DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - As a child, Linda Dishman would drive with her family on trips that included frequent stops to see historic sites or buildings. She also fondly recalls visiting her father’s office in an aged structure in her hometown of Sacramento.
These days, the 56-year-old executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Downtown-based nonprofit that is the city’s most powerful preservationist organization, has interests that go beyond the mere age of a structure. That number is important, she notes, as is design. Still, they are only part of what makes something special or worth fighting for, she said.
Equally important, she believes, are the stories behind the places and the people who were there.
“[Preservation] matters in several ways,” Dishman said during an interview in her eighth floor office at the 1921 Pacific Center on Sixth Street. “The buildings tell a story, and the stories matter to people.”
Dishman has learned that well in her career with the Conservancy. On Sept. 13, a host of preservation supporters from in and beyond Downtown, and even some past adversaries, marked her 20th anniversary atop the organization during a gala at Vibiana, a former Catholic cathedral she helped save from the wrecking ball.
The list of accomplishments Dishman has secured in her two decades is long. In addition to preserving a bevy of notable buildings, she has doubled the group’s membership, tripled its staff and quadrupled its budget. She has become an important leader in a city often decried for paying little heed to its past.
“She taught me everything I know about historic preservation,” said Ken Bernstein, the manager of the city’s Office of Historic Resources, who previously worked under Dishman as the Conservancy’s director of preservation issues. “You can see the results of the Conservancy and her leadership in Downtown, in the development community, in the laser-like focus on Broadway and the Historic Core.”
The Los Angeles Conservancy was formed in 1978 by a group of residents trying to prevent the demolition of the 1926 Central Library. They succeeded, and the organization has grown to become the largest local preservation group in the nation, with more than 6,500 members, a staff of 14 and a budget of $2.3 million.
The group continues to fight for preservation, and has access to lawyers who will use the courts to try to stop the destruction of properties they deem historic. Buildings they have helped save from demolition include the Wiltern Theatre, the Wilshire May Company Building and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.
However, an easier route, Dishman has learned, is to work with the developers. She puts a premium on getting involved early in the process, and tries to find ways to help people revamp historic structures and maintain the integrity of a project while still being financially successful.
The group has expanded in other ways. The Conservancy has a slate of walking tours of historic sites. In Downtown, it may be best known for the Last Remaining Seats, an immensely popular series that screens historic films in old Broadway movies palaces. The six or so summer events routinely sell out and help fill the Conservancy’s coffers.
It is an intriguing career path for Dishman, who grew up in Sacramento. During her junior year in college at UC Davis she got an internship in the state Office of Historic Preservation.
She later took a job as a planner for the city of Pasadena, then became an architectural historian with the National Park Service. She was tapped for the post as executive director of the Conservancy in 1992.
Under her leadership, the Conservancy has played an integral role in Downtown, say those in the preservation community. Her efforts include being a strong early supporter of the adaptive reuse ordinance and helping pioneering developers such as Tom Gilmore navigate through the historic tax credit process. She has also been a consistent champion of efforts to revitalize Broadway.
Her decisions have not always been popular. In her most notable encounter, she essentially went to war with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and its powerful supporters.
In 1995, Cardinal Roger Mahony announced plans to tear down St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, which had been damaged in the Northridge earthquake the previous year, and build a massive new building in its place. The Conservancy believed the damage was not as severe as Mahony claimed, and opposed the destruction of the 1876 landmark at Second and Main streets, which had been declared a Historic-Cultural Monument by the city.
Dishman and the Conservancy launched a campaign to stop the plan. In the process, they took heat from business and political leaders who said the preservationists were standing in the way of the area’s redevelopment. The issue became even more contentious when Mahony warned that if the Archdiocese could not move forward on the plot, he would look at building the Cathedral outside Downtown, possibly in the San Fernando Valley.
“It was a very tough summer,” Dishman recalled. “There was a lot of pressure on the Conservancy to back down. People were calling our board members saying the Conservancy was ruining any chance for revitalization in Downtown.”
The Conservancy took to the courts, and in one dramatic incident they halted an unannounced demolition of the cathedral after the cupola had been taken down. Ultimately and ironically, the situation worked out for all involved: Mahony found a new site that would allow for the construction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a far larger building than he could have built at Second and Main.
St. Vibiana’s was sold to Gilmore, who transformed the deconsecrated church into a stylish events venue. Gilmore, who hosted Dishman’s anniversary reception, recalled how she convinced him to buy Vibiana and revamp the structure.
“We were sitting at Café Pinot, and none of us usually have a drink during lunch, but she made sure the martinis were coming,” he said.
“She’s extremely knowledge and passionate about preserving great architecture in the city,” adds Downtown nightlife impresario Cedd Moses, who is a Conservancy board member. “She understands certain structures can’t be used in the same way they were intended to. She understands the importance of economic feasibility.”
Dishman points to the Vibiana clash as the moment that defined her “win-win” philosophy. In a way, it was unexpected.
“When the fight was going on, we thought we needed to not always be against stuff. We needed to be for something, be more proactive,” she said. “Preservation shouldn’t just be saying no. It should be saying yes.”
That led to what she terms more “proactive” efforts such as the Conservancy’s 10-year Broadway Initiative, launched in 1999 to foster the revitalization of the historic corridor that is home to a dozen former movie palaces. The effort preceded the current Brining Back Broadway initiative launched in 2008 by 14th District Councilman José Huizar.
The Conservancy worked on a marketing campaign to bring developers interested in preserving and reactivating buildings to the area. Although the street still has numerous challenges and dead zones, a number of hip restaurants have opened. The United Artists Theater is being converted into an Ace Hotel and the Delijani family has announced plans to upgrade and activate the four theaters they own on the street.
The Conservancy also organizes walking tours of historic sites such as the Biltmore Hotel, Union Station and even one of the “Modern Skyline,” on Bunker Hill. Under her watch, the Last Remaining Seats series lures some 2,000 people a week to the summer lineup. Tickets are often gone well in advance of the screenings.
While Dishman has been at her job for 20 years, she said that every day at work is different.
“L.A. County is so large and one of the things we have difficulty with is how many issues we can take at any given point. There’s just always something going on,” she said.
Her long-term goal she said, is to build a generation of people who love historic buildings, just like the ones she saw decades ago on drives with her family.
Contact Richard Guzman at email@example.com.