West Hollywood - Ever Wonder?

Ever Wonder: Why Is WeHo’s Sunset Tower Decorated with Plants, Animals and Planes?

Sunset Tower

Sunset Tower Hotel is renowned for its Vanity Fair Oscar party and the celebrities who have lived or stayed there, but ever wonder why it has such unusual ornamentation?

Sunset Tower

Designed in 1929, the Sunset Tower Apartments (as the building originally was named) was the tallest apartment building in Los Angeles when it opened in 1931 and seemed even taller because of its perch on Sunset Boulevard in the hills. At 8358 Sunset Blvd. near Kings, it was built outside the Los Angeles city limits to avoid that city’s height restrictions.

Besides its unrivaled views, the tower, designed by Los Angeles architect Leland A. Bryant, attracted residents with modern conveniences. It was the first fully electric residential building in Los Angeles and advertised an outlet for electric shavers in every bathroom.

Its owners made an unsuccessful effort to convert the apartments into condominiums in the late 1970s, and it was reborn as a luxury hotel in 1985. Initially renamed the St. James Club, it later became the Argyle. Hotelier Jeff Klein acquired it in 2004, renamed it the Sunset Tower Hotel and undertook a major restoration of the building. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Celebrities who have stayed at the hotel include John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Quincy Jones, Roger Moore, Truman Capote and Bugsy Siegel.

Sunset Tower

Bryant designed the building in the Art Deco style, which was still quite new in 1929. Developed in the interwar years, it was a forward-looking style. Its imagery and materials were inspired by the industrial machine age and new mass production and media technologies — especially in theatre and film — as opposed to historical precedents.

Those technologies gave people a view of the world that, in 1929, was a rare luxury. Traveling to Europe or Asia was a costly, time-consuming endeavor. Still photography and film technology were not yet portable or affordable for the average person. That being the case, exposure to far away places was predominantly through exotic set designs for film and theatre and through books. Film was particularly pertinent to those in LA who not only saw the sets in the movies but also their actual construction. Art Deco styling soaked up as much exoticism as it could, particularly the sensationalized and eroticized portrayal of Asia and the Middle East in Hollywood films. Stepped pyramids, lush foliage, mystic animals, stylized nudes and geometric arabesques made their way into every corner of this designed world.

Sunset Tower was a contemporary of some of LA’s most treasured examples of Art Deco architecture, like the Bullocks Wilshire department store, the Wiltern Theatre on Wilshire and the Eastern Columbia building downtown. On close inspection though, Sunset Tower may be a more intriguing example of the Art Deco style’s inspirations than some of those better known buildings.

intolerance

A scene from “Intolerance.”

While little literature exists on Bryant or his inspiration for Sunset Tower’s ornamentation, the tower’s images suggest he was a movie-goer. A film like D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” (1916) may have been his inspiration. 

Intolerance,” an epic of the silent era, spanned a period close to 2,500 years and ran three and a half hours. Its most famous and ambitious sequence was the depiction of ancient Babylon, accomplished with gigantic sets filled with thousands of extras. The original Babylon set was built, full size, on a lot where Hollywood and Sunset boulevards intersect and the Vista Theatre now stands. It was partially recreated, for better or worse, with the film’s signature rearing elephants at the Hollywood and Highland complex. More important than the huge sets was the image of a far away place brought to the screen and streets of LA.

Bryant likely saw this set both in person and on screen and many of the decorative elements on Sunset Tower have distinct similarities to the Babylon set. Flourishes of foliage, foreign animals and stacked pagodas pepper the entire building.

Sunset Tower

Starting at the bottom, the front face on Sunset Boulevard has a large relief above the main entry. Stacked pagodas rise out of ocean waves and pierce swirls of cloud and wind. A zeppelin breaks through a cloud bank on the left side and a modern ship (possibly a German U-Boat) enters from the right. Fighter planes dive from above, completing the most mechanical of the tower’s images.

On its back side, near the entrance to the parking garage, gates and bars are made to look like the grilles of cars, complete with headlights.

One tier up, a bundle of wheat flanked by stags, curling leaves, small goats, stars and tiered towers face Sunset in a horizontal plaster frieze. On the east and west sides, splaying foliage and layered towers are punctuated by goats and centrally by a large elephant, the style of which is very reminiscent of those in the Babylon sets.

The main trunk of the building is mostly unadorned, with chevron-patterned opaque glass breaking up curved corners of floor-to-ceiling windows.

Sunset Tower

At the tower’s top, the ornamentation is the same on the structure’s front and back. Front and center are a male and female figure (some guess Adam and Eve) each with a hand on a gargoyle-like figure between them — a creature that could be Bryant’s take on a mythic Babylonian god. To each side, ram-headed creatures with air-like wings and spiraling serpent bodies keep watch. Their bodies created with the same curling leaf and cloud shape used elsewhere. The east and west sides of the building at this level feature the same ram-headed creatures and a single, centered female figure.

The next band up belongs to the birds. Eagles nest among flowers and vines of grapes. To the sides, peacocks perch on sinewy vines framed by palm-like fronds. The east and west sides of the building still have peacocks, but long-legged cranes stand in for the palms.

Sunset Tower

A narrow band of small palm trees, pineapple poufs and stylized birds ring the next step of the crown. At the top-most band, a ringed planet, surrounded by starlight, floats between a sun and moon. Sunset Tower’s ziggurat-like tower is topped with a large layered pagoda.

Sunset Tower, with its decoration more figural than abstract, is an excellent example of the ability of the Art Deco style to knead together architecture, film, ancient history and the most advanced technology of the day.

The design motifs used on Sunset Tower are multiple levels of disconnection and interpretation from their source material — a frieze made from a film of a set designed to reflect a historic era thousands of years old. But, that the material travelled so far and could be seen at all (thanks to the latest film technologies) made what would have otherwise been historic decoration part of an extremely modern turn in design.




Ever Wonder: Was the Factory a Factory?

the factory

The Factory as seen today.

Today, crowds stream through the doors of Ultra Suede at 661 N. Robertson Dr. near Santa Monica and dance the floors of The Factory at 652 N. La Peer Dr. Both entrances are to a single building that West Hollywood knows simply as The Factory. But before it became known for manufacturing ecstatic nightlife, The Factory was an actual factory and used for a number of other things.

The building is a simple box with two small branches, one at Robertson and one in the middle. It is split into multiple floors on the inside and is basic, big, open and raw. It fronts on two streets with entrances on all sides, an unusual feature that has helped it remain viable through the years. That’s because this huge building with its blank exterior can be divided into a jigsaw puzzle of independent spaces and never needs to commit to being just one big thing.

This chopped up quality makes piecing together its story more complex. Parts of the building come alive and others die off independently of the others. Uses overlap, and hiding in every corner are rumors of what might have gone on. Some of these rumors are true, while others are fabrications accepted by many as common knowledge.

mitchell-camera

Mitchell Camera.

The Mitchell Camera Company built The Factory in 1929 to manufacture motion picture cameras. Mitchell cameras were the workhorses of Hollywood studios for decades. The company was owned by a Chicago group with Williams Fox, namesake of the Fox entertainment empire, holding a 50 percent stake. Mitchell Camera thus found itself in the middle of many of Fox’s legal and territorial battles with other studios and manufacturers.

Mitchell’s cameras were so popular that the company decided to increase its production capacity, adding a wing to its Robertson Boulevard factory in February 1941 that extended it to La Peer Drive on the opposite side of the block. In December of that year the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. Much of the country’s manufacturing resources were adapted to the war effort and some believe the Mitchell Camera factory was reconfigured to produce the notorious Norden bombsight.

Bombsight

Members of the Norden Retirees Club raised doubt on whether bombsights were ever produced at The Factory. (Photo by George Johnson, Aviation Section/US Army Signal Corps)

One of the most closely guarded secrets of World War II and the most expensive after the Manhattan Project, a Norden was the bombsight used on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb that annihilated Hiroshima. By 1945 the production of Norden bombsights was stopped, superseded by more accurate radar technologies.

It has been difficult to locate any evidence that Norden bombsights were produced at The Factory. Members of the Norden Retirees Club identified New York and Connecticut as the primary manufacturing areas and raised doubt about a West Hollywood bombsight factory. The timeline and context does not rule out the possibility, but the idea that Norden bombsights were manufactured in West Hollywood remains little more than rumor.

Mitchell Camera decided to move to Glendale after the war in 1946. The West Hollywood factory then became the Veteran Salvage Depot, a processor of military salvage. There is little on record about this facility, but it made the LA Times in 1951 when a fire damaged it and adjacent factories. The building subsequently became a furniture factory but was abandoned sometime in the 1960s.

In 1967 the factory finally said goodbye to its life as a factory proper and became “The Factory,” a buzzing center of the Los Angeles club scene.

Peter_Lawford_1955

Peter Lawford was one of The Factory’s early investors.

Turning the abandoned furniture factory into a nightclub was the brainchild of Ron Buck, a lawyer, architect and artist who bought the space in 1967 and transformed it into the most exclusive of invitation-only nightclubs. His investors, also club regulars, included Hollywood director Dick Donner (of “Salt and Pepper,” “Superman,” “Lethal Weapon” and “The Goonies”), Peter Lawford (of the Rat Pack), Anthony Newley, Paul Newman, Peter Bren, Jerry Orbach and Pierre Salinger. Some believe The Factory was owned by Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, but a 1967 LA Times article titled “Swinging Shift Runs The Factory” clearly describes it as Buck’s venture and lists his investors with no mention of Sinatra or the Rat Pack beyond Lawford, whose presence likely sparked the rumor.

With its multiple stages of live entertainment, a gourmet restaurant and A-list guests, The Factory quickly became the place to be seen. Buck decorated the club with antiques and a sense of humor. The interior was a mash up of eras and pieces. Nineteenth century pool tables were racked next to antique barber chairs, rows of church pews knelt under crystal chandeliers and bronze Indian heads, wood paneling and leather club chairs added a worn gentlemanly vibe. The interior’s most spectacular feature, repurposed stained glass windows deployed as room dividers, gave the space a twinkling Tiffany sparkle.

The lower floor was converted into an art gallery when the club opened (presumably for Buck’s own work) and numerous businesses and uses of all kinds have carved out their own piece of the factory’s lower floors since. These include, among many others, the offices and manufacturing facility of the Hamilton-Howe furniture company, a collection of arts and crafts shops known as “The Street,” the temporary location of Koontz Hardware, a cabaret theatre called “The Backlot,” which hosted many famous names, various smaller clubs and more recently the Fitness Factory gym.

Spaghetti Village

An advertisement from the LA Times in 1973 shows The Factory as Spaghetti Village.

By 1972 the buzz around The Factory nightclub had waned, and it shut its doors. Potential tenants had difficulty re-opening the space as a nightclub, citing code compliance, health department and parking availability issues. It opened briefly as the “Paradise Ballroom” but, in trouble with county officials, it did not last long. But in 1973 The Factory took a dramatic spin, opening as “Spaghetti Village,” one of the cheesiest of family theme restaurants.

A Disney-like attempt at a literal Spaghetti Western (sans any of Sergio Leone’s talents) Spaghetti Village transformed the interior of the building into a faux street scape. Spaghetti with a choice of 10 different sauces for $2.95 was served in a stage-set-like Wild West jailhouse, fire station, general store and “other quaint settings.” Beer and wine was available in two old-time saloons, and the whole old-timey jumble was topped off with an antique boutique and penny arcade.

Spaghetti Village was gone within two years and the Wild West decor cleared out in 1975 to make room for Studio One, which was to be the hippest of nightspots.

Scott Forbes

Scott Forbes. (Jack Wheeler)

It was the height of the disco era, and West Hollywood’s gay community was large and visible. Studio One was conceived specifically for this set and offered no shortage of mirrored balls (seven to be exact), strobe lights, lasers, a gleaming red neon Pegasus and a fish tank in the men’s room that spouted water for hand washing—though the round sink under the aquarium was often mistaken for a circular communal urinal, a show of its own. Studio One also boasted a party yacht called Pegasus moored in Marina Del Rey. A strutting pinnacle of disco flash, Studio One was consistently packed with celebrities, models and only the sexiest of men.

The club was owned by Scott Forbes, an optometrist to the stars turned party promoter. Forbes had a clear vision for Studio One and quoted in an LA Times interview describes it as being “planned, designed and conceived for gay people, gay male people. Any straight people here are guests of the gay community. This is gay!” With a dance floor that boasted a capacity of 1,000, Studio One was open seven days a week and was constantly packed.

Studio One

Ad from In Touch Magazine.

But Studio One was not only a club, it also hosted benefits and events and began a number of traditions that are still alive today. For example, Forbes felt that Disneyland would be a great place for a gay party. He booked the park in the name of the Los Angeles Bar and Restaurant Association without telling Disney that the majority of association members were gay.

“Once we had the contract signed I invited them to Studio One. That was a little shock for them,” he recalled. The event was a huge success, with 18,000 showing up at Disneyland for the party in 1978. The idea was expanded with trips to Magic Mountain and Knotts Berry Farm. The tradition continues to this day as ‘Gay Days.’”

Studio One

Studio One’s Backlot Cabaret Theatre 1980.

It was during its life as Studio One that The Factory building received historic landmark designation in 1978. It eventually closed in 1988. After this the factory continued to be a club, but took a turn back to its classic nightclub roots when it was bought by lesbian entertainer Linda Gerard. She rechristened it The Rose Tattoo, presumably after the Tennessee Williams play of the same name. The Rose Tattoo was a celebrity filled cabaret, restaurant and piano bar where, as emcee, Gerard would open the evening’s entertainment with a song. In a room swathed with green carpet, mirrored walls and pink tinted art-deco bas-relief, jazz singers and a menagerie of performers crooned away on its many stages.

In 1993, citing exhaustion, Gerard closed The Rose Tattoo and sought out a less stressful entertainment career in Palm Springs, where she still entertains today. At this point the factory passed into the hands of another influential lesbian proprietress, Sandy Sachs. Sachs refurbished The Factory as a dance club, and over the next few decades made it one of the most successful and varied venues in West Hollywood, catering to crowds of all kinds. She sold The Factory in 2010, but it continues to be one of the most successful venues in town with numerous performances, packed club nights and other events.

This big box has had a long and varied life and shows no signs of slowing down. Its caverns are still chopped into useful size pieces and reconfigured whenever the next big thing wants to take a shot. New ideas are constantly coming and going. The bland exterior may rarely change, but with a rich and malleable inner world, The Factory is perhaps West Hollywood’s most dynamic and lively building.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Factory served as the original location of Koontz Hardware. While Koontz was temporarily housed at the Factory, it was not the original location for the hardware store.




Ever Wonder Why So Many English Tudor Buildings Line the Sunset Strip?

The Strip, that portion of Sunset Boulevard running through West Hollywood, is lined with hip hotels, grungy rock clubs, upscale restaurants and expensive boutiques. But, unlike the Spanish and Art Deco buildings of Hollywood proper, much of this stretch, including notable establishments like the Rainbow Bar and Grill and The Roxy, was built in the Tudor revival style. Made to look like an English village.

Ever wonder how the English Tudor style came to West Hollywood?

To start, what characterizes the Tudor revival style of architecture? Tudor buildings are wood structures with steeply pitched roofs (shingles if you got ‘em) and windows divided by finely knit diamond panes. Tudor is also known for a technique called “half-timbering” where the area between the wood structure is infilled with plaster and painted a contrasting color. The gabled front face of the Rainbow Bar and Grill (originally the Villa Nova Restaurant) is a clear example.

villa nova rainbow bar and grill on the sunset strip

It should be noted (for you purists) that to call many of the buildings considered here Tudor is a bit of a stretch. As with many 20th century buildings done in a historic style, Tudor here has been watered down, cheaply mimicked and is, more often than not, strictly a surface treatment.

The early 20th century, when much of The Strip was built, was a time of eclecticism in American architecture and styles were freely thrown around and mixed together. This was (and often still is) the case in greater Los Angeles, where buildings are cheaply made and often treated like film sets. The surface level is all the camera requires, so many figure, why do more. This mix of styles allows parts of Los Angeles to take on the appearance of nearly anywhere in the world when on-screen and gives LA’s streets their eclectic character.

chaplin studios on the sunset strip

A postcard dated March 8, 1922 shows the front entrance to Chaplin Studios.

Considering this, who more perfect than famous film-maker Charlie Chaplin to create a stage-set like streetscape that would influence a decade of building development?

Chaplin, in a quest for total creative control over his work, built his own film studio in 1917. He chose a 5-acre property at the corner of La Brea and Sunset boulevards. Six new buildings along La Brea, completed in 1918, featured Tudor revival exteriors (inside they were basic offices) and were arranged to give the effect of a picturesque English village street. They reminded Chaplin of his native England and were highly publicized early examples of the Tudor revival style in Los Angeles. Importantly, they were an application of Tudor revival to buildings that were not single family homes.

jim hensen studio

Today Chaplin’s studio is owned by the Jim Henson Company. Note Kermit the frog dressed as Chaplin’s “Tramp” character on the roof.

The influence of Chaplin’s studio can be seen in the nearby Normandie Towers, built in 1924 at 7219 Hampton Ave. at Fountain, as well as in the Hansel and Gretel Cottages, built in 1923 at 1330 North Formosa Ave. at De Longpre. Both are generally Tudor revival in style and the Normandie Towers are a listed West Hollywood historic resource.

Further out, Elmer R. Mauzy, who developed the West Hollywood land between Sunset Boulevard and Harratt Street at Larabee, adopted the Tudor revival style that Chaplin made so visible. For Mauzy, however, this was not a nostalgic decision. It was a marketing ploy. His complex, built in 1924, was named The English Village Shops and included both stores along Sunset and a grouping of apartments behind. All that remains of it today is a cluster of cottages with lushly planted walkways and courts along Harratt Street.

For his village shops Mauzy was inspired by the drive-in service station (a novel concept in 1924) and incorporated a U-shaped courtyard drive. Making it one of the first shopping centers to incorporate off-street parking, an unheard of feature at the time.

English Village Shops

The English Village Shops plan from 1924. (Hollywood Daily Citizen, 22 September 1924, 6.)

The English Village Shops offered basic services: a market, drug store, hardware store, barber and the like. The shopping equivalent of the service one got at a drive-in service station. Drive in, get the groceries, prescription, that screwdriver you need, a haircut and you are back on the road in no time … in theory.

Unfortunately for Mauzy, his development did not provide enough square footage for his tenants to sustain their businesses. And one look at the drive-in parking court invokes nightmares of stacked parking; waiting to drive out while the owner of the car ahead is getting a hair cut. The English Village Shops, while innovative, were ultimately a failure as both a building and business model. It did not survive a decade.

But, while the English Village Shops were a short-lived folly, they were an important part of a trend that had a lasting influence on the Sunset Strip. With Chaplin’s studio on Sunset at La Brea and The English Village Shops near the other end of The Strip at Larabee, many developments going up between them in the 20s and 30s chose to continue the Tudor revival trend.

English Village

The English Village today.

The Sunset Strip could have, were the streets narrow and the fog heavy, served as an English village film-set. But in the bright of day, 90 years on, the image does not hold. Much like Chaplin’s work, these structures can be seen as a naive combination of slapstick and pathos.

These buildings, like a pie in the face, show no care for their surroundings or stylistic properness. Yet at the same time they can invoke unexpected feelings of compassion. Compassion for something that must survive real experience when intended as little more than an image.




Emser Tile: A Building From When Size Mattered

Emser Tile

Emser Tile

Ever Wonder why the Emser Tile building at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Olive Drive dwarfs everything around it? Nothing along this stretch of West Hollywood rivals its height and bulk. One must head east to another huge and historic structure, the Hollywood Storage Company building at Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland, to find a building of comparable size.

Built in 1925, this building served as the West Hollywood location for the Bekins moving and storage company. It easily could have been built as a much lower, spread out complex, which would have been more cost-effective — West Hollywood certainly had no shortage of open space in 1925.

So why erect a massive structure in an otherwise flat neighborhood?

Early in the 20th century, Bekins wanted to distinguish itself from competitors by being the first to provide insurance, guaranteed delivery times and locations on both coasts.

The architecture of their facilities was designed to help deliver these higher standards of service.

In 1925 most of the buildings in Los Angeles County, and West Hollywood in particular, were low in scale and constructed of wood. These structures, known for their flammability and impermanence, did not inspire confidence in customers looking to store valuables long term, or the company offering insurance on storage items.

Emser Tile

Aware of these concerns Bekins hired structural engineers to design fireproof steel-reinforced concrete buildings. The engineers sparsely augmented these basic concrete boxes on their street-side faces with decorative elements taken from pattern books, which were catalogues of stock designs and decorative elements commonly used by builders of the time.

Pick and choose: a little gothic here, a little tudor there and some of those little towers with spheres on top … decoration done.

These tall and muscular new structures, rising above the smaller buildings around them, were designed to reassure customers that their belongings were well protected. These being key reasurrances for people moving across country, a highly uncertain and stressful undertaking.

Founded in 1891, Bekins clearly knows the moving and storage business, having seen it go from the horse and wagon, through towering concrete bunkers, to international online package tracking.

Today, the architecture of shipping and storing no longer needs to visually convey confidence and safety with fireproof concrete fortresses. Instead, it is more dispersed. Though this does not necessarily mean it is smaller.

With chain-link and barbed-wire fences, cameras, security guards, encryption software and a network of trucks, facilities, servers and satilites the infrastructure of shipping and storage has gotten exponentially larger. Yet as the same time, is far less visibly obvious.

Size, it seems, does still matter.

Emser Tile

A view down Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood during the 1940s.

Emser Tile

Another view down Santa Monica Boulevard, this time from the 1980s, with the Bekins Storage facility in the background.

 




From Cult to Cabo: Sunset’s Cantina Once Home to Hippie Health Food Commune

(Photo courtesy of Source Family Archives)

(Photo courtesy of Source Family Archives)

Cabo Cantina

(Photo by Gus Heully)

The building now occupied by Cabo Cantina on Sunset Boulevard was built in 1946 and has had its share of interesting owners. Ever Wonder what other lives it has had?

Long a restaurant, this spot has offered hamburgers and Cajun and Mexican food, but is most famous for its life as The Source, a restaurant that mixed vegetarian cuisine with spirituality, psychedelic music and a cult commune.

Father Yod (aka Jim Baker), patriach of The Source Family, opened The Source Restaurant in 1969. A cult-like commune of about 140, The Source Family shared a Los Feliz mansion, promoted a natural vegetarian diet, abstained (apparently) from drugs and alcohol and tried to set up a utopia that would survive what was seen (understandably in the 1970s) as an inevitable nuclear apocalypse.

The Source Family had official non-profit religious organization status and was financially self-sufficient thanks to the success of the restaurant and other business endeavors that included a graphic design agency called Source Arts and the sale of albums by their improvisational psychedelic band YaHoWa13, who often performed at the restaurant.

(Photo Courtesy Source Family Archives)

(Photo Courtesy Source Family Archives)

Father Yod, with his crisp white suits, full snowy beard, gleaming Rolls Royce and young girl groupies, was as much a rock star and fashion icon as he was a restauranteur and spiritual leader.

A highly charismatic man of varied talents, Yod is reported to have been a Marine, jiu jitsu master, Hollywood stuntman … and killer. His record includes a 1955 justifiable homicide and 1963 manslaughter conviction, stemming from arguments over a dog and another man’s wife, respectively.

What is more, The Source was not Father Yod’s first health-centric restaurant. He was also responsible for the Aware Inn, which opened in 1957, making it one of the first (if not the first) organic restaurants. In addition, he opened the Old World restaurant — famous for its veggie burgers. All three restaurants were on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, making our city a birthplace of the organic, vegetarian and health-food movements.

The Source Restaurant sold at the end of 1974, at which time The Family moved to Hawaii. The inimitable Father Yod died the following year (in rock star fashion) crashing a hang-glider head-first into an Oahu beach.

The Source Family and their restaurant are back in the spotlight with a recent documentary on the group, “The Source Family.” The film screened at Cinefamily alongside a pop-up vegetarian restaurant, and can now be seen (sans the food) at Sundance Cinemas, which is just up the street from the restaurant’s original location.

Cabo Cantina

(Photo by Gus Heully)

Today, with every surface of the restaurant painted with tromp l’oeil tramps and bamboo shoots, little remains of the white-robed hippies who served up sprouts to the likes of Marlon Brando and John Lennon.

But above the restaurant there once existed a low-ceilinged sanctum, a loft accessible only by ladder, lined in billowing brocade and clouded with incense, where Father Yod would meditate with his wives.

Does this room still exist? A secret retreat of hippy-scented contemplation above the sombrero wearing, shot-slamming sports bar scene below?

Just the idea, surreal and secretive, is delicious enough.




Is WeHo’s CVS Building a Cultural Barometer?

CVS

Ever look at the CVS that sits at the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards? Ever wonder, why does that not look like any CVS I’ve seen before?

It is a strange building: highly stylized concrete stairs (which scream 80s), heavy wood siding, over-scaled asymmetrical steel frames, semicircle front … it clearly was not originally designed to be an oversized drug store.

Back in the 1940s, this corner was home to the La Cienega Lanes bowling alley, the first in a number of businesses to occupy the long-spanning bow-truss structure, each representative of their time.

la-cienega-lanesLa Cienega Lanes lived during a popular time for bowling, when the LA Times even had a regular bowling column.

The lanes survived into the 1970s, but bowling began to lose its popularity.

Adapting with the times, the building transformed into the next hottest thing: a late-70s roller disco.

Flippers Roller Rink moved into the space.

flippers

This 1982 photo shows Flippers roller disco at the southeast corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Cienega. (Photo by MrBurlesk)

The rink was started by Denny Cordell, a successful record producer who had worked with the Moody Blues, Joe Cocker and Tom Petty and who, after his foray as owner of a skating rink, would go on to produce albums for the Cranberries, among others. Adding to its cultural cachet was the rumor that Cher, a rollerskating fanatic, was at one time an owner of Flippers and, along with Olivia Newton-John, a regular.

The days of roller disco eventually ran their course, and the building again changed hands. In 1983, Esprit, a quickly growing, socially forward fashion label, turned the space into one of its first freestanding U.S. stores.

Esprit spent $14 million on renovations, hiring hot 80s designer Joseph D’Urso to create the concrete parking structure, wood siding and store. The remnants of an Esprit sign (with its trademark vertical-less E) are still visible on the side of CVS today.

Esprit_Sign

Look closely and you can see the outline of “Esprit” on the wall (Photo by Gus Heully).

In the 1990s Esprit had its sights on international markets and looked to sell the building. In 1995, the company entered into negotiations with the City of West Hollywood, which considered transforming the store into a new City Council chambers and a replacement library, both of which were housed in West Hollywood Park at the time. This deal, however, fell through.

A string of drug stores eventually moved into the space, which, with its wide open floor plan, was perfect for the banal big box stores that pepper our cities today.

Perhaps one day a new (and more fun) cultural trend will take over the space.

But for now, whenever I am out to pick up a prescription or paper towels, I will imagine Cher skating by — Hell on wheels, let’s roll!




Sunset’s Green ‘Forum': A Master Architect’s Design for a Surgeon to the Stars

Oscar Niemeyer

What is the story with that vaguely classical, completely circular, bright green building on Sunset Boulevard near Holloway Drive?

Would you believe that it was designed by the Brazilian master of modern architecture Oscar Niemeyer?

Niemeyer, who passed away last year at the age of 104, is known the world over for his designs and was the winner of the Pritzker Prize (architecture’s highest honor) in 1988.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (Photo by Rodrigo Soldon/Creative Commons)

Notable for their monumental, curving white forms, his buildings have a sensual Brazilian bent and Niemeyer often compared these sculptural shapes to the body of a beautiful woman.

It’s fitting then that our local Niemeyer-designed building was erected to house the offices of Dr. Robert Allen Franklyn, plastic surgeon to the stars.

Finished in 1967 and originally painted white, like any good modernist building, it was known at the time as the “Beauty Pavilion” and saw numerous Hollywood stars of the 60s and 70s come through its turnstiles.

Oscar Niemeyer

Dr. Franklyn had an obsession with round buildings, or, more specifically, with spotless symmetry. After all, he was one of the early advocates and practitioners of breast augmentation. He even wrote a book on the subject “On Developing Bosom Beauty.”

Franklyn and Niemeyer, the surgeon and the architect, make an unlikely but ideal match.

Today this charming little oddity is the home of production company Mutato Muzika, the music studio of Mark Mothersbaugh. One of the founding members of New Wave band Devo, Mothersbaugh has also lent his keen composition skills to numerous films. Wes Anderson films generally carry his tunes.

After 46 years this little building (modeled after “The Forum” in Inglewood) is holding up quite well. It is amazing what a little (or more than a little) green paint can do. The literal greening of his white building might have Niemeyer spinning in his grave, but Dr. Franklyn can never say no to a facelift.

The dramatic change of hue (courtesy of Mothersbaugh) shifts this simple structure from a modern take on the Greek temple to a post-modern fantasy spacecraft — more Xanadu less Corbu.




Why Are ‘Crystals’ Growing Out of the Walls In WeHo?

Geodes

When most people think of street art they conjure up a witty, gritty Banksy spray-paint stencil or a graphic glue-down poster by Shepard Fairey.

But street art, which has a strong presence in the Los Angeles area (West Hollywood is no exception), doesn’t have to be political or subversive, it can also be whimsical.

I happened across one example in WeHo, an “Urban Geode” by street artist “A Common Name.”

Appearing in the nooks and crannies of buildings, these geodes look like crystalline crust emerging from a missing brick or open vent. The ones I found were “growing” out of the underfloor ventilation openings of a restaurant.

Made of cut, folded, painted and treated paper, these pieces portray a rare natural event, one that is by definition hidden. Geodes form in hiding and are revealed only when a rock (or in this case a building) is broken, cut, cracked or otherwise opened.

These geodes make viewers wonder, for a moment, “just what is behind the surface of our walls?”

Are they entirely filled with these formations? And what within the walls could cause such beautiful things to grow?

A charming thought.

To see a map of geode locations, including the one here in West Hollywood (8782 Sunset Boulevard at Palm) visit http://acommonname.com/street-art-project/.




Why is the Pacific Design Center Blue?

PDC Blue

When the Pacific Design Center was built in 1975 the West Hollywood area was made up of low-scale residential neighborhoods.

Needless to say, the hulking structure was highly controversial. Residents complained of the design’s lack of relation to the history of the area and its complete disjunction from the surrounding residential scale. Pauline Schindler, the widow of Rudolph Schindler, architect of the Schindler House and an early West Hollywood resident, was one of the most vociferous critics of the design.

But Cesar Pelli, architect of the PDC, is a notorious smooth-talker and eminently likable man. His charm and ability to disagree without being disagreeable smoothed the controversy over.

Blue glass, he argued, would help to hide the bulk of the building by blending in with the sky above and, simultaneously, the reflection in the glass would speak to the scale of the surrounding neighborhood.

The result is a building with an exterior both shocking and right; like a well-kept classic car, it has barely aged. The original PDC is a building that, if only because of its color, would be just as controversial today as it was in 1975—an example of the provocative power of color.




What’s with the Oil Well Behind the Beverly Center?

Ever Wonder what is behind the high walls emblazoned with hazardous material warning signs on the back side of the Beverly Center?

Shielded from San Vicente Boulevard is, in fact, an actively drilling and pumping oil well.

WeHo Oil

(Illustration by Gustave Heully)

Managed by Plains Exploration and Production (PXP) this well taps into both the Salt Lake Oil Field and the adjacent Beverly Hills Oil Field. Discovered in 1902, one tip of the Salt Lake Oil Field begins in West Hollywood and runs generally along Beverly Boulevard all the way past Highland Avenue and south to Wilshire Boulevard. (See map above) where it is the source of the tar at the La Brea Tar Pits next to LACMA.

Oil wells exist all across urban Los Angeles, long predating the neighborhoods that have been built around and over them. Most of these wells have long since been abandoned, but at the Beverly Center site drilling continues. Advances in drilling technology, by drilling at an angle from behind soundproof walls, make this single location able to reach faraway deposits of oil, boring down as deep as 3,300 feet below the city streets.

The desirability of areas like Mid-City and Beverly Hills may seem at odds with being located above an oil field, but the wealth in these areas can be partially attributed to the subterranean geography. Oil companies pay royalties to those who own land above the oil field — thus the black gold that stirs thousands of feet below the surface help pay for the many Jimmy Choo heels and Mercedes SUVs that navigate the streets above it.




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Walter Annenberg
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