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STYLE : ARCHITECTURE : Urban Utopia

March 08, 1992|AARON BETSKY

One hundred years ago, the designer of the Bradbury Building dreamed of a city of towering courtyards, exposed stairways and lusciously carved surfaces. Now downtown Los Angeles has gone back to the future, so to speak, with a $6-million renovation of the landmark brick and terra-cotta structure at 3rd and Broadway.

Draftsman George Wyman designed the building for mining tycoon Lewis Bradbury in 1893 after reading "Looking Backward: 2000-1887" by Edward Bellamy, a cult classic that imagined a 21st-Century world of cooperative housing and work spaces organized around crystal courts. Wyman created four floors of offices above ground-floor retail stores in a narrow space slicing through an office block.

The interior was organized underneath a skylight and is surrounded by oak ceilings and marble floors interlaced with ornamental cast iron. The courtyard was designed to resemble a street, right down to the front door-like detailing on the entrances to ground-floor offices. Above this base of brick that comprised the first floor, upper floors were stepped back so that the interior, all steel and glass rising from a massive foundation, seemed to disappear into the strong Southern California sunshine.

Over the years, Wyman's utopian design had to submit to the grind of daily use, a process that soon gave lie to his vision of a perfect world. Eventually, the building fell into disrepair, and the sadly varnished, well-worn lobby became one of the locations for the movie "Blade Runner," its dirty and broken skylight presiding over a nightmarish vision of the future of Los Angeles.

So much for bad dreams. In less than two years, architect Brenda Levin has painstakingly restored the Bradbury as part of developer Ira Yellin's vision of a Greenwich Village in Los Angeles. The building links the parking garage of the Ronald Reagan State Office Building with Yellin's renovated Grand Central Market and, beyond that, Bunker Hill. Stores in the bottom of the building, Yellin says, will be encouraged to stay. Office workers and shoppers, browsers and architecture buffs now share a building scrubbed to within an inch of its life, festooned with stylish new alabaster light sconces, reinforced against earthquakes and leased to tenants such as state Treasurer Kathleen Brown.

Today, the Bradbury is meant to serve as a multicultural version of dense urban living. That may be nothing more than a dream, but then that is the stuff of which this building was originally made.

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