The doors of the old department store are opening once again to anxious patrons. The owners of another old department store building are drawing grand dreams for its future. And down the street, the whine of an electric saw signals yet another renovation.
A few more people are strolling along Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile district, maybe stopping in Johnie's for a cup of coffee or lingering by the statue of the prehistoric mom mired in the La Brea tar pits.
"You've come full-circle on the Miracle Mile," said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "At one time it was a very, very attractive destination. It went into decline, but all of a sudden it's starting to come back."
For years, the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard from Fairfax to La Brea avenues has been home to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries. Then this summer, within one week, the Petersen Automotive Museum opened in the old Ohrbach's department store and the Museum of Miniatures opened down the street.
The Craft and Folk Art Museum, closed since February, 1993, is scheduled to reopen after renovations are finished in March. And now, officials of the Los Angeles Children's Museum say they hope to move from downtown to part of the old May Company department store property recently purchased by the Museum of Art.
Officials hope the concentration of museums boosts the local economy. Museum patrons, who are often on a flexible schedule, are "impulse buyers" likely to stop at another museum, restaurant or store, Kyser said.
"When you're going to a museum, you're not time-constrained," he said. "You don't want to rush."
And merchants hope the increased pedestrian traffic will help spur the area's economic recovery.
"Having a cultural center is a tremendous magnet," said John Murphy, executive director of the Miracle Mile Chamber of Commerce. "It's a huge attraction, both for tourists and for people who live in L.A."
Pedestrians once crowded Wilshire to shop, maybe heading from Ohrbach's to the May Company tearoom or a local eatery. When Barbara Castro started waiting tables at Johnie's Coffee Shop Restaurant 23 years ago, waitresses kept busy serving store employees on lunch break and customers carrying shopping bags.
Chamber of Commerce President Steve Kramer remembers growing up on 6th Street--and braving his parents' wrath by crossing Wilshire to the Thrifty's soda fountain. "It was a place to acquire baseball cards," he said. "It was pretty significant."
But like many urban shops and department stores, the businesses struggled with changing times and tastes--shopping malls boomed in the suburbs, ravaging downtowns. Ohrbach's closed in 1986. The May Company tearoom shut down in 1991--anguished patrons protested by threatening to cut up their charge cards--and the rest of the store closed two years later.
A Thrifty's has been long gone. And even those longtime residents who are keeping score lost count of the times the old International House of Pancakes--now an Indian restaurant--changed hands. Johnie's is down from nine to four waitresses, and its owners have struggled to keep that many.
"For a while it was getting very bad, a lot of graffiti" around the vacant department store buildings, said Johnie's owner, George Medenas.
But even as the department stores were withering away, new office buildings were rising on the Miracle Mile. The opening of the Wilshire Courtyard office complex in 1988 helped spark a revival, luring businesses looking for a central location between Hollywood, downtown and the rest of the Westside, Kyser said.
Publications including Variety and the Hollywood Reporter now have offices on the Miracle Mile, and Motown Records is planning a move there from Hollywood at the end of the year, Murphy said.
A Alpha-Beta grocery store is scheduled to open on Wilshire by the end of the year. Castro, the Johnie's waitress, is already noticing a few new faces stopping in for a lunch special or a cup of coffee.
Business leaders and residents had that in mind when the department stores closed, said Lyn MacEwen Cohen, president of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. The group fought to save the May Company and Ohrbach's buildings, enlisting the support of County Supervisor Ed Edelman.
"Without his support and the county taking a chance, it wouldn't have happened," MacEwen Cohen said.
The county helped finance the purchase and renovation of the Ohrbach's building for the automotive museum, which is a branch of the county Natural History Museum. The County Board of Supervisors in 1992 approved $28.5 million in tax-exempt financing for the Petersen, although the museum's private fund-raising arm is required to pay off most of the bonds.