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'We're getting out.' : A Long, Painful Goodby : Emmet Wemple and His Beloved City Seemed Inseparable, but Crime Came Between Them

August 23, 1993|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the late 1970s, radios and other small items began to disappear from Emmet Wemple's offices near MacArthur Park.

The thefts were a nuisance for the famed landscape architect, but not enough to chase him from the culturally diverse and centrally located Westlake district of his beloved city.

The area was teeming with young artists, architects and designers attracted by its low-cost housing and funky studio spaces. It was a time when it seemed the MacArthur Park area would become a major arts and design center.

But the attacks escalated on Wemple's building, a brown and beige two-story stucco edifice built in 1927 that he had bought and lovingly restored. Soon larger items--office machinery, a rug, furniture and even a small refrigerator--were stolen.

Someone took the copper plumbing pipes off the rear of the building. One night a set of its original wrought-iron gates was pulled from the hinges, probably by a thief using a truck and chains. One Monday, Wemple and his staff arrived to find that the offices were a bit stuffy, and soon discovered that air-conditioning unit on the roof had been dismantled and hauled away.

"That," said Wemple, 72, shaking his head, "must have taken the entire weekend."

The urban world was closing in on Emmet L. Wemple & Associates, which had designed some of the loveliest oases in and around Los Angeles: the gardens and other outdoor spaces at the J. Paul Getty Museum, UCLA, Paramount and Warner Bros. studios, the famed Shindler House in West Hollywood and the Nixon library.

But the final blow came earlier this year when one of the firm's architects was robbed at gunpoint and roughed up during the day only a block from the office. A week later, the firm's entire 17-member staff moved to a rented space in a modern Pasadena high-rise.

The Wemple firm, whose old offices had Douglas fir-paneled hallways and counters hand-laid with Craftsman-style tile, now operates out of a white-walled, fluorescent-lighted suite of offices indistinguishable from those of countless lawyers and accountants.

Wemple now parks in a guarded lot and takes the elevator to his office. "There's no vandalism, no homeless people in the hallways; you make a phone call and you can get anything you need," he said, looking out his office window to the parking lot below.

"It's so peaceful, I can't believe it."

The nattily dressed Wemple moves from the window to his oak desk, which looks out of place in his new digs.

"The corporate image you find in a building like this, it's not our style," he said. "You can't love a building like this."

*

The dream of an arts colony near MacArthur Park is, if not dead, certainly on hold. Wemple was one of many in the arts/architecture/design crowd to leave the area in the wake of increasing crime and violence. Given his status as a civic leader--Wemple had long been associated with such programs as the Los Angeles Conservancy and L.A. Beautiful, and he is a founding member of Project Restore, which aims to renovate City Hall--leaving the heart of the city he loves was particularly symbolic.

"When we were making the move, I called about half a dozen people I respect and asked their opinion," Wemple said. "I wanted to know if they thought it would do something to my image.

"What they said was, 'What took you so long?' "

Wemple bought the Westlake building and moved his firm there in 1972, shortly after he finished the Getty project. For a man meticulous in his dress, manner and scheduling, it was the perfect location, not far from the former sound studio that he and his wife had remodeled and turned into their home. "I could drive from my office to my house in two minutes," he said. "I could drive to USC, where I taught, in 12 minutes. My wife loved to go to the Hollywood Bowl--that was 17 minutes. The Music Center was 14 minutes."

It was not just geography that attracted him. "We were right in the middle of things," Wemple said. "We had so many friends in the Granada Building, nearby, working as architects. There were designers and photographers and suppliers.

"We'd go to an art show in somebody's basement, on a rooftop. It was just a lot of fun."

As if talking about a country that no longer exists, Wemple described now-closed landmarks that were part of his daily routine. "There was the Sheraton Townhouse, where we would go to lunch quite often. Or we might go to the restaurant in Bullock's Wilshire, which my wife used to call her club. Sometimes we would take a client for a walk over to the park to sit on a bench and talk.

"You would not even think of doing that now."

Gilbert Stayner, an architect, had his offices in Wemple's building for 21 years. He said the area was an oasis for those who craved traditional cityscapes. "It's an incredibly wonderful area," Stayner said. "If you go there at night--and we used to walk there at night--and look at the buildings, you'd think you were in New York."

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