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COLUMN ONE

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

It stopped working in 2007, but even when he talks about liquidating, he's jolly. He put big ads in the paper that read, "Stick a fork in me, I'm done" and "Rule No. 1: Bring checkbook in hand. Rule No. 2: Check Rule No. 1."

After that came the messy end of a marriage, a long fight in family court, a life at loose ends. Aslan traveled. He found jobs where he could.

He was struggling to find work last year, as a family court judge had ordered, when fate led him to 6th Street.

::

Aslan likes a good tale. This is how this one goes:

He and his sister were walking in Pan-Pacific Park when they ran into their aunt, who managed some buildings their uncle owned downtown. The aunt said she had space available.

Then Aslan got a call from a friend, looking to open an office for his online business: Helpstopforeclosurefraud.com. Aslan told his friend that if there was a job in it for him, he could broker a great deal on office space.

They took a $500-a-month stall in the arcade last December — and soon expanded to seven stalls.

During this time, they looked up the building, trying to uncover its history.

But just as Aslan got interested in Batchelder and what was behind those plywood walls, his friend skipped town, leaving him short more than $5,000 in rent. Then his aunt had a stroke that left her partly paralyzed and unable to manage the building. He stepped in.

Capitalizing on Batchelder seemed a way out of a fix and into a future, Aslan says. He convinced his relatives to give him some time rent-free, promising down the road to start paying serious money.

He now has a website, CountdowntoBatchelder.com, and hands out Dutch Chocolate Shop business cards and photo postcards of one of the murals.

He has hosted salons to talk tile history and open houses for the Downtown L.A. Art Walk.

He has embraced a downtown that is fast changing, warmly welcoming all the curious.

William Fisher, 62, a street singer who calls himself Wild Bill, wandered in one day. Now he's singing, with his puppet Sancho dangling from his guitar, at all of Aslan's events. A young fashion designer who lives in a nearby loft peeked in and decided this was the perfect spot to get married. Now Aslan is hosting her wedding in October.

"I'm open to downtown, whatever I can do to help," he says.

On a recent Art Walk evening, he stood by the sidewalk, calling out to passersby, "Welcome to the Dutch Chocolate Shop! The Batchelders!

"Relax! Have a drink!" he boomed, ever the pitchman. No drinks were actually on offer.

But people walked inside.

::

Old merges with new in the space on West 6th.

Old L.A., new L.A. Old Aslan, new Aslan.

While he tries to find investors and get permits, Aslan has filled the space with a friend's wares.

Here is an oil painting of dogs playing poker, another of the Eiffel Tower. Here are shiny benches made of huge, twisted tree roots, bronze angel lamps, gilded French-style commodes, reproduction papyrus scrolls. Most of it comes from Egypt, he says. All of it has yellow clearance tags — an astronomical price crossed out on top, a lower one below.

On a recent day, as a couple paused by the angel lamps, he couldn't resist a little patter. They'd be gone by tomorrow, prices only good today.

He'll try anything to further his grand plan, which is one reason he's been scouring archives.

Hot chocolate was a fad in 1914. After it faded, new enterprises filled the space. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the Health Cafeteria offered "the supreme flavor of wholesome natural foods, particularly vegetables and fruits," according to a 1927 ad. The Bragg family, which ran the cafeteria, is still in the health food business. Aslan is talking to them about one day carrying Bragg products — apple-cider-vinegar drinks, salad dressings, olive oil — in his health food store.

He also is clearly enjoying his new place in the world, meeting and greeting excited tile experts, urban explorers and L.A. history buffs.

At the Art Walk event, crowds moved through the space, reading the signs on the tile saying no touching, no photos: "PLEASE RESPECT THE DIAMOND OF THE WORLD."

"I like the architecture. It reminds me of 'Hugo,' " said Daniel Johnson, 22, of Silver Lake, a film editor, referring to Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning film.

Carla Sotelo, who studied Batchelder for her graduate degrees in art and historic preservation, was beaming.

"I came in 2006 when it was all boarded up, and let me tell you, I cried," she said. "They were selling socks and VHS tapes of bullfighters in here. I love this."

At a microphone, Aslan introduced himself, inviting everyone to the opening, which he said he hoped was just a few months off.

"We're going to have the best chocolate in town," he said.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

aida.ahmad@latimes.com

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