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Living Large

They Have Space to Spare and Architectural Allure. Will Downtown's Lofts Finally Become Hot Properties?

September 30, 2001|BARBARA THORNBURG

There was a time when the word "loft" automatically conjured up images of artists. And why not? Lofts had all that space and they were cheap. Like the $10 a month that Robert Rauschenberg is said to have paid in 1953 for his Fulton Street abode at the birth of Manhattan's loft movement, which spawned a way of life that spread to urban centers worldwide and has taken hold in four downtown L.A. neighborhoods.

There are 2,100 artists reportedly inhabiting today's downtown artist district, roughly bordered by the 101 freeway on the north, 7th Street on the south, Alameda Street on the west and the Los Angeles River on the east. There, in the late '70s, there was hope of a SoHo-West developing at the nexus of Traction Avenue and 3rd Street, and today a sense of neighborhood lingers in this small pocket, with its ethnic restaurants, equity-waiver theater, smattering of art galleries and corner general store.

Loft life is on the rise for all sorts of professionals in the city's historic core, with about 450 lofts in the once vibrant financial and cultural center enclosed by 3rd and 9th streets on the north and south and Main Street and Broadway on the east and west. Along Broadway, a dozen movie palaces recall downtown's early glory. On Spring Street, once banking central, the facades boast some of L.A.'s architectural treasures.

Even industrial Santa Fe Avenue has been reborn, home to pioneering residential spirits and now the Southern California Institute of Architecture. The avenue, which borders the Artist District in a post-apocalyptic warren of old garment and tire factories, barbed wire and chain-link fences, has few retail amenities. Run out of milk and there's no corner store. But SCI-Arc's new campus, at the corner of 3rd and Santa Fe in a quarter-mile-long railroad freight building, promises to act as a catalyst for development along a corridor that terminates at the Santa Fe Art Colony at 25th Street.

A favorite among loft devotees, North Main Street's The Brewery was developed in the early '80s and is still flourishing. Gone are the tanks that once produced Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. In their place are about 300 lofts in 21 industrial buildings of concrete, brick and corrugated metal. Only artists and those in arts-related fields can reside here, and there are amenities on-site, from catering services to camera rentals to film development, not to mention art galleries. San Antonio Winery, established in 1917, is two blocks away. It's a concentration of urban cool with a three-year waiting list.

Where once lofts were carved exclusively from old industrial spaces, today any building is fair game, from fire stations to churches. The appeal? Loft-dwellers cite wide-open spaces, high ceilings, the visceral thrill of exposed pipes and brick walls and the light coming through rows and rows of windows. There's even a bit of nostalgia; the buildings, erected at a time when downtown was the region's economic and cultural epicenter, resonate with history. There's also the attraction of space as a blank canvas. As one downtown loft enthusiast explained: "You can build an environment totally on your own terms. You're not inheriting someone else's vision." What follows is a more detailed look at loft life in four downtown areas.

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