By Daniel Wright
When Diana Barnwell of Mount Washington died on May 17, age 82, her family, friends and colleagues grieved their loss while celebrating her life of inspired and exemplary civic involvement.
Barnwell was a pioneer in the historic preservation movement in Northeast Los Angeles, an activist in efforts to enhance the cultural life of NELA and an adviser to the City of L.A. and local community on development projects, to name a few of the roles she played in NELA’s public life over the past nearly 40 years.
Under her leadership in the early 1980s, the Highland Park Improvement Association financed and oversaw the first survey of the extensive collection of historic homes and commercial buildings in Highland Park. Based on that study, she and others founded the Highland Park Heritage Trust (HPHT) in 1982. To this day, the HPHT remains one of the most active and important historic preservation organizations in L.A.
Barnwell also served as the community representative on the Board of Trustees of the Southwest Museum for more than a decade during the 1980s and 1990s, a turbulent time for the museum and the local community. On the Board, she strongly supported community efforts to sensitively restore and expand the museum, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. She envisioned how responsible expansion could support major exhibitions of the museum’s stunning and largely unseen collection of native American and California artifacts. Such exhibitions, she explained, would enrich local cultural life, especially for the region’s children. Her efforts on behalf of the museum and its collection — and public access to them — comprise a chapter of her activism that remains unfinished.
In the mid-1980s, as a Board Member of the Mount Washington Association, Barnwell participated in City processes to create the 1988 Northeast Community Plan, a guiding land use plan of the City. In about 1993, she was appointed by then City Councilmember Mike Hernandez to serve on the Northeast Community Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC), which met monthly to advise on proposed real estate projects. Barnwell served on the CPAC for more than a decade, until its functions were absorbed by local Neighborhood Councils created in the 1999 L.A. City Charter overhaul.
A highlight of Barnwell’s CPAC service came in 1997, when she and other CPAC members developed a plan that fostered the creation of the L.A. River Center, located on the sprawling 17-acre site of the former Lawry’s restaurant and spice factory in Cypress Park. The restaurant and other buildings on the site were in danger of demolition to make room for the Home Depot. Barnwell and her CPAC colleagues famously used the back of a dinner napkin to sketch the store with its front facing the 5 Freeway, rather than Avenue 26, as the developer had proposed. The developer agreed to the change, which spared the buildings from demolition. Today, with City and State funding, the site is the L.A. River Center, with lush gardens and repurposed buildings that are home to the Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority and many other environmental groups.
From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Barnwell was the Executive Director of the Pasadena Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In that capacity, she researched and organized home tours in the Arroyo Seco region and numerous other popular programs – always emphasizing the value of our collective understanding of place and history. She also worked with many architects, a group she appreciated for their role in creating Los Angeles’ world-renowned architectural aesthetic.
After retirement in 2005, Barnwell remained an engaged and informed citizen. She faithfully read the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker and other writers that kept her connected to current affairs. She cultivated and maintained an eclectic network of friends and supporters, including a Salon whose members enjoyed activities together.
In 2009, challenged by the onset of Parkinson’s disease, she found comfort at the continuous care community of Hollenbeck Palms in Boyle Heights. There she enjoyed an apartment with a stunning view of downtown Los Angeles and the Griffith Park Observatory – as she watched and applauded a rising new City landmark at the 6th Street Bridge and River Park.
Barnwell remained an activist in illness. She volunteered as a Parkinson’s patient for a physician-training program at USC’s Keck Hospital and her remains are dedicated to scientific inquiry about the disease.
Barnwell was born in Long Island, New York, on September 11, 1938, the only child of Thomas Choate Barnwell and Edith (Tweddell) Barnwell. Her grammar school years were spent in Rosslyn, New York. In 1960, she graduated from Lake Erie College for Women in Ohio (now the co-ed Lake Erie College) where she developed a lifelong interest in culture, architecture, history, nature and animals.
Lake Erie College was a female seminary, like its sister colleges, focused on developing active women and involved citizenship. Barnwell spent her senior year abroad in Madrid, Spain, living with a local family and learning to be a world citizen.
Black and white photos of the era confirm her fashion sense developed early – one of elegance with a signature sweeping hair braid fondly remembered by all who knew her.
Upon her return to the United States, Barnwell lived for a time in New York City, but the city was not entirely to her liking. She and a friend decided to travel to L.A. to seek new opportunities; when the friend dropped out, Barnwell came on her own. She arrived in L.A. by bus, an art portfolio, one suitcase and lots of grit in tow. She spent many years working on advertising and promotions for the L.A. Times — back when newspapers played such a central role in our body politic.
Barnwell bought her house in Mount Washington in the late 1960s. In the ensuing decades, the home was a gathering place for local activists, who often met around the swimming pool to strategize on issues including historic preservation, land use, environmental protection and animal rescue. Barnwell’s efforts in all these areas grew to encompass the values and relationships that are her legacy.
Barnwell is survived by her cousins, Jerry Tweddell of Sonora, California, Amy Reinhart of Quincy, Massachusetts, and Claudia Burnham of Hamilton, Massachusetts.
Her cousins and adopted family of friends and colleagues were privileged to know her smile, slyly ironic turn of phrase and abiding desire to contribute to our collective betterment.
Some of Barnwell’s favorite charities are the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Sierra Club, Humane Society, Los Angeles Conservancy and the Highland Park Heritage Trust, if anyone wants to remember her in tribute.
The celebration of Barnwell’s life was held on July 21 at the Gamble House in Pasadena, an exemplar of historic preservation and, as such, a fitting and poignant venue in which to honor her.
A final remembrance: Barnwell’s favorite iPhone emoji was the Blue Butterfly, which she sent to others to express appreciation. On those wings, she now soars in the memory of those who knew her.
Daniel Wright, a land use and environmental attorney in Northeast L.A. worked on the Southwest Museum issue with Diana Barnwell and many other local activists. He was a friend of Barnwell from the mid-1990s until her death.