YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Tiki tacky? Not to fans of Trader Vic's

A developer's plan to say bye-bye to the home of the mai tai stirs patrons and preservationists.

April 07, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

It's hardly an architectural icon on the level of the Capitol Records Building or Cinerama Dome, both designed by the same firm. Nor is the place as historically important as, say, the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel.

But a plan to raze Trader Vic's Restaurant and Bar in Beverly Hills means Los Angeles could lose a place that helped spark the tiki bar craze in the 1950s and '60s, one that still draws a clientele of Hollywood royalty and architecture geeks for its campy, retro style.

Trader Vic's is part of the Beverly Hilton hotel. On March 31, owner Beny Alagem, the Israeli-born Packard Bell Electronics co-founder, announced a $500-million expansion plan that would level two buildings and a garage, along with Trader Vic's, to build condo and hotel towers. Alagem, who has said he wants to make the hotel more posh and competitive, bought the complex from Merv Griffin in 2003. His plan requires approval by the city of Beverly Hills.

Neighbors -- who have expressed fears about increased traffic at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards -- are not the only ones concerned.

The Los Angeles Conservancy, for instance, has taken an interest in the project. Ken Bernstein, the group's director of preservation issues, calls the place "one of the few examples of Polynesian-influenced architecture left in Southern California. The Polynesian / Tiki theme is undergoing a resurgence, and is more popular now than anytime since its heyday in the 1960s. We've asked the project team to look at alternatives."

The conservancy's executive director, Linda Dishman, met with a member of the Hilton's project team "to let them know that this was going to be an issue of significant public concern," says Bernstein, who adds that the Hilton's team was apparently "a little bit surprised" to hear it.

"We understand that a lot of people are fond of Trader Vic's," says Marie Garvey, a spokesman for Oasis West Realty, Alagem's firm. "But very few people frequent the restaurant. It's just not a viable business, and hasn't been for many years."

Alagem's new plan, she says, will bring the hotel back to Conrad Hilton's original conception, which she calls "the ultimate in modern luxury," although she didn't rule out moving the existing building to another location.

Trader Vic's and the hotel around it were built in 1955, designed by Welton Becket, a major Southland architect sometimes dismissed as an exemplar of corporate Modernism but who now commands a small architectural cult following, decades after his 1969 death.

Although it's early in the process and no outright war has been declared by preservationists, some are already angry. A chat room run by the conservancy's Modern Committee was full of bile directed at the project.

Some champion the place for its role in tiki history: The rum-based mai tai was invented in 1944 by founder Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron, at his Oakland Trader Vic's. Currently, there are 21 Trader Vic's worldwide.

Others are drawn to it for its place in Becket's oeuvre and life story.

"The Hilton and the Trader Vic's, the interiors and the exteriors, were all designed to be integrated," says architectural historian Alan Hess. "They were part of the 'total design,' which was the motto of the Becket office," by which everything from menus to landscaping were part of the same vision.

Hess calls the hotel project another potential example of how work by large 1950s firms, which remain underappreciated, is being lost. "The aesthetic is both more direct and cleaner than what usually replaces it these days. The planning was often very well done. This reinforces the trend of erasing a significant era of Los Angeles history."

Bruce Becket, Welton's son and himself a Los Angeles architect, says his father had "a very personal interest in Trader Vic's. It was a reflection of his friendship with Conrad Hilton. It was like home to him." Bruce recalls the family's weekly dinners there and the group his father drank with, which included Walter Pidgeon and Ronald Reagan.

Remarkably, the bar became a favorite watering hole of Reagan, and his kitchen cabinet, before and after his election as governor, and the hotel served as a Western White House for John F. Kennedy and his associates.

Trader Vic's was important enough to the architect that in 2002 a handful of Modernism enthusiasts and family members gathered in the restaurant's bar under puffer-fish lamps and bamboo ceilings to toast what would have been Becket's 100th birthday and plan a large centennial event at the Cinerama Dome.

The restaurant had another moment in the limelight recently when the California Nurses Assn. celebrated the November defeat of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's ballot initiatives with a Trader Vic's luau. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening stopped by for a drink.

Miramax Films often used the bar as a gathering spot, and after January's Golden Globe Awards, Scarlett Johansson, Kevin Spacey and Sandra Oh drank and danced there as part of a Weinstein Co. celebration.

That strong and well-placed following is in the building's favor, says Adriene Biondo, chairwoman of the conservancy's Modern Committee. She's getting calls and e-mails that express "a stunned and shocked reaction that something that's become a icon could be destroyed," she says. "I've gotten calls nationwide. It's not an issue that's going to go away."

Los Angeles Times Articles