Wayne Ratkovich has spent 16 years saving historic buildings from wrecking balls and mini-mall developers. Now he's after a four-mile stretch of an avenue where Hollywood stars once slept, ate, danced and even mourned.
In a city known more for its freeways and hamburger stands than for landmark buildings, Ratkovich is an anomaly among developers--going for style and history instead of the fast buck--according to critics, architects and developers from Boston to New York.
"I've broken all the rules of a developer, so when someone tells me I can't do something, or it won't make money, I don't listen," the urbane, balding but athletic Ratkovich said recently as he prepared to move his corporate offices from downtown to the Wilshire Boulevard district he hopes will see a revival.
Project a Challenge
"Wayne has really led the band on national historic preservation of large, old office buildings," architecture critic Leon Whiteson said. "But he's got his work cut out on Wilshire."
Other critics, architects and developers also praised the developer's preservation work, but expressed doubts at his ability to rehabilitate an ailing four-mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles' main avenue running from downtown to the Pacific.
Architect Barry Milofsky, who coordinated station design along Boston's new Southwest Corridor project, called Wilshire Boulevard "the spine of Los Angeles and a challenge," for Ratkovich, who has worked on individual buildings but never concentrated so heavily on entire neighborhood rehabilitations.
Offices in Theater
Ratkovich, 46, who is responsible for $600 million in buildings in the Los Angeles area, moved his corporate offices this week from downtown to the 1931 Wiltern Theater office complex located on a historic but run-down stretch of the boulevard.
Called "Carnegie Hall of the West," the streamlined Wiltern as Wilshire and Western Avenue was slated for demolition before Ratkovich stepped in and purchased it for $6 million in 1981 and renovated it to become what many consider to be the centerpiece of Wilshire Boulevard.
The avenue also boasts many of Los Angeles's landmark buildings including Bullock's Wilshire, the first department store in the nation designed with an auto parking lot, and the Ambassador Hotel, former home to Hollywood stars and the famed Coconut Grove nightclub.
Built by the movie industry's founding fathers in 1925, the ornate Wilshire Boulevard Temple once was the house of worship for studio heads Darryl F. Zanuck and Jack Warner, among others.
Nearby, Al Jolson built the eight-story Langham Apartments, where Clark Gable maintained the penthouse, and William Randolph Hearst built the Los Altos Apartments, where he and Marion Davies lived.
The boulevard has, however, become rundown in recent years with the Brown Derby restaurant and other buildings falling to the wrecking ball and others such as the Ambassador Hotel and the Art Deco Desmond's department store fighting losing preservation battles.
Grandeur Not Lost
Ratkovich says his move to the area is a signal to others that the former grandeur of the strip is not lost.
"All over the country we are creating instant urban ugliness. Mini-malls and office buildings devoid of beauty. The Wilshire Corridor was the first boulevard designed for the automobile in America and it was done beautifully. It's future is the future of Los Angeles," Ratkovich said.
To counter the demolition trend Ratkovich also formed a Stakeholders committee of 60 landowners and community groups. The committee has commissioned a $250,000 Wilshire Boulevard urban land-use study by a UCLA group.
The results of the study, which will examine land use, crime, parking and other issues, and will propose a plan to be followed by the city, are expected to be released by the end of the year.
Ratkovich and others criticized the city government's emphasis on downtown development, where billions of dollars have gone into the creation of Bunker Hill, a gleaming collection of high-rises.
City Must Provide Plan
"The city must provide a clear and unified land-use plan," Ratkovich said. "The political process on this issue is, in some degree, chaos."
Reyner Banham, a British writer and author of many architectural studies of American cities, called Los Angeles a collection of "ecologies" linked by the boulevard and said the city should not imitate its Eastern cousins with large downtowns.
"Wilshire Boulevard unites the many, often crazy and disparate neighborhoods of Los Angeles just as the Seine (river) unifies Paris," said New York architect Paul Whalen, who along with famed architect Robert A. M. Stern has led the revival of historical styles in home building.
"To us outsiders, Wilshire provides a focal point in a city where you never can seem to find a center," Whalen said. "And once you do find it (downtown) you get stuck. If he (Ratkovich) can do something to help, that's good."