One of downtown Los Angeles' grandest buildings is nearly ready to make its second debut this century as an anchor for a business and commercial district in the heart of the city.
Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the building at Broadway and 4th Street, a former Broadway department store that has undergone one of the most extensive renovations and historic restorations in the city's history to convert it into a state office center, renamed the Junipero Serra Building.
For several weeks, state employees have been moving into the almost-completed building, relocating from other offices in and around Los Angeles. State and local officials will formally dedicate the site in about a month. The ceremony will mark the end of a three-year, $52-million project to rejuvenate one of downtown's worst eyesores.
The building went up in 1914 when the founder of the Broadway department store chain, English immigrant Arthur Letts, needed more space for his burgeoning business, which had opened on the same site in 1896.
This time the building is expected to play both a practical and inspirational role. Developers, city officials and historic preservationists say the 500,000-square-foot structure will provide reasonably priced office space for about 1,000 state workers while encouraging private businesses to return to the city's once-bustling core.
"I'm delighted that they're coming in. It's the best thing in the world for us," said Tom Gilmore of Gilmore & Associates, a downtown developer who paid $6.3 million for a block of buildings on 4th between Spring and Main streets, where he hopes to build 250 housing units and attract a variety of shops and restaurants.
Gilmore is one of many who would like to see the new office building serve as a catalyst for more reuse of moribund historic properties.
"It's going to be an important shot in the arm to the revitalization of Broadway," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. "We're hoping this investment by the state will lead to many private-sector investments."
When the store first opened, Bernstein said, "Broadway [the street] was where Los Angeles came to shop and play." It joined the Hamburger department store (later to become May Co.) and the original Bullock's already in the neighborhood. The street was lined with vaudeville houses, movie theaters, shops and restaurants and was "the most important commercial thoroughfare in the city," Bernstein said. A dozen historic theaters still survive along it.
By the time the current restoration project began in 1997, however, Broadway was part of one of downtown's most depressed districts, and the nine-story building that once housed the eponymous department store was among the most neglected commercial structures in the city. (The Broadway store had long since moved out.)
In the mid-1980s, the building was sold to a private developer who announced plans to convert it into offices, shops, restaurants and a health club. But the developer abandoned the building mid-project.
By all accounts, it was a mess when construction crews first stepped inside in March 1997.
Workers encountered 20 feet of water in the basement, where unfinished storm drains had allowed rainwater to collect, said Wayne Griffin, construction manager for Tishman Construction Corp. of California. Fires had scorched the interior, hypodermic needles and other debris were strewn about, windows were broken, and the outside of the building was marred by graffiti.
"We pumped water for probably a week or two before we got it all out," Griffin said. "Then it rained and we went through the whole process again." Finally, workers from Swinerton & Walberg Co. of Irvine, the construction contractor, cleared the basement of water and connected the storm drains.
According to Griffin, the mess in the basement was only one of the many problems that made the restoration anything but a run-of-the-mill project.
Restoring the building meant giving painstaking attention to detail and hour upon hour of tedious labor to preserve elements that could be saved. The sheet metal cornices protruding from the roof, for example, appeared to be intact when viewed from the street. Closer inspection, however, revealed they were paper-thin from rust and had to be replaced. A specialist in historic reconstruction, Oakland-based Preservation Arts, fabricated new cornices to match the old.
One of the most delicate and time-consuming tasks, Griffin said, was removing graffiti from the glazed terra cotta on the exterior. The trick was to remove the spray paint without removing too much of the glaze, because "once the glaze is gone, the terra cotta is ruined," he explained. To clean the graffiti, workers employed a low-pressure spray of powder-like glass beads--inspecting the work regularly with microscopes to ensure they weren't scratching off the glaze.