In Memoriam: Martin Eli Weil (1940-2009)


Eminent restoration architect Martin Eli Weil, a longtime West Adams resident and a charter member of West Adams Heritage Association, passed away at his Harvard Heights home in late February.

An expert in historic design, materials and colors, Weil specialized in restoration projects of landmark historic homes -- such as the recently completed MacGowan Mansion on Adams Boulevard -- and other significant historic properties, primarily in Southern California. Weil was renown in historic preservation circles, not just for his involvement with a series of famed projects -- from restorations of Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House and Storer Residence to the El Capitan Theatre, the Ebell Theater, Pasadena City Hall, the Griffith Park Observatory, and the John Russell Pope-designed Henry and Arabella Huntington mausoleum in the gardens of the Huntington Library in San Marino, to name a few -- but also for his unflagging support for numerous West Adams neighbors in their efforts to correctly identify original colors and appropriate materials for the restorations of their own historic homes.


An early and active member of WAHA, Weil was instrumental in the creation of the Harvard Heights Historic Preservation Overlay Zone. He had lived in Harvard Heights since 1985, when he bought the 1905 "Lucy E. Wheeler Residence," the only Greene and Greene-designed house still extant in Los Angeles. Weil was a true West Adams "urban pioneer," moving to the District long before historic preservation had become popular in Los Angeles. Before he purchased his beloved Harvard Heights landmark, Weil restored another historic home in North University Park, where he had lived since the late 1970s.

Just days before he died, Weil was honored by Long Beach Heritage for his work as the color consultant for the exterior restoration of the Villa Riviera, a National Historic Landmark, 16-story Renaissance Revival chateau built in 1929 on Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach. Indeed, Weil won many awards and honors, including a California Preservation Foundation Preservation Design Award for the same Villa Riviera project, and a California Governor's Preservation Award in 1999 as part of the team which restored and seismically-upgraded Stanford University's Hanna House, a 1937 residence listed on the National Register of Historic Places and considered to be one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most important designs.

In 2006, WAHA established the Martin Eli Weil Historic Preservation Award, naming him its first recipient. The award is for an individual with a connection to West Adams who has made a significant, voluntary contribution to historic preservation through either a lifetime of effort or through one or more major projects. The qualifications to receive the award include that the recipient lives in West Adams and/or the project(s) are in the Historic West Adams District environs; and that the historic preservation efforts cannot be solely due to projects undertaken for compensation (although receiving some compensation is not a disqualifier).

The WAHA Board will present this year's Martin Eli Weil Preservation Award at the organization's Annual Preservation Meeting on May 31st.

Weil had special expertise in authentic historic interior finishes, original paint colors, and period furnishings, and was especially well-versed in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was one of the originating lecturers at USC's Annual Summer Program in Historic Preservation, and at the time of his death was scheduled to teach a class on Period Interiors and Furnishings at the USC School of Architecture this coming July.

Weil was also a founding member of the Los Angeles Conservancy and served two stints as its president. In a 1980 Los Angeles Times interview, Weil said the Conservancy "was started by a group of people who were distressed because old buildings were coming down all over Los Angeles. It was a question of concern over preserving what was left of Los Angeles…. There was no voice for what was happening to these old buildings."

"Martin was always the go-to guy for all preservation issues or questions or for any restoration problems," Ruthann Lehrer, the first executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, told the Jewish Journal newspaper. "His contribution was often to make sure people were authentic to the historic character, materials and original integrity of the design ... his position and leadership was always to maintain historic authenticity."

Born in Glasgow, Montana, on July 2, 1940, Weil spent most of his youth in Omaha, Nebraska. Weil earned a bachelor's in art history from the University of Iowa and two master's degrees -- one in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and one in early American culture and decorative arts from the Winterthur program at the University of Delaware.

In 1971 he moved to Ottawa, Canada, where he took a job in the Division of Restoration Services of Canada's national Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Weil rose to become chief of that division. He also served as president of Heritage Ottawa, still the major preservation organization in that city.

In 1974 Weil founded the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, a nationwide learned society devoted to the examination of the role of the built environment in Canadian society. Among its members are structural engineers, landscape architects, architectural historians, urban historians, urban planners, sociologists, ethnologists, and experts in such fields as heritage conservation and landscape history. The Martin Eli Weil Prize continues to be awarded annually by the Society to a student who submits an essay on the role played by the built environment in the Canadian society. The winning essays are on the role played by the built environment in the Canadian society. The winning essays are presented as papers at a national conference that is widely reported in the Canadian press.

In 1977 Weil was honored with a Silver Jubilee Medal for his valuable contribution to the community given by the governor general of Canada in the year of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee. The Heritage Ottawa Newsletter noted, "without Martin Weil, Heritage Ottawa and the community would not have had the Fraser School House and Heritage Ottawa's Gallery, annual seminars on aspects of heritage preservation, summer projects for university students, and many, many buildings still standing because of his organizing."

After moving to Los Angeles in 1978, Weil made contributions to a long list of historic restoration projects in Southern California, including: Wright's Ennis House, the Gamble House (Greene and Greene), the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, Point Fermin Lighthouse, Sepulveda House, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's Mentryville restoration project, Pasadena City Hall, Union Church, and the Watts Tower. He also worked as a restoration architectural consultant for the cities of San Gabriel and La Verne.

One of his most noted accomplishments was the top to bottom restoration of the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. The building had long been listed as contributing to the historic character of the Hollywood district. But with the restoration, the preserved El Capitan became a living, breathing link to the golden age of Hollywood. "It was an especially noteworthy decision to completely restore the theatre," Weil acknowledged in an interview, "because nobody in Los Angeles had ever taken one of the old picture palaces and restored it as a picture palace. The Wiltern Theatre was restored, but it serves as a performing arts center. Another theatre downtown was restored, but it serves as a church."

In recent years, Weil became involved in the effort to build support in the United States for Sim Shalom, the only Progressive Jewish community in Budapest, Hungary. The congregation's spiritual leader, Rabbi Katalin Kelemen, is the first female rabbi in Hungary and is married to Weil's brother, Jesse Weil. Along with longtime friend and attorney Harold Tomin and attorney Roger Holt, Weil founded Friends of Sim Shalom, for which he secured nonprofit status in 2008.

Along with Jesse, Weil is survived by another brother, Peter Weil; nieces, Alexandra Borns-Weil and Janna Weil; and one grandnephew, Yonah Borns-Weil. The family has suggested contributions in Weil's memory be made online to or to other charitable organizations.