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Encore performances for two L.A. architectural landmarks

Critic's Notebook: The architecture of downtown L.A.'s United Artists Theatre, now part of the Ace Hotel, and the Forum was preserved when they were owned by two religious groups. They have new owners and new life as concert venues.

February 12, 2014|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Laugh all you want at those old public-access television clips of the late Dr. Gene Scott, the eccentric televangelist who sometimes wore two pairs of glasses at once and shouted at viewers to "Get on the telephone!" whenever his fundraising totals ebbed. He and his Los Angeles Universal Cathedral, operating from the 1927 United Artists Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, turned out to be surprisingly good friends to historic preservation.

And say what you will about the quixotic plan hatched in 2000 by Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of the Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood to turn the Forum, once home to Magic Johnson's "Showtime" Lakers and Wayne Gretzky's Kings, into a thriving combination of mega-church and high-end arena. It was precisely the ambition, even the folly, of that strategy that ultimately helped keep the 1967 Forum from falling into disrepair once the teams left for shinier quarters downtown.

As the United Artists Theatre and the Forum come back to life this winter as concert venues — the first as part of a new Ace Hotel on Broadway and the second run by the Madison Square Garden Co. — we have a rare chance to savor a victory in Los Angeles for architectural character and eccentricity over the forces of sleek homogenization.

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For decades the trend in concert-hall and movie-palace architecture in Los Angeles, even accounting for the triumph of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, had been pointing toward placeless design, efficient profit-making and stacked rings of luxury boxes. A remarkable architectural lineage that included the Hollywood Bowl, the Wiltern, Mann's Chinese and the Cinerama Dome, among many other effusive and singular landmarks, had petered out by the turn of the millennium with the arrival of Staples Center and its anodyne neighbor, the Nokia Theatre.

Now the Ace and the Forum are making a stand for a certain kind of architectural authenticity. What really binds these two buildings, though one dates from the Jazz Age and the other from the tail end of L.A. modernism, is that both navigated paths from architectural ambition to decline to comeback.

And in both cases they stayed intact, even pristine, thanks to congregations that took over spaces never designed with worship in mind — and then took remarkably good care of them.

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The United Artists complex, which Connecticut investment firm and hotel developer Greenfield Partners bought in 2011 for $11 million, sits on the southern edge of the Broadway Theater District, near Olympic Boulevard. It combines a 12-story tower by the architects Walker & Eisen (who also designed the Oviatt and Fine Arts buildings downtown) with an attached theater with a riotously decorated interior by the Chicago architect C. Howard Crane.

From the start it was an unconventional project. The stars who'd founded United Artists in 1919 — D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks — wanted a showpiece of a movie house that would compete with the better-established theaters up the street. Then as now, the stretch of Broadway where they settled had the feel of a frontier, a lonely edge.

The building made up for that peripheral location with over-the-top ornament and a height that nearly surpassed that of City Hall, the 454-foot-high tower that until the 1950s ruled as the tallest in Los Angeles. Inside the tower, U.A. shared space with Texaco on floors that now hold the Ace's hotel rooms.

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In the theater next door, Crane produced a Spanish Gothic fantasia. Dripping with ornament, the auditorium and its lobby combined nods to the cathedral in the Spanish city of Segovia with murals by the artist Anthony Heinsbergen, who also worked on the Wiltern and the Paramount Theater in Oakland.

The theater has had a tumultuous history. It closed briefly during the Depression and over the years has booked stage shows, Spanish-language films and the 70 millimeter widescreen movie format called Todd-AO.

Scott bought the United Artists building and theater in 1986, after first trying and failing to take over the 1914 Church of the Open Door on Hope Street (it was demolished in 1988). He brought the Open Door's "Jesus Saves" neon sign with him and installed it on the roof, facing the new skyscrapers on Bunker Hill. Soon he was televising Sunday sermons from the stage of Crane's theater.

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Scott had more than his share of critics, many of whom said he was using church funds to support a lavish lifestyle. A long Los Angeles Times profile in 1994 described "chauffeured limousines, Lear jet travel, a Pasadena mansion, 'round-the-clock bodyguard protection and scenic horse ranches in Kentucky and the San Gabriel Valley."

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