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Roof Culture : New Ways to Enjoy Life at the Top

June 15, 1986|ELIZABETH VENANT | Elizabeth Venant is a Times staff writer

When interior designer Laurie Hayes and architect Mats Johanson planned to marry, they designed the celebration not around a church or park, they matched it to a rooftop. Art Deco buffs, they chose wedding cake, flowers and bridesmaids' gowns to go with the James Oviatt Building's 13th-floor Deco summit.

At the end of the day, manufacturer's representative Brad Culbertson climbs to the top of his house in Rancho Park for a splash in his rooftop Jacuzzi. "I like being above it all," says Culbertson, who sometimes "mellows out" with his "spa dogs" Tobey and Snoopy, basset hounds who love the warm bubbles.

Joseph Krause, a university professor, and Jean Krause, a commercial artist, traded their Mt. Washington house for a renovated, former Hilton Hotel ballroom perched 11 floors up on the Long Beach skyline. The couple is pleased to have no more problems with gophers.

Michael Jackson celebrated his Grammy Awards in 1984 with a rooftop bash of salmon and soft drinks atop the Oviatt. (The pop idol doesn't drink liquor.) And Steve McQueen used to read his scripts on the roof of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, his home in his final years.

At the Angelus Plaza retirement complex, senior citizens cultivate fruits and vegetables in rooftop gardens, and members of a Santa Monica ashram chant in morning and evening rituals at their rooftop temple. So goes life above the gaze of the earthbound. In a horizontal city that could have invented the backyard fence, a surprising subculture thrives on the roofs. Amid ficus trees and geranium pots, Angelenos get away from it all. They go to the roof to be close to the stars, to catch the breeze, to enjoy the view. Stretched out below them are the sea, the strings of city lights, rooftops and streams of diminutive cars. Some like the height, others like the alfresco living space. And for most, doing what they do down below is more fun when it's done on top.

But if Los Angeles has a flourishing rooftop life, it owes its vitality largely to the downtown skyscraper boom. Amid postwar prosperity, the lid was whipped off building-height limits, established at the start of the century. The skyline began to soar, and tufts of green sprouted on the bald, flat pates of the behemoths, as corporations and apartment houses provided recreational space for their tenants and even prettied up the tops of parking garages to attract occupants with a greener vista. Landscape architect Emmet Wemple, who thinks that "roofs can be ugly as sin," estimates that a quarter of the city's commercial structures sport some greenery on their summits.

Los Angeles entrepreneurs constructed dwellings for themselves on top of their namesake buildings. John Bullock, for example, set up house atop his Wilshire store, as did James Oviatt, the short, stocky haberdasher whose former home is now rented for soirees and private dinners.

On the fourth-floor garden level of the New Otani Hotel, tourists wander through an elaborate Japanese garden that includes a stand of Japanese maples, waterfalls and a gurgling stream.

The Westin Bonaventure hotel's fourth level offers a shopping arcade, where lunchtime crowds mingle at the outdoor terraces of restaurants and sit in the ersatz park.

At Racquetball World and Aerobic Health Center, a health club in Fullerton, members jog, lift weights and take a Saturday morning aerobics class on the fourth-floor roof.

Santa Monica architects Barbara Flammang and Wade Killefer eat, entertain and relax on their second-floor deck, a virtual outdoor living room that overlooks their neighbors' houses. On Sundays, Barbara reads magazines and Wade stretches out in the hammock with the paper. "There's something about being on a roof that's neater than being in a backyard," says Barbara. "It's fun to be different."

Yet, not all heights are hospitable to a rooftop culture. The Transamerica Occidental Building discourages employees from visiting its small 30th-floor roof garden because of suicides, which would be a serious publicity gaffe in the company's life-insurance business. Los Angeles' tallest building, the 62-story First Interstate Tower on Wilshire Boulevard, offers only a heliport and broadcast antennas on its summit. And life at the top might be in for a change as post-modern roofs tilt to peaks and ornaments.

Still, driving or strolling down a Los Angeles street, one can sometimes look skyward to see the lob of a tennis ball, a jogger skirting the rim of a roof.

There is a car on the roof of the Hard Rock Cafe in the Beverly Center. The pool at the Beverly Wilshire is patterned after the one at Sophia Loren's Roman villa. And at the Palace, a Hollywood nightclub, there are high decibels on the roof on Saturday night.

Somehow, all of this seems only fitting in the City of the Angels.

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