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Lofty Designation for a Downtown Garage

A structure that helped propel L.A.'s car culture gains landmark status. It's been converted to rentals, with a familiar beef: too little parking.

August 07, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

It's where the car was crowned king 80 years ago in Los Angeles.

So on Friday, an eight-story Beaux Arts building on downtown's Grand Avenue was granted historic landmark status by the state. The vote by the Historical Resources Commission, which called it "a rare early example of a parking garage," clears the way for one of America's first parking structures to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The garage was built with much fanfare in 1924 as part of a campaign to reduce traffic gridlock and parking headaches that plagued the then-bustling downtown shopping and financial districts.

Since then, the structure has traced the ups and downs of downtown, including the slow decline of its banks and department stores after World War II. The recent resurgence of the central city as a place for people to live as well as work is once more reshaping downtown -- turning yesterday's garage into today's luxury lofts.

As preservationists Friday were praising the building's contribution to Los Angeles car culture, workers were finishing its conversion into residential units that will cater to those who have given up commuting downtown by car from the suburbs.

But the first tenants at the 49 new lofts created where Studebakers, Hupmobiles and Ford coupes were once housed had a familiar concern: a shortage of parking spaces.

"There's an irony here," said tenant Kevin Hooks, who has traded a commute from Marina del Rey for life in an airy new loft at 816 S. Grand Ave. The marketing company executive and his wife, Sarah, a physician who is expecting the couple's first child, are paying an extra $75 a month for one of the few parking spots that remain in the building.

The parking garage was the product of the booming Los Angeles of the 1920s. In a time before freeways and suburban malls, automobiles and streetcars jostled for space downtown as people banked on Spring Street, caught a movie on Broadway and window-shopped amid the grand department stores of 7th Street.

In 1923, the Downtown Business Men's Assn. had recommended the construction of parking garages after a survey found that "patrons who come in automobiles purchase more than five times as much in value than do customers who come by streetcars or on foot," as an account in The Times put it.

At the same time, Mayor George Cryer urged that parking garages be constructed downtown for safety reasons.

"The constantly increasing number of accidents and fatalities is appalling," Cryer said, laying out a series of traffic-flow proposals that included a phase-out of on-street parking.

The Grand Avenue garage was a standout when the prominent local architectural firm of Curlett & Beelman designed it in 1923. The idea was to make the building blend in with other storefronts, offices and hotels that then lined the street.

"It's particularly poignant in Los Angeles, since we have such a love for the car," said Trudi Sandmeier, a historic-building preservationist with the Los Angeles Conservancy, on the garage's new designation.

"When they built this, there was a real attention to making sure there was a continuity of the streetscape. You didn't see an ugly parking structure -- this building had windows and decorative details that made it look like a regular building. It was designed to fit in."

Because the site was narrow, there was no room for angled ramps that could take automobiles to upper parking levels.

So architects designed the garage around a huge freight elevator that was sturdy enough to hold two cars at once.

The Grand Avenue garage was a sensation when businessman Ken Stoakes opened it to the public.

By 1925, he was touting the structure in newspaper ads as a "fireproof garage" where a 50-cent parking fee could save motorists the cost "of a $10 body repair bill if you park along the curb" in the downtown area.

The garage was soon used by valets from the Bullock's department store on 7th Street. Customers making purchases of $1 or more parked free for two hours, and uniformed Bullock's attendants delivered their cars to the structure for them. Customers could shop longer for an additional 5 cents per hour.

As downtown's retail district began to flag after the war, the parking garage changed as well.

It was purchased by Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. for employee use in 1950 and was configured for 260 cars. Parts of it were later used for storage, offices and, for a time, unauthorized work space for artists.

San Francisco-based Martin Building Co. has spent about two years and $10 million on the building's latest incarnation, called South Park Lofts.

Because the building used elevators instead of ramps, its concrete floors are level and usable for residential space.

Acid etching and polyurethane application have erased decades of motor oil and skid marks and made the floors glossy and colorful again.

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