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COVER STORY

L.A.'s invisible builder

Long overlooked, Welton Becket is getting his due.

March 06, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

It is a gray day at Parker Center, the nearly 50-year-old headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, and cops and customers alike shuffle glumly across a much-scuffed terrazzo floor. The place seems entirely glee-free on this recent morning until Chris Nichols, a chunky 31-year-old preservationist with a bow tie and a wide grin, steps through the front doors like a child entering the See's factory.

"It's just freakishly intact," whispers Nichols, scanning the walls and ceiling. "Corporate Modern things like this get such a bad rap. But look at this. It's like a World's Fair!"

*

This is what it means to be bonkers for Welton Becket. And this is why, in coming days, scores of the architect's admirers will celebrate his centennial (several months late) by taking to the streets to marvel at his many works.

Between 1933 and his death in 1969, Becket and his architectural firm's staff designed dozens of corporate and civic landmarks in Los Angeles and hundreds more around the world. Finding his work on this city's skyline is like finding a Volkswagen on the freeway or Hal Holbrook playing the president on a late-night television drama: You may not be looking for him, and he may not look exactly the same every time, but there he is. And there, and there and there.

Becket's firm designed the Music Center (1964-67) in downtown Los Angeles, along with the General Petroleum Building at Sixth and Flower streets -- the largest office building in Southern California when it went up in 1947. (Now it's being converted into lofts.) His firm's name is on the Capitol Records building (though staffer Louis Naidorf gets credit for the cylindrical shape) and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood (now known as Arclight's Cinerama Dome).

Becket master-planned the vast Century City complex beginning in 1959. He laid out the Beverly Hilton (1955) and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (1958-59), and gave Bullocks Pasadena (1947, now Macy's) a stately, automobile-conscious home that some architectural historians credit for largely creating the postwar suburban department store as a building type. He co-designed the much-loved Streamline Moderne Pan-Pacific Auditorium (since burned and razed) in 1935, and 26 years later collaborated with Charles Luckman, William Pereira and Paul Williams on LAX's spider-legged Theme Building

Despite this enormous output, Becket's work hasn't always gotten much respect. At Parker Center, which Becket designed in 1955, police officials have been lobbying for demolition and reconstruction for at least six years, arguing that the existing structure is hopelessly outdated. In the most recent edition of the authoritative "Los Angeles: An Architectural Guide," authors Robert Winter and David Gebhard cautioned that "as with most Corporate Modern buildings of the 1950s and 1960s," Parker Center "has not aged well."

But when Nichols and his modernist brethren look upon Parker Center, they delight in the dozen blue-tiled columns out front, the brass fixtures, the glass walls, the 20-foot vertical louvers in the lobby, and the specially commissioned bronze in front by Bernard Rosenthal and mosaic tile mural inside by Joseph Young. They see an architect at the peak of his career, defining what modern Los Angeles will look like.

And at a time of growing designer nostalgia for the mid-century look-- indeed, separating the earnest appreciators and kitsch-collecting appropriators is no easy job --Becket is ripe for rediscovery.

"Welton Becket's greatest buildings are as much a part of Los Angeles as Christopher Wren's are of London," writes Alan Hess, author of "Googie" and "Viva Las Vegas," in a new essay for the Los Angeles Conservancy. Becket's buildings, Hess suggests, "cannot be divided from the way we see or think of L.A."

The centennial of the architect's birth came in August, and a clutch of Becket's family, friends and admirers gathered at Trader Vic's to celebrate. But for the activists of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee, something more public seemed in order.

And so on Tuesday, the ModCom invited Becket family members and friends to join the public for a lecture by Hess, a round-table discussion and several film clips at Arclight's Cinerama Dome.

On Saturday, organizers have arranged tours of three key Becket projects -- Bullocks (now Macy's) Pasadena, the Music Center, and the Post-War House at Wilshire Boulevard and Highland Avenue -- linked by a booklet that proposes self-guided driving routes past more Becket buildings.

On Sunday, about 55 big-ticket donors to MOCA and the conservancy will take a daylong bus tour (which by late February had a long waiting list) designed to explore commercial architecture of the city and Becket's central role.

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