With the drop of a drape, the Biltmore Hotel's new lobby mural had its public debut Monday night, and suddenly the reception room the painting now graces doubled in size. Or so it seemed.
The trick was trompe l'oeil , the technique three artists used to create the illusionistic artwork. The occasion was the unveiling of the large-scale painting, inauguration of the Biltmore's newly restored and relocated lobby off Grand Avenue and a reception for restoration director A. T. Heinsbergen and mural artists Alan Sonneman, Walter Lab and Victor Henderson.
All three events come as part of a major renovation begun at the Biltmore last May, the first all-hotel refurbishment in the grand and gracious building's 63-year history. The $200-million Biltmore Place project includes construction of a 24-story tower and restoration of the ornate Italian and Spanish Renaissance decor found throughout the downtown landmark's 1-million-square-foot facility. Completion is projected for March 16.
"We have a great desire to involve the hotel in the Los Angeles art community as much as we can," said Patrick R. Colee, as he welcomed 400 reception guests. Colee is head of Westgroup Inc. of Los Angeles, the restoration firm specializing in vintage urban structures and heading the renovation with Biltmore Partners, in partnership with First Boston Real Estate & Development Corp., a subsidiary of First Boston Inc.
Colee also hired the four men honored Monday night. Heinsbergen, whose father created some of the hotel's original decor, also heads a company that bears his name. He guided the restoration of the walls and ceilings in the Biltmore's public rooms, including the lobby housing the new mural, the centerpiece of Monday's celebration.
The three-dimensional, 14-by-24-foot painting lures observers into a luminescent 19th-Century enclosed garden court. A park and contemporary Los Angeles "cityscape" loom beyond.
"It's like a glass solarium built as an extension accessible from the main lobby," explained artist Sonneman before the unveiling. "We intended to make the (mural) space not any grander than this (3,000-square-foot) lobby, and we wanted it to have a certain romanticism and intimacy that invited your curiosity and played a game of 'how do I get there from here?' "
Receding rows of "Corinthian/Deco" columns in the painting echo those beside the mural built into the hotel's lobby walls. Three pink flamingos by a fountain give the work its focal center, and lush green palm fronds, brightly colored parrots and tropical blossoms lend a decisively Los Angeles air, as does the subtle downtown skyline with City Hall, Bunker Hill and the Arco Towers behind.
Though the painters' use of trompe l'oeil and Inness-like natural light give the painting a 19th-Century flair, "all three of us wanted to make a contemporary piece," offered Henderson. So did Colee, he said, who shared with the artists a vision of a tableau combining the hotel's original style with an up-to-date and indigenous sensibility.
Aptly, Sonneman has painted movie backdrops in Hollywood and "has a reputation" for "overtly political paintings," as have fellow realist artists Lab and Henderson. The latter is a former member and co-founder of the Fine Arts Squad of muralists.
"There was a certain challenge in bringing out the various egos to create a cohesive project that also reflected the (hotel's) environment itself," Henderson said, "However, if you took any one of our contributions out of the mural, I don't think the piece would work."
Whether or not the mural does "work" remains to be seen, as the Biltmore embarks on another 60 years. But upon the painting's unveiling, one remark overheard at the reception was, "It's nice. . . . City Hall's in the wrong place, but it's nice."