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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

Opulent Building Brought the Arts to Downtown

March 14, 2004|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

In a downtown dedicated to commerce during the boom years of the 1920s, the notion of a building devoted exclusively to the arts must have caused some astonishment.

And yet there it was -- the Fine Arts Building, designed in 1926 by architects Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen, who also created such well-known structures as the Oviatt Building downtown, the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills and the El Cortez Hotel in San Diego.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Then and Now -- The L.A. Then and Now column in the March 14 California section mistakenly stated that architect Brenda Levin's restoration credits included the downtown Oviatt Building. The job was handled by Group Arcon/the Kudrave Partnership.

The building, near 7th and Flower streets, was filled with artists' residences, workshops and galleries: a dozen stories of Romanesque Revival, with a facade reminiscent of 12th century Italian architecture, adorned with twisting columns and windows under heavy eyebrow-like arches.

The fired clay called terra cotta -- meaning "burnt earth" -- was much in vogue during the 1920s as a fireproof, waterproof, affordable and easily workable material. It was used generously in the Fine Arts Building, to render such stylized figures as a clergyman, a warrior and a scholar in the arched recesses of the entranceway. It was also used in the building's fanciful bestiary of griffins and gargoyles.

When the building opened on Dec. 8, 1926, lightning, shrieking winds and pelting rain could not keep away a crowd estimated at 27,000. They gawked at the ornate facade, at the dazzling three-story lobby, specially fitted with 17 bronze-and-glass cases for displaying the artist-tenants' handiwork. Artisans and artists inhabited upper-floor lofts.

The Times called it "a tribute to the awakening interest in art among Southern California residents and organizations."

The tiled walls installed as an ornamental backdrop now command as much admiration as the art itself once did. They are the work of Ernest A. Batchelder, a critical force in the Arts and Crafts movement that hit Southern California after the beginning of the century. By the 1920s, Batchelder had become the nation's premiere designer of decorative tiles, and the creations of his Pasadena kilns were an indispensable part of Southern California design.

The murals and paintings in the lobby were created by A. B. Heinsbergen, who has works in the state Capitol, the city halls of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills and hundreds of movie houses.

Burt William Johnson, a Claremont sculptor, designed the figures of "Sculpture" and "Architecture" that lounge at opposite ends of the facade's third-story cornice.

Johnson suffered heart problems while work on the building was underway. To complete his labors on the facade and foyer's statuary, he ordered a lift to be rigged to hoist him aloft in his wheelchair.

With the help of sculptor and future USC art professor Robert Merrill Gage, Johnson completed the 12-foot panel "Inspiration" and the figure of a young girl, modeled after his daughter, Cynthia Mae, kneeling beside a pond, holding a wriggling fish. Johnson died at age 37, three months after the building opened.

The Fine Arts Building could not fight off the forces of commerce. Over the years, beginning in 1930, it was bought and sold, and its changing names attested to its revised purpose: the Signal Oil Building, the Havenstrite Building and the Global Marine Building.

For decades, its swank penthouse offered roomy lairs to its long-time owner, wildcatter-miner-sportsman Russell Easton Havenstrite. Its ground floor was eventually anchored by the Bank of Italy, the forerunner of Bank of America, and the Pig 'n Whistle restaurant, part of a chain of restaurants that began in San Francisco at the turn of the century.

In the early 1980s, the building was exquisitely restored by developer Ratkovich Bowers & Perez under the direction of architect Brenda Levin, whose restoration credits include the downtown Oviatt and Bradbury buildings, Los Angeles City Hall and the Wiltern Theater-Pellissier tower at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. The work restored the building to its showcase status -- honored in 1974 -- as a cultural historical landmark.

To lend some class to the re-christened Fine Arts Building, chef Joachim Splichal made his first splash, opening the Seventh Street Bistro in 1984. Two years later, the restaurant was used as the backdrop in "Legal Eagles," a romantic comedy starring Robert Redford and Debra Winger.

Although the Bistro was later replaced with the current Italian restaurant Ciao Trattoria, Splichal's presence continued to grow with his other restaurants, including Patina at Disney Hall.

Last year, the 12-story, 107,000-square-foot landmark Fine Arts Building was sold for $12.7 million to a Beverly Hills real estate investment company.

Although no artists now call the building home, it does house several architectural firms.

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