Neighbors in Santa Monica haven't forgotten the April evening in 1986 when fire ravaged the nearly 50-year-old Mercedes-Benz showroom at Wilshire and 17th, a local landmark.
"We could see the fire from our street, and we all went down there," recalled Patricia McAuley, a resident of nearby Euclid Street. "We were all in tears--it was the prettiest building on Wilshire Boulevard."
Now, nearly two years and more than $3 million later, the building that houses the W. I. Simonson showroom and offices at 1626 Wilshire Blvd. has been painstakingly rebuilt to preserve its historical character.
Frances Rehwald--granddaughter of the late William Isaac Simonson, who took over a Packard dealership in the building in 1937 and established a Mercedes agency there 20 years later--says the Spanish-revival structure looks much as the original building did in 1922, when it was erected by the Packard corporation.
"It would have been more cost-effective to put up a three-story building," said Rehwald, marketing director for the family-owned dealership. "But after the fire, we all sat down and talked about it.
"The business had been in the family for nearly five decades. My mother grew up here. My sister, my brother and I climbed up those stairs," she said, pointing to a two-sided staircase faced with tiles reproduced from molds cast from the salvaged originals.
"It meant too much to us," she said. "We decided unequivocally that we wanted it the way it was."
"The way it was" meant a high ceiling with hand-painted, broad wooden beams, Moorish arches, a spacious leaded-glass bay window and costly, quality materials used everywhere: slate floors, granite moldings, burled-wood desk tops, custom-made tile, wrought-iron chandeliers.
"I really can't tell you how I feel," said Mary Rehwald, the dealership's president and daughter of William Simonson. "It brings tears to my eyes every time I walk into the building. I'm incredibly proud of it, I really am."
Santa Monica architect James Mount, who directed the reconstruction, called the project "a great challenge." Because no original drawings were available, he said, he worked from magazines of the period, one very good professional photograph and snapshots the family had taken over the years. The photographs show mezzanine offices overlooking a spacious, high-ceiled showroom.
"We saved all of the old cast-iron grilles," said Mount, adding that they had to be sandblasted to remove old paint and soot from the fire.
All other details were reconstructed from molds cast from salvaged remains and from "the bones of the old building," Mount said.
Pleased to Get Job
Mount, who has "known and loved that building for many, many years," said he was pleasantly surprised to receive the commission from the Rehwald family to rebuild the showroom. He said that, years ago, when he was president of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, he had sent William Simonson a mock award certificate for "uglifying" the building by painting it a bright blue.
Now it's a creamy off-white with peach-colored trim, a color decision made by Mary Rehwald and Barbara Armani, a Pasadena designer who coordinated the interior and designed most of the furniture.
Armani hired the Los Angeles-based A. T. Heinsbergen & Co. to execute the interior's hand-painted decorative details. The firm did the hand-painted mural decorations for renovations of the Biltmore hotel in Los Angeles and Carnegie Hall in New York.
For the Simonson building, Mount and Armani said they made concessions to modern times, adding a rooftop parking deck, skylights and contemporary-design business offices.
The fire, the origin of which is still unknown, forced the family to postpone celebrating the business's golden anniversary last year, said Frances Rehwald. She said the public may attend a belated anniversary fete on Feb. 20 and 21.