Opening night this week at the Wiltern Theatre will mark more than completion of restoration at the 54-year-old landmark movie palace, although that in itself is a major accomplishment.
The opening also signifies the beginning of another stage in the history of the 4.4-acre property,now known as Wiltern Center, where a $150-million development incorporating the theater and its historic building with 850,000 square feet of additional office space is planned.
The opening may also foster a change in the neighborhood, which appears to be undergoing something of a rebirth.
Mid-Wilshire: That's what the area is called, but Wayne Ratkovich, who took on the renovation when it and the locale looked least promising, prefers the name "Uptown Los Angeles."
It was, as he has remembered, "historically uptown Los Angeles," where "you'd stop at the bargain basement downtown and then go uptown along Wilshire to the best stores and restaurants, ending up on Miracle Mile. It was high (quality) stuff."
It wasn't that way in 1981, when he and his firm, Ratkovich, Bowers & Perez acquired the Pellessier Building and its 2,400-seat Wiltern Theatre for $6.3 million. The surroundings then have been described as seedy. Businesses were moving east and west.
The Pellessier and Wiltern were vandalized and vacant, except for a few vagrants who were camping inside. Clifford Ratkovich, Wayne's nephew and vice president of Ratkovich, Bowers & Perez, described conditions: "Portions of the building were burned from the fires the vagrants started to keep themselves warm, and there was a lot of graffiti on the walls." Many of the once much-admired Art Deco decorative features in the offices as well as the theater had been removed by collectors anticipating that the building would be razed.
Wayne Ratkovich and his partners, already restoration experts because of their work on the Oviatt and Fine Arts buildings in downtown Los Angeles, stepped in after a citizens group and the Los Angeles Conservancy held a rally to spare the Pellessier and its Wiltern Theatre. After trying unsuccessfully to sell the building for nine years, Franklin Life Insurance Co. planned to demolish it and market the land, which might have appealed to developers because of its prominent location on the southeast corner of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.
At the time, though, the Mid-Wilshire office market was depressed. The economy was in recession. Southern California real estate values were declining. Nonetheless, Ratkovich, Bowers & Perez started refurbishing the 12-story office tower in 1981 and reopened it a year later.
Today, the 34,000 square feet of office space in the tower is 100% leased--"by a lot of yuppies,' if you want to call them that," Cliff Ratkovich observed. "I'd say the average age of the tenants is mid-30s."
Their businesses? Among them: advertising, architecture and interior design. "It says something about a project when architectural firms move in," he added.
Zigzag Moderne Style
What it probably says is that the tenants like the marble interiors, green terra-cotta facade and other distinctive features of an age gone by, an era when the tower was the tallest building west of City Hall, and its tenants included many dentists. It is "the only office building of its period in L.A. with a theater," according to Ruthann Lehrer, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. The entire building is a Los Angeles Cultural Historic Landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The architectural style, designed by Morgan, Walls & Clements, has been described as "one of the finest examples of Zigzag Moderne in Los Angeles." The tower is so skinny that even a small firm can afford to rent an entire floor, though monthly rates--at about $1.75 a foot--are at the high end of the market. (Retail space is being marketed in the $2-a-foot range, and available offices in the wings are expected to fetch $1.65 to $1.75 a foot.) Floor areas in the tower average 3,200 square feet.
"Tenants like the sense of having a grand entrance into their offices as they step out of the elevators," Cliff Ratkovich noted.
They also like the neighborhood, said Kate Bartolo, who is handling leasing through Coldwell Banker. "They want to be near Melrose Avenue and its theaters, art galleries and restaurants, and they are finding some exquisite housing opportunities in Hancock Park and other places nearby."
Indeed, she continued, "Yuppies, who are more upwardly mobile with more discretionary income, are replacing the hourly-wage worker in Mid-Wilshire, an up-and-coming area with an office vacancy rate of about 11%."