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L.A. City Council votes to allow the demolition of a Jewish and labor movement landmark

Los Angeles, CA - March 07: The front of the B'nai B'rith building on Thursday, March 7, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)
The B'nai B'rith Lodge on South Union Avenue in Westlake served as a hub for the Jewish community and later as the heart of the labor movement in L.A. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Friday to allow the demolition of a century-old building in the Westlake neighborhood that served as a Jewish landmark and later as the heart of labor organizing in the city.

The vote was a victory for Catholic Charities, which bought the building historically known as the B'nai B'rith Lodge in 2018 but later said it was "seriously dilapidated and structurally unsound" and could threaten the safety of the surrounding neighborhood.

Catholic Charities, a nonprofit organization connected to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, filed a lawsuit against the city in 2023, saying it had wrongly been denied permission to tear down the ornate 1924 structure.

The group said in court documents that the city would not allow demolition of the property on South Union Avenue because it “may be historic,” making it subject to further additional review, as well as because any future projects on the lot must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

Community preservationists and advocates argued that a potential demolition would be a blow to crucial L.A. history. Instead, they urged Catholic Charities to repair the building and put it to use.

The Rev. Dylan Littlefield, the chaplain at the Cecil Hotel who has become involved in preservation battles, said the lodge’s demolition would mean the destruction of a place that stood as a “testament to the resiliency and the diversity of the city of Los Angeles.”

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Esotouric, a tour company that advocates for historic preservation and public policy, told The Times before the settlement vote was announced that the public should have a chance to comment. The company called the lawsuit — and any prospective settlement — a potential “land-use decision about the right to demolish a cultural resource.”

The city attorney’s office declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The B'Nai B'rith Lodge was designed by famed Jewish architect Samuel Tilden Norton, who also designed the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

It was built in the early 1920s as the home for an L.A. chapter of the B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization with New York roots. At the time, members of the B’nai B’rith felt a “desire to really be accepted by the leaders of the city,” according to Steven Luftman, a heritage conservation consultant.

“They felt that if they only built a grand enough meeting hall, that that would be one step toward being recognized as part of the community,” said Luftman, who wrote an application for the lodge to be deemed a historic-cultural monument.

After a few years of being a community hub for Jewish L.A., the building was sold in 1930 to the Fraternal Order of Eagles. It then had a brief tenure as clubhouse for the Safeway Employees' Assn. before it became the headquarters of the American Federation of Labor Teamsters Joint Council 42.

It became the site for rapid growth of the labor movement, and is where the Teamsters elected their first Black official, John T. Williams, Luftman said.

“The AFL Teamster building was the heart of the Los Angeles labor movement and ground zero for much of the union organizing that transformed Los Angeles into a metropolitan powerhouse,” said Chris Griswold, president of Teamsters Joint Council 42.

B’nai B’rith International said in a statement that the lodge “represents an important part of the history of our organization in Los Angeles.”

“However this is resolved, it would be important to the history of Los Angeles Jewry to note that B’nai B’rith met there,” the statement said.

Catholic Charities and the archdiocese respect the building's history and "have been in communication with both the Jewish community and labor leaders throughout this process,” the religious groups said in a joint statement. “Our concern has always been the safety of the dilapidated property and well-being of our neighborhood.”

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In the lawsuit, Catholic Charities said it has no projects planned for the lot and stressed that its intention is to simply demolish the lodge.

“Catholic Charities incurs ongoing costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to maintain and secure the building, which is vacant, deteriorated and unstable,” the court document read. “These funds are being diverted from critical programs to help disadvantaged communities.”

The groups said their hope was to “work with the community and the council office to eventually find a use for the property consistent with Catholic Charities’ mission, such as community food service, an emergency shelter, transitional youth housing, before and after school care, and older adult services.”

Littlefield, the chaplain at the Cecil Hotel, said Catholic Charities’ rationale was “just an excuse to justify their desire to tear the building down.”

“The building itself could be a place of empowerment,” Littlefield said. “The building itself could be a place where more movements like this takeoff, where more great things happen, where more lives are saved and changed.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.