Jewels in the Rough
By John Grimmett of Los Angeles Downtown News, 9/30/00
Apartments from Hollywood's Golden Age Are Restored in Wilshire Center
The names ring with aristocratic glory-The Gaylord, The Langham, The Talmadge, The Du Berry-recalling a time in Los Angeles' history that has now receded into legend.
As many as 70 of these structures pepper Wilshire Center, also known as Mid-Wilshire, an area between Alvarado Street and Wilton Avenue, from Third Street on the north to Olympic Boulevard on the south. Art Deco and art nouveau buildings erected during a construction boom between 1923 and 1929, they remain as documents of architecture and culture, testament to the birth of modern Los Angeles.
The owners who have bought and restored them proudly flaunt that history, as well. Pictures of famous residents such as Bette Davis, Mae West, Douglas Fairbanks, silent film star Clara Bow and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst adorn the leasing office of Los Altos Apartments, a California and National Historic Site.
The Talmadge, one of the grandest, at the corner of Wilshire and Kenmore, bears the name of silent film star Norma Talmadge who received the building as a gift from her husband, Joseph Schenk, a founding chairman of 20th Century Fox.
Mid-Wilshire has changed dramatically since then, but many of the apartments remain, dotting Wilshire Boulevard and nearby streets as contrasts to the modern banking and insurance high-rises built since the 1950s. Many of the apartment buildings fell into disrepair from the 1950s on, some so badly that the city demolished them. The McKinley was among those demolished, while others, like the glorious Los Altos, were recently saved from destruction.
"Our goal has always been to restore these buildings to their original shape," said Marco Lewis, acquisition analyst for SWEL II, a Michigan-based real estate company that purchases, restores and manages landmarks. SWEL II owns 13 historic buildings in Mid-Wilshire, including the Langham on South Normandie Street, which Lewis said is the company's most exquisite, as well as the Picadilly on South Irolo Street, The Victoria at Fifth and Hobart, the two Gramercies-Gramercy Manor and Gramercy Tower-on Gramercy Avenue.
"Our goal is to bring back that old history, to recreate Mid-Wilshire to what it once was," Lewis said. Hollywood has left the area, and within the last 10 years, the Korean community has moved in, with restaurants and shopping centers occupying such historic sites as the Brown Derby, a fabled celebrity hangout next door to the Gaylord.
Wilshire Boulevard got its name from Henry Gaylord Wilshire-Gaylord apartments bear his name, as well-a politically active millionaire who bought a plot in the Westlake district and turned a city dump into Westlake Park, now MacArthur Park. Popular lore says that when city planners proposed building a street that would bisect his property, he told them that he would allow the street only if it bore his name.
A few apartment buildings were constructed in the 1910s, notably the 10-story Bryson, the tallest building in the area until the 1920s, now recently renovated for affordable housing. The first apartment boom, however, happened in the 1920s, when most of the grand old dames of Wilshire were built.
But the boom was short, as the very excesses that brought the buildings into existence led to their owners' bankruptcies, mortgages unpaid. Through the late 1930s and 1940s, buildings were sold or left to deteriorate, though still occupied by stars. In the late 1950s, Wilshire boomed again, this time with insurance companies and banks. The residential population shifted west, and some of the buildings became uninhabitable from lack of care.
In the Details
Restoration has been a painstaking process, said Alan Gross, owner of Los Altos.
Gross described how his company, Neighborhood Effort, rescued Los Altos from demolition. Neighborhood Effort also manages affordable housing complexes with funds from the Community Redevelopment Agency.
Built in 1926, Los Altos was developed as a "co-op," a housing plan whereby tenants shared the building's mortgage payments. The co-op went bankrupt during the Great Depression, said Gross, and maintenance slowly ground to a halt. During its history, the building has doubled as hotel and apartments.
"We bought the building in 1993, with big holes in the walls," Gross said. "You could literally see through the floor from the fifth floor down to the lobby. We had to put new plumbing and electrical wiring in. It wasn't at all like what you see today." Gross said he received financial assistance from the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the California Equity Fund to complete restoration.
"The city was about to demolish it," he continued. "There were so many violations against it. But we bought it because we didn't want to see such a place destroyed."
When he acquired it, only one man still lived there as a caretaker-John Tierney, now a retired machinist who lives in one of the bachelor apartments. Tierney said he witnessed the whole renovation, and Tierney and Gross both described how Neighborhood Effort obtained National Historic Site status for the building by hunting down original parts and restoring original design details, including doorknobs, trim, floor tiles and colors.
"We hired five people just to find original fixtures, made in the 1920s in exactly that design," Gross said. "If anything was broken, we had to find an original replacement. Otherwise, we wouldn't have historic status."
In 1999, Los Altos received a design award from the California Preservation Foundation, and it is now on the National Historic Register. Developers in the area say it is probably the only such historic site in Wilshire Center.
"There are lots of historic buildings," said Gross, "but a lot of property owners don't want [historic status] because there are too many restrictions. But we wanted it because it's an honor. It raises property values and helps the neighborhood. And we find that our tenants really care."
Living With the Past
Owners and managers say tenants seek these relics for many reasons: the charm, character and stories they hold, but also the design, space and convenience.
"Young people are coming in attracted by the contrast of the old," said Francesca Riviere, manager of the Du Berry. "Many older people might think they're run down, but the younger people think they're hip."
With Wilshire Center becoming an Internet incubator, young Internet entrepreneurs are taking up residence in the old buildings. Young, aspiring Hollywood stars are moving in as well, living next to producers, lawyers and executives who work Downtown.
Among the grandest is the Talmadge, built in 1923. Like Los Altos, it needed considerable restoration, said owner Ronald Toews, who has bought and renovated several historic buildings in the area. When he bought the Talmadge only 10 out of 50 units were livable, he said.
Now restored to its original glory, it is a five-story complex with units as large as houses, one-bedroom units averaging 1,250 square feet, and four-bedroom units up to 2,800 square feet. And the rents match the space: $1,500 for one bedroom, $3,000 for two.
But building owners and managers say such rates are actually bargains. "You actually get more square footage for your dollar, and more charm," said Riviere, whose building was designed by another Tinsel Town luminary, C. Charles Lee, the architect of Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Vaulted ceilings, dressing rooms separate from bedrooms and a surplus of closet space were standards in those days.
But to get one, apartment seekers often have a long wait. Nearly 300 are waiting for a spot in Los Altos, Gross said. "And we have a very low turnover," he noted.
But occasionally there is an opening, like a fifth-floor unit at the Talmadge recently leased by an aspiring actor, a two-bedroom apartment with a panoramic living room view of the San Gabriel mountains.
And the buildings have other features as well. Riviere explained that at the Langham, electricity is free, the same way water is paid by the owner in most modern apartments. "These old buildings don't have meters, so tenants aren't charged," she said. That means dot-com entrepreneurs can use their high-tech equipment for free, she said, but it also means that the owners have had to modify some electrical systems to accommodate DSL cable.
Old Versus New
Although many of the originals remain, a few were not saved, or are currently endangered. The most hotly contested site is the Ambassador Hotel, across the street from the Gaylord. At least three scenarios exist for this beleaguered property. Many residents and developers, including Lewis, want to see it become a school.
"A school could raise property values in the area," said Lewis.
But others, like Gross, say they cannot stand to see another historic building demolished. "I'd like to see it restored as a hotel," he said. "We need schools, but I don't think that site is the best place."
Gross conceded, however, that he might not mind a school at the Ambassador site if it were placed in the original building.
"To demolish these buildings would be terrible," he said. "People would never see the architecture or how people lived."