His­toric gems

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - Front Page - LOS ANGELES

Los Angeles’s Art Deco past re­vives down­town

Mod­ern sky­scrapers dom­i­nate the Los Angeles sky­line, but the Art Deco move­ment that be­gan in the 1920s re­mains a bedrock of La-La Land’s cul­tural legacy. And as the city’s flour­ish­ing down­town neigh­bour­hood moves for­ward, it’s look­ing to the past for in­spi­ra­tion, Alex Bozikovic writes

An­gels are danc­ing above me. As the singer Aimee Mann per­forms on stage, high above my head the an­gelic or­na­ments cir­cle a dome of crys­tals on the ceil­ing. The stage lights bounce off a Gaudi-es­que or­na­ment that gives the whole, echo­ing room the as­pect of an en­chanted cave.

I’m in the theatre of the Ace Ho­tel in down­town Los Angeles: a 1927 gem that was built by Hol­ly­wood roy­alty, went down­hill over the course of the 20th cen­tury and has now been fixed up as part of the Ace Ho­tel Down­town Los Angeles. It re­flects per­fectly what’s hap­pen­ing to this neigh­bour­hood: Once empty at night, down­town is one of the hottest neigh­bour­hoods in town. In mov­ing for­ward, the city is turn­ing back to its his­tory.

To ex­plore that past, I spent a few days walk­ing and bik­ing down­town Los Angeles (yes, you can do that). Specif­i­cally, I wanted to see Art Deco. The style re­mains a favourite in Los Angeles: The Wal­dorf-As­to­ria Bev­erly Hills opened in June, built out in a con­tem­po­rary, five-star ver­sion of Deco. But I wanted to see the orig­i­nal, the build­ings of the 1920s through the 1940s that form an un­der­rated and ex­tra­or­di­nary part of the city’s cul­tural legacy.

The Theatre at Ace Ho­tel was where I kicked off my ex­plo­ration. De­signed by the noted theatre ar­chi­tect C. Howard Crane, it opened as the United Artists Theatre – the public show­piece for the new stu­dio founded by a group of di­rec­tors and stars, in­clud­ing Char­lie Chap­lin. Some of their faces are vis­i­ble on mu­rals painted in­side.

Or­na­ment was a cru­cial part of the style, which was born in the 1920s in the wake of an in­ter­na­tional ex­po­si­tion in Paris. Art Deco, in a nut­shell, com­bined nar­ra­tive and sym­bol­ism from a grab-bag of styles with con­tem­po­rary forms and tech­nolo­gies.

In that sense it was per­fect for Los Angeles, which was a boom town – its pop­u­la­tion and econ­omy goosed by a mas­sive in­flux of mi­grants, largely from the Midwest, at­tracted to the weather and the glam­our.

I could see this in the Ace Ho­tel above, which was my base. De­signed by the lo­cal ar­chi­tects Walker & Eisen, it is a steel­framed of­fice tower that for decades housed Cal­i­for­nia Petroleum Corp.; in other words, it’s a mod­ern build­ing to the core. Its face has ver­ti­cal col­umns that set a mod­ern rhythm – but they’re en­crusted with Gothic or­na­ment. And some­where there’s a carv­ing of a man with a movie cam­era.

The Ace Ho­tel’s ren­o­va­tion of the in­te­rior, opened in 2014, is sim­i­larly eclec­tic. The restau­rant, L.A. Chap­ter, is dark and moody; the or­nate glass-work on the par­ti­tions echoes the nearby 1927 Ovi­att build­ing, whose lobby fea­tures an ag­gre­ga­tion of im­ported Lalique glass. But Ace Ho­tel de­sign­ers have filled in the lobby, and the rooms, with their usual vibe: scruffy ce­ment board, cus­tom steel shelv­ing, brass taps and mod­ernist fur­ni­ture.

What has hap­pened to the Ace Ho­tel re­flects what’s hap­pened to down­town Los Angeles: Of­fice build­ings are be­ing con­verted into hous­ing, as the area goes through a rapid and force­ful process of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. You can spend $5 on an ex­cel­lent latte at the Ace Ho­tel, and then $7 for lunch at Tacos Mex­ico on the side­walk out­side.

Across the street, the ex­tra­or­di­nary 1930 East­ern Columbia build­ing, de­signed by ar­chi­tect Claud Beel­man, also re­flects the area’s changes.

Its blue-and-gold ter­ra­cotta façades are shim­mer­ing, its or­na­ments of re­gional plants and geo­met­ric forms all shined up. And its lobby is home to a restau­rant and cold-pressed juice em­po­rium.

To get a broader view of the pe­riod, I spent a morn­ing on a walk­ing tour run by the Los Angeles Con­ser­vancy. Our guide, a na­tive An­ge­leno, Steven Ort, put it in per­spec­tive. “Ev­ery­thing used to be down­town,” Ort said. “Ev­ery­day, thou­sands of peo­ple would emerge from trains into this area. They would go to the the­atres on Broad­way, down the block; they would go to the de­part­ment stores up the block that way.

“In the 1950s, peo­ple started mov­ing out. To the San Fer­nando Val­ley, where I live, to the sub­urbs – they aban­doned down­town. Stores closed up, the the­atres closed up. Busi­ness peo­ple would come here just for the day. And de­vel­op­ers tore down a lot of build­ings.”

Those that re­mained in­clude the city’s cen­tral li­brary, de­signed by New York ar­chi­tect Ber­tram Good­hue in 1926. It em­ploys a more spare and mon­u­men­tal di­alect of Art Deco, shad­ing into what was called Art Moderne; it’s easy to see, as Ort put it, how “this was a build­ing that was clearly lean­ing into the fu­ture.”

Across the street, the for­mer South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son Co. build­ing, now oc­cu­pied by a bank, sug­gested the grand am­bi­tions of 1920s L.A. Once among the tallest build­ings down­town, it's now over­shad­owed by nineties sky­scrapers. And yet it has power: The tower steps back, tem­ple-like, as it rises, its stone and ter­ra­cotta façades stud­ded with light­ning­bolt or­na­ments by artist Mer­rell Gage. The drama con­tin­ues in the sump­tu­ous lobby, dec­o­rated with more than a dozen kinds of mar­ble; a paint­ing by the artist Hugo Ballin, The Apoth­e­o­sis of Power, de­picts the God­like hand of Thomas Edi­son be­stow­ing the gift of elec­tric power to a clus­ter of grate­ful civic lead­ers.

Back on South Broad­way, by the Ace Ho­tel, things are still scruffier. The ca­coph­ony of con­struc­tion was ev­ery­where, as new apart­ment build­ings rose on empty lots. “This is where the city is hap­pen­ing now,” Ort said. Here, the city’s jew­ellery dis­trict con­tin­ues to oc­cupy a string of build­ings that were once the­atres, of­fice build­ings and grand de­part­ment stores. But un­der the grime and flu­o­res­cent lights – and in a cou­ple of up­scale bou­tiques – you could see carved stone and moulded brass ex­press­ing the fan­tasias of 80 years ago. This is a city of ea­gles and Cal­i­for­nia bears, chevrons and coats of arms, spi­rals and suns. And an­gels. The writer was a guest of Ace Ho­tel Down­town Los Angeles. It did not re­view or ap­prove this ar­ti­cle.

The Art Deco build­ing that is now the Ace Ho­tel Down­town Los Angeles was orig­i­nally the home of United Artists, the stu­dio founded by a group of di­rec­tors and stars, in­clud­ing Char­lie Chap­lin and Mary Pick­ford.

TREVOR TONDRO/THE NEW YORK TIMES

The 1930 East­ern Columbia build­ing, left, and the Cen­tral Li­brary Good­hue build­ing, right, are among the Art Deco relics still stand­ing in down­town Los Angeles.

The Ace Ho­tel, de­signed by the lo­cal ar­chi­tects Walker & Eisen, was com­pleted in 1927.

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