DOWNTOWN — Despite working in preservation most of her adult life, Santa Monica Conservancy and Landmarks Commission member Ruthann Lehrer said she didn’t have plans of protecting historic structures early on in life. She just “fell into it.”
Now, she certainly doesn’t shy away from labels — her license plate is “PRESRVS.”
“That really shows where her heart is,” said Roger Genser, who works with Lehrer on the Landmarks Commission, members of which are appointed by City Hall to designate buildings as historic and give them certain legal protections.
Lehrer, a 35-year Santa Monica resident, serves as architectural historian on the commission.
“She fills that slot absolutely masterfully because she has such a great knowledge of architectural history and its relation to historic buildings,” Genser said. “I listen carefully when she speaks because she adds so much to the meetings.”
“She has a high level of ability to adapt to all different situations, apply her experience and draw conclusions,” added Nina Fresco, another commission member.
Most of the time, Lehrer said, the commission does a pretty good job, but it has occasionally made mistakes in approving alterations.
“We were misled in the information we were given,” she said.
In 2002, Lehrer helped found the Santa Monica Conservancy, a membership organization which encourages people to consider the value of historic resources. Although technically retired since 2003, today Lehrer heads the conservancy’s program committee — which deals in educational outreach and community participation — in addition to serving on the commission.
“One of the challenges at present is the real estate market — development pressures here are based on high land values,” she said. “People are very engaged in issues about development, and preservation lends itself to controversy.”
Before moving to Santa Monica, Lehrer earned degrees in art history and urban planning at Radcliffe College, NYU and UCLA. She served as the first executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy in the 1980s, then worked in Long Beach as preservation planner.
In Long Beach, which she called a less affluent community, there was a much greater demand for creating historic districts, she said.
“In Santa Monica, people are more reluctant to embrace regulations for historic property because of the perception that it may be a loss in value,” she said. “However, that is a mistake.”
Lehrer said that preservation also fits perfectly into Santa Monica’s reputation as sustainable and environmentally friendly.
“The greenest building is one that’s already built,” she said, citing less need for materials and transportation and smaller disposals in landfills.
Lehrer’s conservancy projects include setting up a docent program at the Annenberg Community Beach House earlier this year and developing the content of the Downtown walking tours of historic buildings and architecture in 2007.
“She is instrumental in putting programs together,” said conservancy President Carol Lemlein. “She’s clearly one of the hardest working members of our board.”
Lehrer hopes the tours will teach people to “look up and look at” historic buildings — and be curious about them.
“We’re really proud because we take visitors through Santa Monica history from 1875 to the present day in two hours and six blocks!” she said.
During a recent tour, Lehrer rarely consulted notes as she recited details and analysis of Downtown architecture.
“This is 19th century,” she said, knocking on a cast-iron column outside the Whitworth Block on Broadway.
One of Lehrer’s favorite buildings in the city is Mar Vista Apartments on Second Street, which she said has changed very little since it was built in 1914.
“It’s a window into the past,” she said.
Still, it’s very relevant to today.
“It takes advantage of natural lighting and cross-breezes for ventilation,” she said, just like the modern Natural Resources Defense Council building across the street — making it an early example of sustainability.
Lehrer’s husband is a professor of medicine at UCLA. Two of her children still live nearby, and another lives in Northern California.
Her house is as lively as ever, though — Lehrer owns four parrots, one of which can talk, and many cats which she originally planned to adopt only until other homes could be found for them.
“I started out as their foster mother,” she said, “but I couldn’t give them away.”
Lehrer is also a potter — she has a ceramics studio and a kiln at her house and was “the clay lady” when her kids attended elementary school in the community.
When she leaves Santa Monica, Lehrer seeks out historical buildings and always tries to stay at a bed-and-breakfast rather than a big hotel.
“I really believe in my heart that historic buildings are interesting, beautiful and important to a community,” she said. “Architecture manifests the history of a city — buildings tell stories.”