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An Icon Reborn

The venerable May Co. building gets a new life as LACMA West.

October 18, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic

Symbolism isn't everything, but it can be crucial to public perceptions. Consider the gold mosaic-covered cylinder on the former May Co. at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. The mammoth "perfume bottle" is the landmark feature of the 1939 Streamline Moderne-style building, but it grew increasingly dingy and pockmarked in the years of decline leading to the closure of the department store in 1993--one year after the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles declared the building a historic cultural monument.

In an ambitious and encouragingly farsighted move, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art purchased the property in 1994, but the cylindrical corner piece continued to deteriorate. And the building looked more pitiful with every passing day. Each falling tile intensified doubts that the once-proud building--at the west end of the commercial district known since its glory days as the Miracle Mile--could be transformed into a thriving cultural center.

But now the sorrowful eyesore has been restored to its original gleaming splendor and, yes, that means something important is going on inside. The five-story building has a new life as LACMA West. Renovated to expand the facilities and enhance the program of the neighboring museum, the former department store also provides a desperately needed satellite for the venerable Southwest Museum, which maintains a world-renowned but underexposed collection of Native American art in its Spanish Revival headquarters in Mount Washington.

The public will get its first look at LACMA West next Sunday. Much work remains to be done on some of the upper floors, but most of the first floor--the primary public exhibition and education space--is up and running.

The long-awaited event--together with renovations of the museum's plaza and grounds--enhances the Wilshire Boulevard institution's position as the city's "cultural village green," said Andrea Rich, president and CEO of LACMA. Programs to be presented at LACMA West--including the inaugural mix of Native American, African and Egyptian material--will allow the museum to better serve its culturally diverse community, she said.

Uplifting as the exterior restoration of the famous "perfume bottle" may be, it doesn't prepare visitors for the dramatic change of the interior. The county museum, which purchased the building for $18.3 million, has put about $3 million into improving the infrastructure and adapting the building to its new use. The Southwest Museum has raised more than $1 million to build its display space, conserve and document its collection, and produce publications on the first exhibition, featuring Pueblo and Navajo textiles.

The money shows. Visitors who expect to see makeshift changes in a 60-year-old department store will be surprised to enter an entirely new ambience, designed by Kirkpatrick & Associates Architects of Santa Monica. The Southwest's space was designed by architect Chris Carradine.

"You have a real icon in this building," architect Grant Kirkpatrick said. "Of all the uses that could have been made of it, this is the best-case scenario."

Rather than trying to create "a '90s version of the Art Deco or Streamline Moderne building," the renovation "pays respect to it," Kirkpatrick said. "Making an insertion of the new into the old," he created a new complex of spaces while preserving the original structure. Numerous columns, which might have been an obstruction, seem to disappear, but they are simply hidden by new walls that "dance in and out of them," he said.

The architects had an acre--about 43,000 square feet--to work with on the first floor. The central feature of Kirkpatrick's scheme is a broad concourse stretching between the front and back entrances that serves as a pathway to three large galleries and a children's art workshop. Plans call for the addition of retail kiosks along the central walkway, but the centerpiece--an information and ticket booth--is complete.

This "welcome center" is a soaring cylindrical form that echoes the gold shaft outside. The tower-like booth is clad in translucent material, creating a luminous presence that replicates the glow of the gold tiles. Translucent panels along walls of the promenade lighten the ambience and allow visitors to see into the galleries, while recalling the play of transparency and solidity that characterizes Art Deco design, Kirkpatrick said.

The majority of space on the first floor is devoted to the galleries and workshop. One gallery, a 9,000-square-foot space for temporary exhibitions presented by LACMA, will not begin operating until Jan. 17--the opening of "Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum," currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

But there's plenty for visitors to see, even without Van Gogh. And now's a good time--before the arrival of the expected crowds, although the museum is planning an orderly queue through the back door throughout the run of the blockbuster.

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