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L.A.'s Reticent Relics

Downtown housing developers are uncovering treasures and problems from the past as they race to restore and convert dilapidated buildings.

November 27, 2005|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

Workmen cleaning out the long-abandoned, 19th century Douglas Building in downtown Los Angeles expected to find asbestos, lead and fire damage. What they didn't expect was a flood.

The repair team found 4 feet of cold water sloshing around in the basement next to a warren of tunnels. After workers pumped it out, a 30-foot-long, cast-iron steam engine emerged from the darkness. This workhorse of Victorian technology -- with its hulking 100-horsepower tubular boilers, brass fittings and original green paint still intact -- long ago heated the Douglas offices and the nearby Bradbury Building through the underground tunnels.

The steam engine was one of many surprises -- good and bad -- that developers have encountered during the rush to convert many of the city's oldest commercial buildings into lofts, apartments and condominiums. Amid this rubble of rehabs in downtown Los Angeles, a major challenge for builders is how to take advantage of century-old architectural finds while bringing the battered buildings up to current safety codes.

As demand for downtown lofts and condos continues to heat up, with some units selling for more than $1 million, small armies of construction workers are racing to restore some of the oldest buildings in the city. They are also uncovering immeasurable examples of the city's history, including forgotten designs from great architects, mementos from the once-thriving banking and theater districts, and even a hidden treasure trove of Batchelder tiles.

In the case of the Douglas Building, more than 30 years ago the fire department ordered the place closed, except for ground floor shops. A previous owner wanted to demolish it. But as the loft and condominium market heated up, developer Goodwin Gaw decided to turn the five-story structure, built in 1898, into 50 condos with underground parking and fancy new stores.

Architect Rocky Rockefeller was hired to transform the place. His first impression: "It had been run by pigeons and rats."

First, they sealed off the underground spring. The original builders created a cistern in the subbasement to collect water for the steam engine, but as Gaw's workers tried to reinforce the foundation it triggered even more flooding. The solution was to install permanent pumps, an unanticipated $100,000 expense, and to waterproof the basement with a polymer membrane so it could stay dry and become a garage.

There was still the problem of ventilating auto exhaust from the underground garage. Rockefeller decided to use a furnace flue in the basement, still caked with century-old coal soot, to run a new air duct to the roof to vent the carbon monoxide from the garage.

But the most pleasant surprise came when workmen pulled off the faded Eagleson's Big & Tall store sign, a fixture since the 1960s, and found "Douglas" etched deeply into terra cotta over the entrance.

"We were all shocked" the name was still there, Rockefeller said.

For all of its problems, the Douglas Building has a grand heritage. The original owner, Thomas Douglas Stimson, was a lumber baron-turned-real estate mogul, who at the close of the 19th century was as important in this city as billionaires Eli Broad and Philip Anschutz are today.

Born in the Midwest, Stimson made a great fortune in the lumber business before retiring here in 1890. But he quickly got involved in banking, built the most expensive mansion in the city and erected one of Los Angeles' first office towers.

He dreamed of another grand office complex at the northwest corner of Spring and 3rd streets and hired architect James Reid to design it. Reid was one of the West's hottest architects for his grand design a few years earlier of the Hotel del Coronado resort in San Diego.

Stimson suddenly died in 1898, but his family continued the project as a memorial. Reid's design followed a Romanesque Revival motif with carved stone, terra cotta and tan bricks, plus rounded corners and hundreds of double-hung windows, a prized amenity in the age before air conditioning. When the building opened, it commanded some of highest office rents in the city.

A century later, Rockefeller tried to retain some of the original design cues as he plowed through the debris. "We like to save beautiful things and find a way to make them work," he said.

He discovered that some of the original Douglas fir floors were intact but were covered with linoleum. The wood was painstakingly buffed and polished. Another delay came after the original hand-laid octagonal tiles were found under layers of linoleum and carpeting. The off-white tiles were badly discolored from glues, but workmen sitting on their knees restored them by shaving off one-fortieth of an inch with hand-held grinders, which cost an additional $50,000.

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