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Cultural designation of Tower Records building may be a scratch

Music fans would like to see the legendary former Sunset Strip record and video store be designated a local cultural resource. Trouble is, it's not old enough.

April 07, 2013|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Lindsey Ikuta of Gardena snaps a photo of the Tower Records store in West Hollywood in 2006, the year the record store chain filed for bankruptcy. For six years, music fans have been hoping the West Hollywood Historic Preservation Commission would designate the building as a local cultural resource, a first step toward someday turning it into a museum.
Lindsey Ikuta of Gardena snaps a photo of the Tower Records store in West… (Los Angeles Times )

The gaudy yellow-and-red signs have been painted over and the huge album cover posters that once covered the windows are long gone.

There's little left at the Sunset Boulevard street corner that speaks to the crowds that gathered here for free concerts by Elton John and Duran Duran or the faithful who sifted through the racks of vinyl or eight-track tapes inside.

Still, the West Hollywood Historic Preservation Commission would like to set the record straight and acknowledge the significance of the Sunset Strip's legendary Tower Records building.

They just don't know how to go about it.

For six years, music fans have been hoping the panel would designate the former retail record and video store as a local cultural resource, a first step toward someday turning the place into a museum.

The hope is that it would stand as a tribute to the blues, jazz and rock 'n' roll scene that for decades has defined the mile-and-a-half section of Sunset between Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

Trouble is, the squat, unassuming Tower Records building constructed in 1971 isn't old enough to meet federal and state criteria for such a designation. And after the record store chain filed for bankruptcy in 2006, the record and video inventory was sold off, the record bins ripped out, the hand-painted album covers removed and the Tower signs erased.

Without some remaining hint of what was once here, commissioners have concluded that it would not be possible to designate it a cultural resource. Instead, they agreed to see if the city attorney can figure out a way for West Hollywood to legally commemorate the old store at 8801 W. Sunset Blvd. and the effect it had on musicians, record labels and the Sunset Strip's club scene.

Those who support a museum say Tower was at the center of Los Angeles' mushrooming music industry for 35 years and was the site of more than a few epic concerts in its 40-space parking lot.

And even before Tower Records opened and became "a music beacon and gave the music industry a model for marketing," pop culture historian Domenic Priore said the site was home to a shop used by pioneering four-track stereo music cartridge inventor Earl "Mad Man" Muntz.

But Muntz and his early-day contributions won't help qualify the site for a cultural designation since his building is also but a memory, said Edward Levin, one of the commissioners.

Backers say a museum would recognize the rock scene that flourished starting in the early 1960s with Pandora's Box and later at the Whisky, the Roxy and more recently the Viper Room. It could also salute earlier clubs and night spots that proliferated in the 1930s and '40s, when Cafe Trocadero, Ciro's and Mocambo were open.

When the Doors, the Byrds and Frank Zappa performed on the strip in the 1960s, the area had already become a hangout for celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Bugsy Siegel and Humphrey Bogart, according to Priore, author of "Riot on the Sunset Strip: Rock 'n' Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood."

Priore and Jerome Cleary, a writer and stand-up comedian who has lived next door to the Tower Records site for about 28 years, filed the cultural resource application with the city.

If such a designation can't be granted, a monument at the edge of the site might be appropriate, commissioner Paul Rice said. He pointed to a marker on the sidewalk near 8524 Sunset Blvd., the fictional address of the private detective office that was featured in the TV series "77 Sunset Strip." That office was adjacent to Dino's Lodge, an Italian restaurant owned by singer Dean Martin.

The Tower Records site was sold to developers for a reported $12 million, but the proposed multimillion-dollar office and retail complex was never built, leaving the door open for a museum, backers hope.

But the site's owner, Centrum Sunset LLC, is opposed to a cultural resource designation, according to Nicki Carlsen, a lawyer for the company. The property was most recently used as a clothing store.

Others backing the cultural resource designation include Jen Dunbar, president of the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance, and 52-year-old Alfredo Flores, who as a Franklin High School student hung out at Tower Records on weekends.

"There was always something going on," Flores recalled.

Todd Meehan, who worked 20 years at Tower organizing in-store events, appeared before the commission wearing his old Tower staff shirt and carrying a yellow Tower bag filled with mementos from a bygone era — including autographs of rock stars and film and television celebrities who shopped there.

Meehan said he welcomes the effort to turn the record store into a museum, although he remembers that Cleary was one of the most vocal opponents of the concerts and special events the record store staged over the years.

"I can get the sign companies to bring back the posters," he promised — not to mention the yellow-and-red Tower signs.

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