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Storied West Hollywood studio buildings to be demolished

The studio lot, once owned by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, has had many names and housed many productions over the years. Its new owner intends to raze and replace several buildings.

March 26, 2012|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • The Pickford Building at The Lot movie studio in West Hollywood is scheduled to be torn down.
The Pickford Building at The Lot movie studio in West Hollywood is scheduled… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks worked there. So did Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and practically everyone else.

Soon, though, wrecking crews will be at work at the storied West Hollywood movie lot at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue.

Once known as the Warner Hollywood Studio, it's now called "The Lot." Its new owner, CIM Group, intends to raze its aging wooden office buildings and sound-dubbing stages and replace them with glass-and-steel structures.

According to West Hollywood planning officials, the first phase of work involves the demolition of the studio's Pickford Building — built in 1927 and remodeled in 1936 — and Goldwyn Building, which was built in 1932 and is used for sound editing.

Later phases will involve the removal of the studio's Writers Building, Fairbanks Building and Editorial Building and a block-long row of production offices that line Santa Monica Boulevard. Replacement buildings will rise to six stories.

The redevelopment plans have riled many in the entertainment industry, particularly those who know the studio from past film shoots and television programs.

"A lot of people have a lot of affection for the place," said Doug Haines, a film editor who has worked on movies there for two decades. "You really had a sense of history when you worked there. Another glass building — that certainly says 'Old Hollywood,' doesn't it?"

CIM Group executives declined to discuss details of their development plans.

Film and TV production companies that rent space at the studio say owners have let leases expire in buildings slated for demolition.

The studio was built in 1919 by silent-movie maker Jesse Hampton. A short time later, he sold the lot to screen stars Pickford and Fairbanks, who renamed the 18-acre place Pickford-Fairbanks Studio. It later became known as the United Artists Studio when the pair teamed up with Chaplin and D.W. Griffith to form United Artists.

Over the years, the now-11-acre lot was also called the Samuel Goldwyn Studio and the Warner Hollywood Studio.

The studio's old buildings are packed with tradition.

Legend holds that a tunnel once connected the soundstages to a bar across the street — the Formosa Cafe — so that stars like Errol Flynn could slip off for drinks between scenes without being pestered by fans.

Fairbanks had a steam bath and gym and is said to have had a private outdoor area where he could exercise in the nude.

Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, who kept an office at the studio during his movie-making days, had a secret garage he could wheel into from Santa Monica Boulevard and park without anybody noticing.

One studio building was said to be equipped with an ornate wooden door hand-built by Harrison Ford, who was working as a studio carpenter when he was "discovered" by filmmaker George Lucas.

Director Sam Peckinpah not only worked at the lot but lived there as well in the 1970s.

"Sam had a suite on the ground floor of the Writers Building right down the corridor from Mike Medavoy's office," recalled producer Katy Haber, who worked with Peckinpah on eight feature films at the studio. "He used one of the rooms as a bedroom."

Haber said Peckinpah loved the place.

"Working at a studio like that, you always felt you were part of it. It was a creative environment. I'm sad to see anything with an historical heritage torn down. The walls there speak multitudes. It's sad indeed: Developers aren't into aesthetics or history."

Although West Hollywood has described the studio as a landmark, officials have never taken action to formally designate it as one. A street sign on Santa Monica Boulevard in front of the studio calls it a "historic building." But smaller print on the sign labels it "Potential Cultural Resource No. 60."

West Hollywood senior planner David DeGrazia said that CIM Group intends to begin demolition in a few weeks and that construction will be done in six phases. The project will more than double the studio's space to 671,087 square feet, he said. Three new soundstages will join the seven that are now mostly used for production of the HBO vampire series "True Blood," according to plans filed with West Hollywood.

DeGrazia said the development agreement expires in March 2013, although he said CIM Group's position is that the agreement remains in place once construction of the first phase begins.

Complicating things is that the West Hollywood-Los Angeles city boundary slices through several sound-dubbing buildings on the south edge of the studio lot.

A nearby bungalow that Frank Sinatra used when he worked on the lot is on the Los Angeles side of the boundary. It is out of West Hollywood's jurisdiction, although the six-room structure is listed by DeGrazia as scheduled for demolition.

As part of the development agreement, CIM Group will preserve a wall-like facade that extends along Santa Monica Boulevard around Hughes' secret garage entrance.

Preservationists at the Los Angeles Conservancy said they have been asked to help get historic landmark status conferred on the whole studio to block the demolition.

"We've gotten calls from people who are concerned. The problem is it's an approved development. The West Hollywood City Council essentially has already approved the project," said Adrian Scott Fine, the conservancy's director of advocacy.

"Saving a facade is not preservation."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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