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There's Lots of Room at the Top of This Building

June 05, 1988|RAY HEBERT | Ray Hebert is a retired Times staff writer. and

On the streets below, jackhammers pound away, traffic is a mess, horns blare and scrambling pedestrians crowd the sidewalks.

Downtown Los Angeles is like that these days--noisy, restless, on the move.

Yet, only seconds away, in a rooftop residence about to open to a new generation of admirers, the pace is slower.

Take the middle elevator from the open lobby of the Oviatt Building to the penthouse, a stop above the 12th floor. There the elevator operator, an anachronism in downtown's high-rises, opens the door leading directly into the magical home and hideaway that master clothier-merchant James Oviatt built in the 1920s.

The elevator doors close, and you step back in time. You're in Oviatt's penthouse--a realm of its own, splendidly structured and outfitted in exquisite marble, gleaming hand-carved wood floors, fine silk-covered walls and glass lighting fixtures, and decorative metal bearing the unmistakable genius of Rene Lalique.

Here, too, are Lalique's etched glass windows. Chances are the noted French glass craftsman wasn't concerned about street noise 60 years ago. But his delicate windows block out the tumult of the streets below, insulating the penthouse.

Later this week, on Wednesday and Thursday, special ceremonies will mark the completion of a major restoration and renovation project on the elegant 10-room suite and adjoining rooftop terrace.

The project was undertaken by the Lehndorff Group, one of the Oviatt Building's present owners, and is the second such renovation in 10 years. In the late 1970s, the development firm of Ratkovich, Bowers Inc. rehabilitated the penthouse as part of the building's restoration. That endeavor was widely acclaimed as a recycling model for historically important downtown buildings.

With the Oviatt Building now considered a "one-of-a-kind landmark" in downtown Los Angeles, as Richard Ginise, a Lehndorff official puts it, the primary goal of the penthouse's renovation was to maintain the structure's historic character.

"We were careful not to disturb any of the original Art Deco design," says Ginise, regional manager of Lehndorff Management of California Inc., a Lehndorff Group subsidiary. "(And we) felt it was important to make it available to the public."

Small groups using Oviatt's rooftop dwelling will see a faithful revival of the living quarters that crown the store and office building that went up in 1928, when the city's height limit was only 13 stories.

Of course, Oviatt, a man of impeccable taste and business savvy, could not foresee the way downtown would change. His penthouse, at the time it was built, was romantically called a "Castle in the Air." After a 1930 visit, a Times writer described it as "architecturally graceful, luxurious in appointments, sumptuous and artistic adornment."

Since then, downtown's high-rise office building boom, no longer restricted by a height limit, has dwarfed the Italian Romanesque Oviatt building. Even the clock tower, atop the penthouse, seems like a toy among the neighboring high-rises, some towering more than 60 stories.

But what Oviatt's Building lacks in height, by today's standards, is more than compensated by its quality and durability.

Oviatt, a consummate traveler, was fascinated by the Art Deco craze of the 1920s. He scoured Europe--and especially France--for the finest craftsmen, designs and material for the building and penthouse he planned at 617 S. Olive St., only steps from Pershing Square.

As president of the prestigious clothing store, Alexander & Oviatt, he was in a position to get the best money could buy. He knew style and design. He also knew what he wanted of the building and penthouse and commissioned a host of French designers and artisans. Lalique was his prize.

City's Recognition

"Although numerous architects, engineers, designers and craftsmen contributed their talents to the creation of (the) building, the ensemble was orchestrated by Mr. Oviatt," noted the nomination papers for placing the Oviatt Building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Approved in 1983, the nomination followed the city's recognition of the building as a cultural-historic monument.

While Lalique left his imprint on every room in the penthouse, the famed designer-glassmaker's biggest single contribution to the building was the lobby area. There he designed and fabricated the original illuminated metal and glass marquee, an illuminated glass ceiling--since changed--the main entrance and glass elevator doors, the mail box and other items.

Lalique's work on the Oviatt Building, it was said, represented the renowned designer's largest single commercial commission.

Became Restaurant

Until the store closed in 1969, Alexander & Oviatt's, serving a clientele that could afford fine, expensive clothes, occupied the building's ground floor, mezzanine, second and third floors and basement.

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