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3 Awards Honor Preservation in L.A.

October 19, 2000|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In recognition that the city's appreciation for its heritage is maturing, two venerable Los Angeles architectural landmarks and the local group that helped save them for posterity have been honored by America's chief preservation organization.

The timing couldn't have been better: On the eve of its annual conference in Los Angeles, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has bestowed awards on the restored Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, on Southwestern University School of Law for its restoration-conversion of the former Bullock's Wilshire department store building, and on the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy, whose birth in 1978 is generally regarded as the start date of the city's organized historic preservation movement.

The Egyptian and the Bullock's Wilshire building won national preservation awards; the Los Angeles Conservancy was honored for organizational excellence. Peter Brink, the National Trust's senior vice president for programs, said he could not recall another occasion when one city received three preservation awards in a single year from the Trust.

"We didn't plan it that way," Brink said. It's because the Wilshire is just a marvelous save and rehabilitation. The Egyptian, the way they did the modern technology, was just superb. And the Los Angeles Conservancy, we had about a dozen applicants for that award this year, and they won it on the merits."

The awards will be presented at the Los Angeles Theatre on Nov. 2, when Los Angeles will be the site of the Trust's National Preservation Conference 2000 (Oct. 31-Nov. 5). It will be the first time L.A. has hosted the event.

Much as the demolition of Penn Station in 1963 sparked New York City's modern preservation movement, it was the proposed destruction of downtown L.A.'s Central Library 22 years ago that marked the Los Angeles Conservancy's debut as a significant urban player. The building was saved, and since then the conservancy has been instrumental in helping to save such historic structures as the 124-year-old St. Vibiana's Cathedral, the oldest surviving McDonald's restaurant in Downey, the Watts Tower sculptures and the Cinerama Dome Theatre in Hollywood.

It also offers walking tours of historic Los Angeles architectural districts, sponsors educational programs and publications and hosts the annual Last Remaining Seats film series in historic downtown movie theaters.

The conservancy is one of the principal organizers of the upcoming National Trust conference, whose scheduled activities will include many scheduled tours of historic L.A. buildings and neighborhoods.

"We feel this is very meaningful," Ken Bernstein, the conservancy's director of preservation issues, said of the award. "Los Angeles is a city that is frequently derided as a place with no history, where, in fact, L.A. has a very rich and remarkable built heritage, in many senses unrivaled anywhere in terms of the diversity of the types of the buildings and the diversity of our neighborhoods."

The silent film-era Egyptian was originally decorated in an opulent faux-Moorish style but was later redecorated with an Egyptian motif following the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb. The birthplace of the gala movie premiere, it led moviegoers through a row of columns on Hollywood Boulevard and into a fake-stone forecourt depicting scenes from Egyptian mythology.

But renovations in the 1940s and 1950s stripped away much of the theater's grandeur. In later years, vandals, pigeons, rain and the 1994 Northridge earthquake reduced the building to a rundown hulk. American Cinematheque, a nonprofit film preservation society that had been looking for a home since 1984, contracted to buy the building, which was restored in part with federal disaster funds following the earthquake, and reopened to the public in 1998. To make the auditorium state-of-the-art without disrupting its original design, Hodgetts + Fung Design Assn. created an innovative "high-tech cage" containing retractable acoustic panels, fire sprinklers, air conditioning, speakers and lighting. The theater now hosts a wide variety of film programs and other cultural events.

The Art Deco Bullock's Wilshire Building was for decades a magnet for L.A.'s elite shoppers, as well as a noir-ish icon of the city's literary consciousness in works such as Raymond Chandler's novel "The Big Sleep." Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable were among the glittering personages who would stop in to buy suits and stockings.

But after surviving the Great Depression, the 1929 building went into decline as up-market retail moved west to Beverly Hills and out to the suburbs. Following the 1992 riots, then-owner the Macy Co. closed the store--just as its next-door neighbor, Southwestern law school, was looking for a new structure to accommodate its recent growth and expansion. The Los Angeles Conservancy, the City Cultural Affairs Department and the Art Deco Society all aided in recovering light fixtures and custom-made furniture for the restored building.

"The building is an important restoration point in that whole Wilshire district," said university spokeswoman Carolyn Ziegler-Davenport. "It's really sort of the eastern anchor of the Wilshire center."

The National Trust's Brink said these three awards may indicate that perception is changing both locally and nationally. "I think L.A. has a number of gems that many outside don't know about," he said.

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