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REAL ESTATE

Attorneys to do justice to Fine Arts Building

The new owners have long coveted the historic tower and plan to buy others.

May 27, 2008|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

One of the most venerated structures in downtown Los Angeles, a richly embellished Jazz Age office tower honoring the arts, has been acquired by two high-profile attorneys for $23.5 million.
The aptly named Fine Arts Building at 811 W. 7th St. is now owned by Brian Kabateck and Mark Geragos, who last week announced its purchase from a Denver real estate partnership. The Los Angeles lawyers plan to take over almost half of the space on the top floor and rent the rest of the space in the 12-story building to tenants.
Kabateck and Geragos, whose clients have included pop star Michael Jackson, have coveted the Romanesque Revival-style building for years, Kabateck said.

They already own and keep offices in a nearby former fire station built in 1912 known as Engine Co. No. 28. It has a restaurant of the same name on the ground floor, where some of the city's first motorized fire engines were once housed.

"After we bought Engine Co. we decided we loved older buildings," Kabateck said. "The real building we thought it would make total sense to own was the Fine Arts Building."

The Los Angeles Times called the Fine Arts Building "one of the finest business blocks in the Southland" when it opened in late 1926 with a private gala for thousands of guests.

The design reflected an era when sculpture was integrated into architecture as a way of expressing the meaning and purpose of a building, according to USC archives.

The builders hoped to attract tenants in arts-related fields, and elaborate display cases were built into the lobby to show off works by tenants, said architect Christopher Martin, a former part-owner and occupant of the Fine Arts Building whose family firm has been designing Los Angeles buildings since 1906.

"They thought the wealthy people who shopped on 7th Street would flock to it," Martin said.

The Fine Arts Building was designed by Los Angeles 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.

Claremont sculptor Burt Johnson, weakened from influenza and heart attacks, worked from a wheelchair to create several statues for the building, including a girl with a fish in the lobby and two giant figures representing Architecture and Sculpture that recline against ledges on the third story.

The front of the building is clad in terra cotta from the kilns of Gladding, McBean & Co., which decorated other local landmarks, including department store Bullocks Wilshire.

In the lobby is a vast assortment of tiles by Pasadena artist Ernest A. Batchelder, a leading figure of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century, and a mural by popular theater muralist Anthony Heinsbergen.

"It's an amazing example of great architecture on the interior and exteriors," said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. The Depression apparently put an end to the Fine Arts Building's reign as a cultural haven, Dishman said.

By 1933 it was known as the Signal Oil Building and went on to be called the Havenstrite Building and Global Marine House.

It was renovated in 1983 by developer Ratkovich Bowers & Perez and rechristened the Fine Arts Building.

Since then it's had a handful of owners, most recently Denver real estate investment company Alliance Commercial Partners, which paid $17.8 million for it in 2006.

One improvement the new owners plan to make is the opening of a ground floor restaurant in a space originally occupied in the 1920s by the Pig 'n Whistle and most recently by McDonald's.

"We want to bring in a high-end, notable restaurant," Kabateck said.

Kabateck has been in the news as the attorney who filed a class-action suit against AT&T Inc. for allegedly facilitating private investigator Anthony Pellicano's wiretapping schemes. He also represents actor Keith Carradine in a suit against Pellicano.

Geragos won an $18-million judgment this year from the owner of a celebrity jet service who secretly videotaped Michael Jackson talking with his lawyers.

Geragos and Kabateck, who maintain separate firms, will probably buy more buildings together.

"We are not stopping," Kabateck said.

"We have our eye on other historical buildings in the business district. We thoroughly believe in the ongoing revitalization of downtown and want to be part of it."

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roger.vincent@latimes.com

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