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Architect's About-Face Helps Transform L. A. : Brenda Levin Finds Challenges in Redefining the City's Style Through Input in Restoration Projects

September 25, 1986|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

For a person who didn't like Los Angeles one little bit when she got here 10 years ago, Brenda Levin has done an about-face. And because of her architectural input, the face of the city she used to dislike is changing, too.

"I hated it for two years, especially from an architectural standpoint," she said of Los Angeles, after moving here from Boston in 1976.

Armed With Stereotypes

"I have to admit I came here believing all the Eastern stereotypes about the city. I even made a button that said: 'SUNSHINE IS BORING.'

"Los Angeles was especially boring from the architectural standpoint," Levin added. "But all my frame of reference was East Coast. Then, one clear winter day I looked out and saw the mountains with snow on them and decided I had woefully been looking at the short views, not the long vista of the natural beauty of the Basin. I began to see Los Angeles for the unique place it is."

Los Angeles, in return, has offered Levin an opportunity to expand her architectural horizons. In addition to running her own architectural firm, Levin and Associates Inc., she serves on the 25-member Citizens Advisory Committee to the city Planning Commission.

"With 25 members we have all sorts of viewpoints, from architects to lawyers to neighborhood groups. We're looking at the future of planning in Los Angeles and how Los Angeles copes with its own growth. It's clear that growth is going to happen. Before now sprawl has been a major theme. But now we're talking about densification. Each area will have to deal with increased growth and increased density. It's a learning experience."

Although she is studying the future of Los Angeles, Levin has made a prominent architectural mark in the city with her renovation and restoration of some of its classic old buildings.

It has been a learn-as-you-go experience for Levin.

After working in 1976 with architect John Lautner on the redesign of Bob Hope's Palm Springs home, which had burned, Levin got a job in 1977 with Group Arcon, the company that was renovating the Oviatt Building, 617 S. Olive St. It was the first major commercial renovation in the rebirth of downtown Los Angeles.

"The Oviatt was really the hallmark of renovation here," said Levin, who became the project architect on the Oviatt, built in 1927 by financier James Oviatt. "I think one reason I got the job is that they thought because I was from the East I knew about renovation. But I didn't."

First Try at Renovation

Levin said the work on the Oviatt Building taught her much about renovation, as it did the developer, Ratkovich, Bowers and Perez Inc., which also was attempting its first renovation project.

"After the building was finished, Wayne Ratkovich asked me if I wanted to do the Rex (Rex Il Ristorante, a $1.5-million restaurant on the ground floor of the Oviatt)," Levin said. "I opened my office in 1980 with that one job."

The front doors of the Rex, once a men's haberdashery that catered to movie stars of the '20s and '30s, are original--signed Lalique etched glass created by French glass and jewelry designer Rene Lalique--as are the elevator doors, mailboxes and the ceiling of the lobby.

"But much of the Lalique had been sold off or destroyed," Levin said. "There was no way to reproduce it, but you could reinterpret it. We used a three-dimensional system of frames and sand-blasted glass that was similar in feeling to the Lalique and would be something that would be appropriate with the age and era of the building."

The glass work was done by stained-glass artist Jane Marquis, who reproduced 200 panes of glass.

In 1980 while working on the Rex, Levin and her husband, David Abel, began building their own house on property they had bought in 1978 in the Los Feliz hills.

'A Gruesome Year'

"That was one of those killer years, 1980," Levin said during a recent breakfast at her home. "David started his own (consulting) firm, I started mine, we had a baby and built the house. It was a gruesome year, but we got through it. We like living so close and working downtown and love the downtown people."

Levin and Abel's home is a contemporary house designed by Levin and built on a hillside. It was constructed of two triangular forms, one three stories, the other, two, connected by a main stairwell with a large skylight. Levin used wood, concrete block and sheet metal for its construction.

A week after their son, Eliot, who will turn 6 in October, was born, Levin took him to the office with her.

"He only had one baby sitter until he was 4," she said. "So he had real continuity in his life. I was working on the Rex and, at meetings, every single contractor wanted to hold him. He literally spent the first five months of his life in the office. David's office was across the hall, so we shared. That's why you have your own business, so you can do things like that."

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