Developer Wayne Ratkovich had little idea 30 years ago when he and his partners bought an unwanted office building in downtown Los Angeles that a forgotten gem lay waiting.
The office market at the time was hot for glass and steel towers, and to hell with the old piles such as the Art Deco-style James Oviatt Building. The former UCLA football player in his 30s wasn't sure exactly what "Art Deco" encompassed.
What he uncovered was an architectural treasure that he proceeded to bring back to life. He profitably restored its Roaring '20s grandeur, and today the building at 617 S. Olive St. is home to many tenants including the retro-glam Cicada restaurant.
Once hooked on rescuing fading stars from the city's past, Ratkovich went on to revive several others including the landmark Deco-style Wiltern Theater and the elaborately decorated Fine Arts Building. His latest project is across Wilshire Boulevard from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Nearly complete, it is the resuscitation of a distressed 1970s skyscraper -- with a strictly 2008 front porch on its way.
Ratkovich's success also helped change the attitude of the local real estate industry, which had assumed for decades that newer buildings were always more profitable than old ones and cavalierly razed many of downtown's greatest buildings from earlier eras.
"Wayne and a few others including Ira Yellin showed us something that was right here under our noses. His projects helped bring people back to the traditional urban areas of Los Angeles," said competitor Dan Rosenfeld, who helped restore the frequently filmed Bradbury office building downtown that played a central role in the 1982 hit "Blade Runner."
Ratkovich is regarded as one of the pioneers along with Yellin and Gene Summers, setting the tone for sophisticated restorations of historic buildings in L.A. starting in the 1980s, even when it wasn't always profitable. Developer Tom Gilmore revved up the market again early in this decade with his successful conversions of old downtown office buildings to apartments.
Ratkovich's work earned him frequent accolades, but also proved humbling. Two large-scale projects in a row in the 1980s -- restorations of the Wiltern Theater building and Chapman Market in the Wilshire Center neighborhood -- were financial flops.
His company is private and finances are confidential, but Ratkovich acknowledges losing millions of dollars on those ventures even though the properties built in the 1920s and '30s were widely considered to be beautifully restored.
The losses were wrenching, yet Ratkovich successfully redeveloped several other projects including the Fine Arts Building downtown, the former C.F. Braun & Co. office campus in Alhambra and, most recently, a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise in Los Angeles built in the early 1970s that had lost its luster. Renovation of the 30-story tower at 5900 Wilshire is still underway, but improvements have already attracted several new tenants including the venerable entertainment industry trade publication Variety.
"Development is like oil wildcatting or farming," he said. "There are some good years and some that aren't so good."
Many of downtown's older buildings had already been knocked down when Ratkovich bought the Oviatt Building in 1977 because they were considered obsolete. A similar fate was perhaps in store for the Oviatt, which the Los Angeles Archdiocese wanted to sell after receiving title in a parishioner's will. Ratkovich acquired the former department store turned office tower for $450,000 and spent about $5 million to restore it before selling it for $13.5 million.
"That changed us," said Ratkovich, founder and president of Ratkovich Co. of Los Angeles. "We moved into the urban marketplace."
The 13-story Oviatt was one of the most sensational local buildings in an age when owners spent lavishly to distinguish their properties. A haberdasher to the city's elite and a dedicated Francophile, builder James Oviatt had persuaded the great French art glass craftsman Rene Lalique to make the Oviatt Building his first commercial project.
Lalique's etched glass work was found throughout the structure, from the entrance doors to the windows of Oviatt's deluxe personal penthouse and rooftop garden, which once included a small pool, tennis court, putting green and "beach" with sand imported from the Riviera.
Ratkovich grew up in less-glamorous circumstances. He was the youngest of six children born to immigrants from Serbia who settled in Alhambra soon after he was born. The family later moved east a few miles in the San Gabriel Valley. Ratkovich graduated from La Puente High School before attending UCLA on a football scholarship in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall, he played end on both offense and defense.