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Batchelder tile prompts dreams of sweet future for L.A. building

At the site of a former chocolate shop in downtown L.A., a businessman rips out plywood arcade stalls to uncover Dutch-themed tile murals by noted master Ernest Batchelder. In addition to a new chocolate shop, a restaurant and Arts and Crafts studio are envisioned.

August 01, 2012|By Nita Lelyveld and Aida Ahmad, Los Angeles Times
  • Exuberant businessman Charles Aslan sits amid murals by Ernest Batchelder at what began as a chocolate shop in 1914 in downtown Los Angeles.
Exuberant businessman Charles Aslan sits amid murals by Ernest Batchelder… (Christina House, For The…)

For years, people went looking for Los Angeles Historical-Cultural Monument No. 137: a Dutch-themed hot chocolate shop that was one of Ernest Batchelder's earliest commissions.

They came to a worn-looking building on West 6th Street downtown expecting to see the Arts and Crafts master tile-maker's murals of Dutch maidens in wooden clogs.

What they found instead was a small, drab arcade, with stalls selling bargain vitamins, perfume, jewelry and hats.

Tile was visible on the ceiling and walls, poorly lighted by fluorescent bulbs. But the stalls had plywood walls where the murals should have been, and there was no way to see what was behind them.

Then a few months ago, a new proprietor, Charles Aslan, ripped out the arcade, uncovering a nearly completely intact Los Angeles treasure.

"It's certainly one of the most beautiful and extravagant tile interiors in Los Angeles or anywhere," said Ken Bernstein, manager of the city's Office of Historic Resources. "It's a remarkable example of the use of ceramic tile and a preeminent example of Batchelder's work."

Here were tiled pillars and groined arches in hues of rich caramel, butterscotch, chocolate brown. Here were the murals — of sailing ships, windmills and canals, of Dutch women in bonnets, knitting and carrying jugs; of Dutch men in ballooning trousers, out with their oxen. Here were statues of a Dutch boy and girl blowing bubbles, the bubbles actually colored-glass lamps.

And here was Aslan not just revealing the tile, but promising to revive the hot chocolate shop that first opened in 1914.

The funny thing was that Aslan hadn't come to the building for Batchelder. The exuberant businessman, born in Singapore, had only recently learned who Batchelder was.

But soon this man who once sold over-the-top factory furniture from an open lot on La Cienega Boulevard was expressing his devotion to the Pasadena artisan who epitomized the handmade.

"The whole building is going to be Batchelder," Aslan said proudly of the 25,000-square-foot, four-story structure he has leased for the next 131/2 years.

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Aslan, 53, actually has eclectic dreams for 217 W. 6th St. — hot chocolate and sweets on the first floor, a restaurant on the second, some sort of Arts and Crafts studio on the third, possibly producing tile.

He sees downtown residents seated at a hot-chocolate bar, being served fine hot cocoa by waitresses wearing sarongs. He sees the patrons settling in for hours to enjoy desserts, organic juices, free wireless service and live lounge music.

He imagines fulfilling the ambitions of the shop's original owners by creating a chain of chocolate shops, each celebrating a different place in the world.

And he hopes to reopen a bricked-up passageway into the adjoining Spring Arcade Building and open a Dutch chocolate gift shop and a health food store there.

The plan's a little all over the place, perhaps, and he doesn't yet have the cash to make it happen. But that's Aslan.

Raised in Singapore and Hong Kong, he came to Los Angeles at 13 and dropped out of school at 16. By then, he says, he was making serious money, working in the family's swap-meet-centered electronics business. They bought electronics cheap, rebuilt and resold them. They had all the major brands.

"We were the king of electronics," he says. "We sold car stereos, home stereos, 4-tracks, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs."

Later, he ran a downtown paper and printing business. Then in 1992 he took an overnight leap into furniture, helping an old friend sell the contents of a shipping container. Aslan rented a lot on La Cienega, between Pico Boulevard and the 10 Freeway, and lined up his wares, mostly decorative pieces from the Philippines.

"I pull out a carousel horse, a guy in a Porsche pulls up, slams on the brakes. He says, 'How much?' I go, '$7,000.' He says, 'When can you deliver it?' So I call up the supplier and say, 'Send me a whole container of carousel horses,' " recalls this merry-eyed, balding and mustachioed bear of a man, before launching into a belly laugh that lasts a whole minute.

More horses arrived, along with "controversial figurines" — of black beggars, waiters and jockeys.

He called his new venture Going, Going, Gone and delights in recounting his sales pitches.

Every item was one of a kind. Every item was marked down. Each price was about to go up. Buy it now or forever lose your chance.

Before long, he says, he was getting 40-foot containers from 10 countries.

"I had figurines, I had European bronzes, I had silver malachite candelabras, I had antiques, rustic, iron, fountains, redwood, garden furniture — the list is endless," he says, bursting into laughter again. "And I was the first, I was the first to do that."

Soon, he had multiple stores, rented month to month. He'd "saturate an area," he says, then move on.

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