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Closed-Down Landmark Gets Fixtures Back : Design: Preservationists hail the agreement by R. H. Macy to return decorations and furnishings to former Bullocks Wilshire site. The building will be turned into a law library.

May 11, 1994|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A standoff over Los Angeles cultural heritage ended Tuesday with the announcement that R. H. Macy & Co. has returned nearly all the historically significant fixtures and furnishings it removed last year from its closed Bullocks Wilshire store.

City leaders and preservationists had campaigned vigorously for the return of chandeliers, furniture, clocks, urns, fireplace screens, sconces and other fixtures moved out of the landmark 1929 Art Deco building. They warmly greeted the transfer back of 166 items and described the agreement as a national precedent for historic properties.

"This is a sweet ending," said Mary Alice Wollam, a Bullocks Wilshire expert with the Los Angeles Conservancy, the local preservationist group.

Macy executives, she said, came to realize that Bullocks Wilshire "is perhaps the most beloved building in Los Angeles and that the people of Los Angeles have such wonderful memories of the store, of shopping there, of having lunch there, of taking their children there."

The fixtures are expected to be back on public display after the former department store in the once-elegant but now struggling mid-Wilshire neighborhood is converted into a law library next year. The five-story store, with its signature copper-clad tower, became part of R. H. Macy's I. Magnin chain in 1988 and was closed in April, 1993. Currently embroiled in corporate bankruptcy reorganization, Macy is selling the lease to the nearby Southwestern University School of Law.

In New York, Macy spokeswoman Laura Melillo said the company was pleased to announce what she described as the fixtures' transfers from warehouses and I. Magnin stores around California. "I think everyone has a very deep appreciation for the building," Melillo said. "We are happy we can act in concert with and in support of those persons who want to maintain the historic nature of the building, and we think we have."

The announcement came after a year of delicate negotiations and angry protests, highlighted by the conservancy's Christmas season leaflet campaign in front of local I. Magnin stores. Also last December, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan sent a letter to Macy executives, urging the fixtures' return. A Los Angeles citizens' task force lobbied as well.

According to both sides, final agreement was delayed by squabbles over which furnishings were original to the store. Matters were said to be further complicated by Macy's bankruptcy and by the Jan. 17 earthquake, which damaged other Macy-owned stores in California.

Among the 166 returned items were all those pieces proved through photographic records to be from 1929. The retailer kept 40 or so fixtures, chairs and tables that the city and conservancy originally sought, but many of those were not antiques.

The main sour note Tuesday was that Macy's held on to two 1920s Lalique crystal chandeliers that were moved in 1972 from Downtown's Oviatt Building into the Bullocks Wilshire store.

Preservationists said those chandeliers, now hanging in an I. Magnin store in San Francisco, would be important to the ambience of the law library.

"That was something we had to give up as part of the compromise, but it is not something we remain bitter about because we feel happy about the overall results," said Rodney Punt, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.

Bullocks Wilshire is designated as a Los Angeles historic and cultural monument and is on the National Register of Historic Places. But municipal and federal law protected only the building, not the movable fixtures.

Macy's decision is thought to be the first major return of historic fixtures by a property owner who was not required by law to do so, said Jack Rubens, an attorney who is on the conservancy board and negotiated with the retailer. "We believe that it is unprecedented," he said.

Described as a cathedral of commerce when it opened, the building on Wilshire Boulevard just east of Vermont Avenue was designed--down to its radiator covers and drinking fountains--to project an aura of modern luxury. The structure's famous rose marble interior walls and Moderne-style murals remain intact, as does its granite and copper exterior. But its windows are boarded up and most rooms are ghostly empty.

Rubens and Wollam on Tuesday visited the returned fixtures, which are being stored primarily in crates and boxes in Bullocks Wilshire. Like greeting old friends, Wollam enthusiastically inspected such items as brass wall lamps decorated with sculptures of swans, a brass clock and a companion urn that used to grace a mantle in a second-floor French-style salon, and a large brass flower-like chandelier that formerly hung in a first-floor sportswear department. Groups of Art Deco and Empire-style chairs were locked up in fenced storage rooms.

"This is more than fun," Wollam said, peering into boxes. Yet she added that "the real moment of triumph will come when the people of Los Angeles see this all back in place."

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