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SURROUNDINGS / WILSHIRE BOULEVARD

Miracle Mile Was a Stretch of the Imagination

Not many thought A.W. Ross could turn farmland into a premier shopping and business center. But he did.

September 16, 2004|Regine Labossiere | Times Staff Writer

Some people thought A.W. Ross was crazy when he said he could turn 18 acres of farmland dotted with barns and cows into one of the nation's premier shopping and business centers. In fact, they said it would be a miracle.

In the late 1920s, Ross got his miracle and named a mile after it, the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard between La Brea and Fairfax avenues that holds the highest concentration of Art Deco buildings left in Los Angeles.

"It's one of those wonderful L.A. stories of people who came here

"Here he was, luring businesses from downtown to this area. Everybody thought he was crazy."

Art Deco is characterized by geometric shapes, Greek, Roman and Middle Eastern themes, terrazzo flooring, bright colors and rising sun and banana leaf patterns. Various L.A. artists and developers imported the style from a 1925 Paris exposition. And within several years, Art Deco had become the city's signature style of architecture.

The Miracle Mile immediately became a Los Angeles shopping hot spot. It boasted some of the city's most fashionable department stores, and over the 1950s and '60s, more modern office towers were added. It marked a major step in the city's march westward and the slow decline of the downtown commercial district.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Desmond's Building -- An article in Thursday's California section about Wilshire Boulevard said the Desmond's Building is between Dunsmuir and Cochran avenues. It is between Dunsmuir and Burnside Drive.

The Miracle Mile has seen its ups and downs in recent years, but some of the most striking examples of Ross' original Art Deco theme can still be seen. Among the many landmark buildings that remain are Desmond's, the Dominguez Wilshire Building and El Rey Theater.

Desmond's Building

At 5514 Wilshire Blvd., between Dunsmuir and Cochran avenues, it was the first office and retail building Ross brought to the area.

Ross, who had found success in the retail industry downtown, wanted to make the Miracle Mile a retail center for the affluent and fast-growing Westside and Beverly Hills. He hoped the design of this building would set a dramatic tone.

In 1929, Ross completed construction on the building, which was anchored by Desmond's, a popular men's clothing store at the time.

In typical Art Deco form, the Desmond's name is embedded in the building facade and around the top of the 11-story Wilshire Tower. The terrazzo flooring reaches out of the entryway into the sidewalk, as if to draw in passersby. The sidewalk -- designed to complement the interior's decor -- is feet upon feet of large brick red squares.

In the 1920s and '30s, when Art Deco architecture was most popular, the more affluent families owned automobiles. Husbands and chauffeurs would drop off the wives and daughters in the back of the shop, where there was ample parking and a driveway. Therefore, the back's facade also had to be created just as beautifully as the front.

At the back entranceway, there are white panels on top of the door and windows, with an Egyptian design and falling banana leaf motif.

Dominguez Wilshire Building

Completed in 1931, it was one of the largest retail spaces on the Miracle Mile, and was restored during the last 10 years.

The entryway's terrazzo also descends to the sidewalk to attract pedestrians into the stores that used to be there. The sidewalk is "bruised" with green and in a concrete-block pattern, distinguishing itself from the city's plain sidewalk.

When the building at 5410 Wilshire Blvd. used to be a shopping center, the lobby held large display windows to entice buyers to the second floor.

Now, what remains of the original Art Deco are the old-fashioned elevators with doors covered in an acid-edged pattern, a popular way to treat metal during the Art Deco era.

"It enhances the city of Los Angeles," said the building's program manager, Roland Bolger. "Cracks and crevices, original moldings ... it takes people into a different time."

Bolger said the building is historic for more than its ties to Art Deco. The land where the building sits was owned by the pioneering Dominguez family of the Dominguez Ranch and Dominguez Oil Fields Co.

The family owned 10 acres on Wilshire Boulevard, Bolger said, and wanted a building that would bear its name. The family's office was in the building as well as the Meyer Siegel department store. The Dominguez family left the building later and ownership changed hands many times.

El Rey Theater

Compared with the other buildings, it has the most extensive use of terrazzo flooring in the entryway; the yellow, pink and green concrete extends more than just a few feet outside the front door. The original aerodynamic ticket counter still greets visitors outside.

The theater, built in 1936, also is one of the few intact neighborhood cinemas left in the city. A registered historical landmark, the space served as a first-run movie house for 50 years, then as a Russian party room and finally was converted into a live music venue in 1994.

In regular Art Deco fashion, the multicolored neon sign rests vertically, high above the building front to advertise the theater's location at 5519 Wilshire Blvd.

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