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      The Fight to Preserve the House of the Man Who Invented Sci-Fi

      January 15, 2016

      Part of Forrest J. Ackerman's extensive sci-fi collection in his Los Feliz home. All photos courtesy of Joe Moe

      On Wednesday night in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, the community room at Our Mother of Good Counsel Church was packed with screenwriters and sci-fi nerds, here for the latest meeting of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council Committee on Planning, Zoning, and Historic Preservation. Fluorescent lights filled the room with a noir-ish glow, and the room watched quietly as screenwriter and TV producer Angela Robinson delivered a PowerPoint presentation on a humble, Craftsman-style home located half a mile away.

      For weeks, sci-fi fans across the country have been up in arms about this house—the final residence of science fiction legend Forrest J. Ackerman, a writer and literary agent to sci-fi greats like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and even L. Ron Hubbard. (He's also credited for coining the term "sci-fi.") For the last six years of his life, his house became a shrine to horror and sci-fi history, filled with artifacts like Bela Lugosi's cape from Dracula and a statue of Maria from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Fans would flock to the house every week to listen to "Uncle Forry" as he told stories about meeting icons like Walt Disney and H.G. Wells.

      Ackerman died in 2008 at age 92, and now, according to the activists and city documents, the current owner of the house plans to demolish it and build a parking lot.

      Robinson and others hope to keep that from happening. They've rallied friends, gathered signatures on an online petition, and presented an application to the city's Cultural Heritage Commission to have the house designated as a historic monument. This would prevent the owner from modifying the house without getting approval from the CHC, a five-member, mayor-appointed commission that rules over historic designations in the city.

      "This is the last chance that we have to honor his legacy. Once his house goes, he's gone forever," Robinson said during her presentation at the council meeting, garnering applause from fellow supporters.

      The house's owners, George and Gohar Afifi, see things differently. George declined to comment to VICE, but he showed up to the committee meeting on Wednesday night, along with others who argued against preserving the house as a historical monument.

      "He was probably very famous, I'm not saying he wasn't or anything like that. I have a lot of respect for these kind of people," Gohar said. "But this house has no connection with him, no connection with his work. He didn't do anything over there."

      The house, at 4511 Russell Avenue, was built in the early 20th century, and today it doesn't look like much. The yellow paint on the exterior has faded, there's a pile of cement rubble in the front yard, and the whole thing is locked up with two "No Trespassing" signs on the front gate.

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      Forry, as friends called him, had previously lived for decades in an 18-room mansion in the Hollywood Hills. He'd regularly draw congregations of fans, who'd wander the halls examining the art, stills, and artifacts from movie sets. Ackerman had founded the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1958, and he was beloved by fans and filmmakers alike, respected because he'd helped draw attention away from movie stars and towards the craft of movie-making itself.

      By the early 2000s, Ackerman was in old age and enduring financial problems, so he downsized his collection and moved to the smaller house in Los Feliz. Still, he kept his shrine to science fiction and horror alive.

      "People in general were a fuel to Forry. If he had a room full of people, he would just puff up and become animated and sing songs. It was what he lived for," said Joe Moe, a close friend of Ackerman's, who became Ackerman's caretaker at the end of his life.

      At the committee meeting, one science-fiction screenwriter said that his writing partner lived in Ackerman's guest house, and they'd sometimes pay a visit to him to work out ideas while tackling their own writing projects.

      "Whenever we got stuck on something, it was so comforting knowing we could just walk over and ask one of the great minds of sci-fi for help," he said. "It was this tremendous inspiration to both of us as writers and as creative people. Every time I walk past that house now, I remember that inspiration, and I'm inspired again."

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      Sentimental memories aside, preserving the house could be a challenge. Ken Bernstein, manager of the city's Office of Historic Resources, which works with the CHC, told VICE that Ackerman can certainly be considered a "historical personage"—one of the criteria necessary to give the house historical designation. But other issues also come into consideration. Bernstein pointed out that Ackerman had only lived in the house for a relatively short period of time, and didn't accomplish any of his major achievements there, which makes it harder to defend the house's status as a historical monument.

      One speaker at the committee meeting also noted that LA has been home to countless famous people, and Ackerman isn't an anomaly. "If we're going to go around and looking for houses that any famous person lived in and start designating them as historical monuments, that's impractical. You can't do that," he said. "I'm sure a lot of famous people lived in this neighborhood. I'm sure a lot of famous people rented apartments in this neighborhood. But to say just because of that it's a historical monument, I just think it's nonsensical."

      On Wednesday, the Committee on Planning, Zoning, and Historic Preservation passed a vote to recommend to the Neighborhood Council that the house should get historic designation. The full Neighborhood Council will pick up the issue in a meeting on Monday, and then the five-member Historic Resources Committee will make the final decision in a public hearing on February 4. If they give the thumbs up, the nomination goes to the Los Angeles City Council for approval.

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      Aside from preserving Ackerman's legacy, neighbors are also concerned about preserving the city's history amid rising real estate costs and gentrification. Lately, Robinson and her partner, Alexandra Kondracke, have been working on a new television series they've created about the early years of Hollywood. While writing episodes, they've been dismayed to find that some of the old landmarks in their script have since been bulldozed and built over.

      "In Los Angeles, no one gives a shit. It's all about commerce, commerce, commerce," Kondracke said. "Why are we not valuing these things?"

      As for Moe, he doesn't think it's important that Ackerman didn't live in the house for very long.

      "It's the last place that Forry was, and his legacy follows him wherever he went," Moe said. "It was never really about the house... It was always about Forry, and this little bungalow was never any less generous and never any less stuffed with the incredible, incredible spirit, energy and generosity of this guy, who inspired as many movies as anybody to be made."

      Follow Peter Holslin on Twitter.

      Topics: Forrest Ackerman, Los Angeles, science fiction, sci-fi, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, cultural preservation, culture


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