I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. --"The Little Sister,"
by Raymond Chandler
In 1923, automobile dealer Earle C. Anthony brought back a pair of jewel-like, orange-and-blue signs from Paris and displayed them at his Packard dealership on the corner of Wilshire and La Brea.
It was the beginning of the neon era in Los Angeles.
Soon the rooftops of hotels, apartment buildings and other businesses in the booming mid-Wilshire area were lit up with romantic names like the ASBURY, the ANSONIA and the WINDSOR, the city's first great concentration of the eye-dazzling tubes.
But, the avenue's Neon Corridor went dark during World War II for civil defense and energy-conservation reasons--and stayed largely dark afterward as styles changed and the neighborhood deteriorated.
Rooftops Coming Alive
Now, the rooftop landmarks are again coming to life as part of a general restoration of the area.
A dozen of the 40 or so neon signs still crowning businesses in the mid-Wilshire area between Alvarado Street and La Brea Avenue have been activated, and more are expected to light up soon. In Hollywood, neon signs dating back a half-century are also showing life once again.
"People are starting to appreciate the industrial art of the '30s," said Ray Gervigian, a local architect, who specializes in historic preservation. "These signs add history to the skylines."
"You don't even notice the darkened ones unless you happen to look up, and that's too bad," said Michael Webb, author of "The Magic of Neon." "Roof-top signs can liven up a low-rise city. Neon, when well used, has a jewel-like look that plastic (signage) lacks."
A drive led by Al Nodal, director of the nonprofit MacArthur Park Foundation, resulted in the recent revival of the neon signs of the Asbury, Ansonia and Olympic apartment buildings, the Wilshire Royal Hotel and the Westlake Theater, which all border the park.
Federal and Local Grants
Nodal raised $200,000 for the project--which also covered the restoration of the park--by patching together federal and local grants. He also enlisted the support of artists and the Wilshire Stakeholders, a group of local business people and residents. The start-up of the neon was covered by the funds, but building owners must pay for the electricity and upkeep.
"The street is what Hollywood and glamour were all about," said Bruce Corwin, the president of Metropolitan Theaters, which owns the Westlake. The theater's red-and-blue logo is a reminder of the time at the turn of the century when Westlake (now MacArthur) Park was considered part of West Los Angeles.
Nodal, formerly the director of the Otis Art Institute, has begun a new fund-raising effort. He estimates he'll need $60,000 to plug in the rest of the Neon Corridor. (The whereabouts of Earle C. Anthony's original signs are not known.)
In the meantime, some establishments, such as the Gaylord apartments and the Windsor hotel and the Evanston apartments, have revived their signs on their own. Others plan to follow.
"It (neon) is the thing in L.A. and I think ours will probably be lit up as soon as we're through with our repairs," said Joyce Forstner, manager of the Hotel Chancellor. "You'll be able to see our red letters all the way down 7th Street."
The Spanish-style Los Altos Apartments, once partly owned by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, are undergoing a massive renovation. And current owner Tom Stagen says renovating the sign will "top off" the project.
Not that Wilshire is in danger of resembling the Las Vegas Strip.
"The signs (on the Neon Corridor) aren't close enough to each other to pose an environmental hazard," Nodal said. "They don't blink and they're not bright garish stuff. They're more subtle--like the beautiful green of the El Royale apartments. "
Some of the Neon Corridor's still-darkened signs are in obvious disrepair: the tongue-twister HOTEL RBIZON is what's left of the Barbizon's crumbling marker.
Another inactive sign on Wilshire Boulevard sits atop the imposing Bryson Apartments, which were immortalized by Raymond Chandler.
In the 1943 novel, "Lady in the Lake," detective Philip Marlowe describes the posh Bryson as "a white stucco palace with fretted lanterns in the forecourt and tall date palms. The entrance was in an L, up marble steps, through a Moorish archway, and over a lobby that was too big and a carpet that was too blue. . . . There was a desk and a night clerk with one of those mustaches that get stuck under your fingernail. . ."
Alas, the Bryson is now in bankruptcy proceedings. And there's no night clerk, with or without a mustache.