How Canadian Developer Onni Group “Preserved” the Art Deco Seattle Times Building

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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before:

A venerable local newspaper, fallen on hard times in the aftermath of the financial crisis, sells its architecturally-significant, centrally-located Art Deco headquarters and two attached buildings, comprising an entire city block, to a multi-national development company. The developer expresses affection for the site’s history, and makes preservation of the main newspaper building the centerpiece of a proposed project. The twin-tower mixed-use residential, retail and public plaza project is vastly out of scale and requires zoning changes. When preservationists express concern about protection of the historic resources, they’re assured that the developer is a good steward with the best intentions. Besides, we’re in a housing crisis, so build, baby, build!

Sound familiar? If you’re a Californian, you might recognize the beats of the recent history of the Los Angeles Times, with the paper’s real estate split off under Tribune’s ownership and its historic headquarters sold to Vancouver-based Onni Group.

But the story you just read is actually about the landmarked Seattle Times ( Robert C. Reamer, 1931), which Onni Group purchased in 2013 and neglected so profoundly that the normal rules for protected buildings were waived: in February 2016, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections approved (archive link) immediate demolition of the landmark for reasons of public safety.

November 2015: “Squatters leave the old Seattle Times building at 1120 John St., after waking up during Thursday’s fire” (Steve Ringman / Seattle Times)

During the first three years of Onni’s ownership, the Seattle Times became a squatter’s den (archive link), home to hundreds of homeless people, their pets and their troubles. Metal thieves operated openly, stripping the landmark of its historic artifacts and plumbing. The squatters were rousted, but immediately returned, prying off the thin plywood panels Onni Group installed to keep them out. When the police ordered the landlord to properly secure the building, Onni Group missed the deadline. Taxpayers covered the costs of constant police and paramedic calls. There were fires, overdoses, gas leaks and suffering that can’t be quantified.

Then came the wrecking ball and bulldozers, spelling the end of the Seattle Times and a clearing a nearly clean slate for a massive development, recently changed from housing to office towers, in the shadow of the Amazon.com headquarters.

February 2017: An old press that once printed the Sunday color comics section is partially exposed. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

(But before the walls came down, the newspaper building told one last story. Up on the roof, a hand-made banner went up the flagpole. The Times printed a photo and reported on the common ¢ents activists who were calling for Seattle’s hundreds of vacant buildings to be made available to serve the city’s homeless population. That’s a conversation Los Angeles should be having, too.)

Demolition began in October 2016. Today, just a couple of sad walls from the landmark Seattle Times building survive, and Onni Group is busily building upward.

The Art Deco Los Angeles Times Building is not a protected city landmark like the Seattle Times Building was. We believe it should be a landmark, which is why we’ve filed an Historic-Cultural Monument application, which is now under consideration, with a hearing on July 19 (Update: the second hearing is Thursday, September 20 and we still need your comments and emails!). At the direction of the Office of Historic Resources, our application includes all three entwined historic structures on the site: Gordon B. Kaufmann’s 1935 Times Building (including the Globe Lobby and its fixtures), Rowland H. Crawford’s 1948 Mirror tower and William L. Pereira’s 1973 corporate headquarters. These three buildings together tell the story of the Los Angeles Times and Southern California.

Some people believe that it’s only Pereira’s building that is threatened by Onni Group’s plans. But the Pereira can’t be demolished without tearing a giant hole in the Art Deco Kaufmann building’s west facade. And the Pereira is a good, if unfashionable, building that deserves to be considered on its architectural merits, which are largely invisible from street level, but reveal themselves when you step inside.

As Harry Chandler told the Los Angeles Times, “Developers are wont to change their minds based on market conditions, not preservation needs. [Onni] is not an L.A. company and they don’t have credentials for caring for historic buildings in our city. We shouldn’t leave that to chance.”

He’s right.

Onni Group might prove to be a better steward of our great newspaper’s home than they were in Seattle. It would be hard to be a worse one.

But let’s not just take their word for it. Please join us at the Cultural Heritage Commission on Thursday, July 19 and speak for the stone, the neon, the glass and the Globe. (Update: the second hearing is Thursday, September 20 and we still need your comments and emails!) These buildings shaped the Southern California we love, and they deserve to be preserved.

Workmanship of such poor quality is not acceptable.

Touring CalEdison, the Art Deco landmark formerly known as One Bunker Hill

Welcome to the fifth in a series of 3-D explorable tours of historic Los Angeles spaces, created by Craig Sauer using cutting-edge Matterport technology. And what cooler space to explore than the lobby of the newly rebranded CalEdison, an Art Deco masterpiece that was L.A.’s first air conditioned, seismically safe tower?

Photo: Julius Shulman, October 1980 (Library of Congress)

You might know the building as One Bunker Hill, a name given it in 1972, when Edison moved its offices to Rosemead and sold its namesake tower. Hopes were still high that the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Plan would yield a thriving, live-work community where young professionals contributed to the tax base 24/7.

It didn’t exactly work out that way—a heartbreaking tale of scorched earth public policy hubris documented in Gordon Pattison’s family story and on the On Bunker Hill blog— but in seeking to make the aging, low rent building more appealing to new tenants like the US Postal Service, ceilings were dropped, old fashioned spaces reconfigured, and the long, open patios enclosed with glass. And so it remained, for four decades.

Today, under new, preservation-focused owners Rising Realty Partners, these insensitive upper floor additions are being peeled away and the building marketed to creative tenants who appreciate its machine age aesthetics and are keen on downtown. It only took two generations!

But the grand T-shaped lobby was never “updated,” and it’s this extraordinary space you can explore through Craig Sauer’s 3-D photography.

Craig Sauer shooting CalEdison

But first, a little history: In 1931, Southern California Edison’s opulent Art Deco corporate headquarters was erected at the foot of Bunker Hill, on a prime 175’ x 175’ corner site kitty corner to the Biltmore Hotel (Schultze and Weaver, 1923) and opposite Central Library (Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, 1926).

Architects Allison and Allison designed the 12-story height limit tower with its bold, geometric stepped facade and cutting edge mechanical innovations. P.J. Walker Co. built it. Constructed at a cost of $2,500,000 and boasting 250,000 square feet of office space, its all-steel frame was meant to withstand fire, hurricane force winds or the most powerful recorded earthquakes. And when the devastating 6.4 Long Beach temblor struck on March 10, 1933, the Edison Building just shrugged.

That unshakable frame was beautifully wrapped in sober granite and terracotta facing, with a rainbow of stone finishes within. The exterior rotunda’s relief sculptures representing the “Generation,” “Distribution” and “Utilization” of electricity are by Merrell Gage. The central lobby mural, “Power,” is by Hugo Ballin, with Conrad Buff and Barse Miller gracefully handling the narrow frieze paintings above the elevators, also on an electrical theme.

Elevator frieze by Conrad Buff

As befit a tower housing a modern electrical utility, the ventilation systems were powered, with windows that opened and closed automatically to control internal temperature. And today, the building is newly LEED certified. Also, fans of Los Angeles literature will note that the prime corner site was declared John Fante Square a few years back (reader, we nominated it).

But enough background: the lovely lobby awaits your exploration. Click here to begin.

Take your time and zoom at will, noting the ultra-high resolution of the newest Matterport camera. [To make your virtual tour a little more exciting, the first person to find the Esotouric flier and email a description of its location to us will win a free seat on any of our regularly scheduled tours between now and September 30, 2017. Happy hunting! – update: congrats to Paul T., who first found the flier.]

If you enjoy Craig’s CalEdison tour, we also recommend our previous collaborations: Angels Flight Railway, The Dutch Chocolate Shop, Barclay Hotel and a folk art tunnel along the Los Angeles River. What will be the next Los Angeles landmark to get the 3-D treatment? All we can say is, it’s a doozy, so stay tuned!