were recording everything on their cell phones, just in case something went very wrong. And it felt like it would. Thankfully, it didn't.

I felt a bit guilty as I sipped a drink and nibbled on some snacks in the courtyard. I didn't know I'd be crossing a picket line. I just wanted to see the building.

It's supposedly haunted, which was one of the lures to the Hollywood Arts Council party: ghost tours.

We began in Louella Parsons' former two-bedroom duplex on the first floor, with its dramatic Spanish arches and wrought iron railings.

As we poked around to the various living spaces...

...keeping in mind that spirits like mirrors and closets...

...some of us were armed with various equipment to detect the presence of the paranormal. And sometimes, in some places, they would go off like crazy.

Personally, I thought my best bet was to ride the vintage elevator to our next stop on the fourth floor...

...since the psychic medium who was our ghost hunting guide actually advised us not to...

...after having gotten stuck in there herself earlier that day.

Unfortunately, I rode the lift without incident.

It's really unnerving to wander the halls of a building which is not entirely abandoned, or even vacant. You can't just open any unlocked door. You hear a dog barking, and you wonder whether it's real, or a ghost dog.

But with our guide, we could enter a couple more units that were no longer occupied—at least, not by the living.

The apartments are charming, and very much of the era—built-in furniture and mosaic tile and Murphy bed alcoves and many, many layers of paint. But one of the reasons that the artist tenants loved living there was that their former landlord didn't really stop them from doing anything either in their own units or in the public spaces.

They could paint, decorate, furnish, and sublet to their hearts' desires—allowances that very few tenants in historic, protected buildings would ever have (myself included). No wonder they're upset. You can't let people run wild and expect them not to protest when you try to restrict them.

Clearly, there's a lot of unrest at the Villa Carlotta—whether it's among the dead, the living, or the undead. I didn't receive any messages from beyond while I was there, no goosebumps to report, but I know of at least one group of people who'll probably contribute to the building's supernatural forces at some point in the future, when those ghosts won't be wearing white sheets, and their grave markers will be real.

I don't know the whole story. I've never lived at the Villa Carlotta. I've never been evicted from anywhere, though the thought of it terrifies me. From a preservationist's perspective, I think with this new developer and plans for a hotel, at least there's somebody coming in who'll fix the place up rather than letting it languish, and who won't let its residents do whatever they want with the space. At least the city's Office of Historic Resources seems to be overseeing the renovation plans, so that historic features will be retained, and improper renovations and additions will be prevented.

Does it indicate gentrification? Maybe. The Villa Carlotta used to attract the elite, but it's changed dramatically over the years. And what's a building without the personalities who occupy it? But still, why can't it be nice again? Why do purists so often think that "nice" is a bad thing?

When people with money and media reach embrace a historic property, it's more likely that that historic property won't be demolished. It's that simple. Sometimes, when you love a place, you either watch it fall apart as it gets overused and under-cared-for, or you lose your unrestricted access to it as it's preserved. Is it worth losing the building altogether if you can't have it the way that you want it?

Are the tenants worried about the historic preservation of this landmark, or are they worried about where else they can live on such low rent?

Was there a way for the Villa Carlotta tenants to keep their apartments? Maybe, but they wouldn't have continued to experience the same leniency that they'd become accustomed to. Has the developer used some shady tactics to evict them? Maybe.

I think the tenants' protest at the Villa Carlotta was actually a good thing, though it was a bit scary to experience from the other side. They certainly drew attention to the issues that had completely escaped me and I'm sure many others. Now, more people can ask these questions and engage in spirited debate about how to make historic buildings accessible to people of various socioeconomic backgrounds, and how they can properly enjoy them without destroying them.

CurbedLA has very good daytime photos and a blow-by-blow description of the controversy, which you can see here.

Vanity Fair printed a first-person piece from one of the Villa's former tenants here.

Update September 2018: The plans for a hotel officially fell through two years ago, and Villa Carlotta is renting again. Under the Ellis Act, the evicted residents have the "right to return" -- but so far, only one of them has. Others accepted a buyout that meant they would forfeit that right.

For those still eligible to come back, what's the appeal? It's not the same Villa Carlotta they once loved.

They may save some money by reclaiming their old monthly rent payments (or the equivalent of what they'd be now after a couple of standard yearly increases), but it's expensive and exhausting to pack up and move—not once, but twice.

It's no longer "home" for many of those who lived there and were forced out. But hopefully others will get to move in and enjoy the historic building—at least for a while.

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