Art Deco Leisure Suits: How Los Angeles Preserved the 1930s in the 1970s

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Los Angeles is a young city, and for much of its history has been more interested in growth than in preserving what’s already here.

But in the 1970s, a new idea began to take root: the aging, unfashionable Art Deco buildings in Downtown, Hollywood and along the Miracle Mile were something special and should be repurposed rather than demolished or drastically remodeled.

It was too late to save the Richfield tower, the black and gold marvel across from Central Library was destroyed in 1969. But it wasn’t too late to save the Wiltern Theatre, Oviatt Building and Central Library itself.

Join Esotouric, L.A.’s most eclectic sightseeing tour company, for a deep dive into the early days of historic preservation and adaptive reuse in Los Angeles, with a focus on the grassroots campaigns and public policy decisions that ensured that beloved Art Deco landmarks remained standing and relevant for generations to come.

While much maligned for its misguided land use decisions on Bunker Hill, the Community Redevelopment Agency did some great things in Downtown Los Angeles. We’ll explore the CRA’s commitment to Spring Street, which ensured that the fading Wall Street of the West was revitalized with a National Register District designation, institutional tenants for aging office buildings like the Garfield and Banco Popular, and a flow of restoration funds. Tapping into the CRA’s faith in the district, architect Ragnar C. Qvale leased the Zig-Zag Moderne Title Insurance & Trust Company Building, transforming it into the Design Center of Los Angeles, the self-styled Queen of Spring Street.

On Olive Street facing Pershing Square, Phyllis Lambert bought the aging Biltmore, restoring the original features and reinventing the hotel with original contemporary art and custom fixtures. A block south, Wayne Ratkovich saved the Oviatt Building from demolition, hiring Brenda Levin to restore the early Art Deco interiors and installing an influential anchor tenant, Mauro Vincenti’s Rex Il Ristorante.

And on Broadway, the blue and gold Eastern Columbia tower became an incubator for nonprofits, among them the newly formed Los Angeles Conservancy.

Then just as Angelenos were beginning to recognize the value of our Art Deco architecture and the usefulness of these brightly colored white elephants, came the greatest preservation challenge yet: the out-of-state owner announced a plan to demolish the Wiltern Theatre (Pellissier Building) at Wilshire and Western. Could a scrappy band of preservationists find a sympathetic buyer to save the landmark? And if it was saved, then what?

Joining us are Ruthann Lehrer, founding executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, to talk about the early days of the nonprofit in the Eastern Columbia building, and their work building coalitions and advocating for the Wiltern and other Art Deco landmarks. And David Smay, author of the 33 1/3 series book on “Tom Waits’ ‘Swordfishtrombones’” and host of an occasional Esotouric tour about the musician, will describe Waits’ legendary December 31, 1988 concert at the Wiltern, and the importance of historic venues for contemporary artists and audiences.

This webinar is an illustrated lecture packed with rare photos that will bring the Art Deco landmarks of Los Angeles and their preservationist pals to life. And you’ll find the look of an Esotouric webinar is a little different than your standard dry Zoom session, with lively interactive graphics courtesy of the mmhmm app.

After the presentation, Kim, Richard, Ruthann Lehrer and David Smay will answer your questions, so get ready to be a part of the show.


About Esotouric: As undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz, Kim Cooper and Richard Schave inexplicably hated one another on sight. (Perhaps less inexplicably, their academic advisor believed they were soul mates). A chance meeting 18 years later proved much more agreeable. Richard wooed Kim with high level library database access, with which she launched the 1947project true crime blog, highlighting a crime a day from the year of The Black Dahlia and Bugsy Siegel slayings. The popular blog’s readers demanded a tour, and then another. The tour was magical, a hothouse inspiring new ways for the by-then-newlyweds to tell the story of Los Angeles. Esotouric was born in 2007 with a calendar packed with true crime, literary, architecture and rock and roll tours. Ever since, it has provided a platform for promoting historic preservation issues (like the Save the 76 Ball campaign and the landmarking of Charles Bukowski’s bungalow), building a community of urban explorers (including dozens of free talks and tours under the umbrella of LAVA) and digging even deeper into the secret heart of the city they love.

Rights and permissions: By attending an Esotouric webinar, you acknowledge that the entirety of the presentation is copyrighted, and no portion of the video or text may be reproduced in any fashion.

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