The owners of Circus Disco, a prominent LGBTQ bar founded in 1975 with primarily Latinx patronage, have negotiated a deal with community members to memorialize the club's history. The building was demolished in the spring of 2016 as a component of The Lexington Project, a major redevelopment planned for Santa Monica Boulevard and Las Palmas Avenue.
In late 2015, Hollywood Heritage nominated Circus Disco for designation as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM). The application was scheduled to go before the Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) in December 2015, and the staff report recommended that the CHC take it under consideration. The hearing was postponed, however, when the developer reached out to Hollywood Heritage and members of a newly-formed LGBTQ Historic Sites Coalition to try to negotiate a solution for the building. The club closed its doors in January 2016.
Circus Disco was recently identified as an historic resource as part of the SurveyLA LGBT Historic Context Statement, which the City of Los Angeles published in September 2014. The context statement, which covers the period from about 1850 to 1980, is a planning tool that identifies important historical themes and related property types associated with LGBTQ communities in Los Angeles.
Circus Disco played an important role in the Latinx LGBTQ community and in its history of political organizing and coalition building. In 1983, civil rights and labor leader César Chávez addressed roughly one hundred members of the Project Just Business gay and lesbian coalition at the bar, where he offered strategies for organizing boycotts and coalition fundraising.
In February 2015, the Los Angeles City Council certified the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for The Lexington Project, paving the way for the project to proceed. The Final EIR, which was released in August 2014, did not find the Circus Disco building to be significant or eligible for historic designation.
Further study indicated that much of the club's physical fabric had been altered and/or removed since its founding.
According to the agreement with Hollywood Heritage, developer AvalonBay Communities will preserve many of Circus Disco's remaining historic features and incorporate them into the new development, including the wooden clown entrance, neon lighting fixtures, floor, and mirrored balls. In addition, the property will feature an exhibit on the site's history, and a pedestrian path will be named Circus Way.
Hollywood Heritage has withdrawn the HCM nomination at this time. The owner has agreed to support designation upon the completion of construction.
A recirculated Draft EIR for The Lexington was released in July 2013, but did not focus on reexamining potential cultural resources.
The original Draft EIR was released in June 2008 and made the following conclusion with respect to the Circus Disco building: “In summary, the building has been extensively remodeled and does not possess any outstanding characteristics or unique architectural or historical significance. It has no unique or distinctive architectural characteristics or historical associations and has not achieved significance within the past fifty years. Therefore, it appears ineligible for the National Register, the California Register, and designation under a local ordinance.”
Conversely, the City's LGBT Historic Context Statement describes the cultural significance of Circus Disco: “The increase in the number of neighborhood bars and nightclubs during the 1960s reflected not only the geographic dispersion of the LGBT community, but also an increasing segregation of patrons along gender, ethnic/racial, and class lines. The places that epitomize this phenomenon are the Catch One Disco and Circus Disco in Hollywood. Catch One in Midcity was established in 1972 as a nightclub for African Americans, while the Circus was established in 1975 for Latinos. Both were founded in response to the discrimination gay men of color experienced at predominately white venues in West Hollywood. Nightclubs like Studio One would discourage non-whites from entering by demanding multiple forms of identification. Both places are still in business and played vital roles for LGBT persons of color, not just places to have fun but also places to develop social support.”
The loss of Circus Disco reflects a growing threat to historic places associated with LGBTQ communities in Greater Los Angeles, despite recent efforts to document this history in the region's cultural landscape. Buildings that are significant for their cultural connections, rather than their architecture, are often vulnerable to alteration or demolition before their stories can be fully recognized and understood.
In addition to Circus Disco, the new owner of The Factory in West Hollywood, which was the site of the iconic gay discotheque Studio One from 1975 to 1988, initially proposed demolishing the building for a mixed-use project. The owner of Catch One in Los Angeles’ Mid-City, which opened in 1972 as a nightclub for African Americans, closed the bar in July 2015 and sold the building. Because none of these properties has received historic designation, they all lack formal protection.
Without proactive efforts to protect these resources now, cities with rich LGBTQ histories, including Los Angeles, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills, risk losing a truly dynamic and interrelated collection of historic places.