Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Desmond's: Shop 'Til You Drop, Art Deco Style

The Scoop in one sentence...
Desmond’s: A breathtaking glimpse of the Deco Days along Wilshire’s Miracle Mile. 

In the early 2000s, I (Lara) would attend concerts at the El Rey Theatre in the Miracle Mile District of Wilshire Boulevard pretty frequently, as I didn’t have a child and could do things like stay out ‘til 2 a.m. on a Tuesday. As I enjoyed a pre- or post-show feast nearby at IHOP (which seemed to be the only place in the area to eat), I would feel sad—I could sense that there was great history to the area, it had an enviable mid-city location that made it about halfway to everywhere, and there were all these cool buildings that looked like they just needed some TLC to shine once again.

So why wasn’t it hoppin’? Cut to 2013, and the Miracle Mile is about to come roaring back in a way it hasn’t since the 1920s. And the style of the area all began with one amazing building: Desmond’s, which opened as the Wilshire Tower. 

The Past

Wilshire Boulevard, which today is a bustling street, began as a narrow lane between Downtown Los Angeles and the Westside. Its name came from the guy who made the road: Gaylord Wilshire. The Miracle Mile nickname for this stretch of Wilshire came from something that a friend said to developer A.W. Ross, who had a grand vision for the area: "From the way you talk, A.W., one would think this is really a miracle mile."

Gilbert Stanley Underwood (who also designed the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse, in addition to many other notable structures) was the architect of Desmond’s, and when it opened in 1928 it was the first major building along Wilshire’s Miracle Mile. It established the design style for the area as Art Deco, and also had a huge advantage over the stores in Downtown LA: Parking!

Desmond’s department store was located on the first floor (there were offices on the higher floors), and it was an exciting moment for shoppers to roll up, park right at the store, and stroll in. And then you could shop ‘til you dropped and have your packages brought right to your car, rather than schlepping them around on foot, which you might have had to do Downtown (which was not planned with cars in mind).

The Deco Details

Where do I start? Sigh. I love this building. Let’s start with neon. Desmond’s was one of the first department stores to embrace neon, and they did it in a big way; their sign could be seen all the way from Downtown Los Angeles!

One of the materials used in building Desmond’s was a new development in the 1920s called Vitrolite, a pigmented structural glass that could be used on the interior and exterior of a building and was not as expensive as terra cotta. 

The rounded corners and sleek green banding on Desmond’s remind us that the second phase of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, was just a few years away. But the exotic feel of ZigZag Moderne, the first phase of Deco (1925-early 1930s), was still very much on display, with repeating flora and fauna patterns that seem to be telling a story.

In the 1920s, the world suddenly became much smaller—it was the beginning of our world being as connected as it is today. There was a big influence from folks traveling the globe and the import/export business, with new ideas, designs, and materials being brought back from every corner of the planet. 

One of the signatures of Art Deco, the chevron, was worked into a pattern on the floor. 

And the beautiful elevators showed that elements of a building that were functional could be beautiful and fashionable, too.   

Even the sidewalk had details that beckoned shoppers inside, and I love the care that seemingly went into treating shoppers’ eyes in every aspect of Desmond’s. 

Takeaway Tips:
  • Take the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles’s Miracle Mile guided walking tour, which is usually offered once or twice a year. See www.adsla.org for more info. Even after driving down Wilshire for many years, I had never noticed this building, but fell in love with it on the tour and decided to research it.
  • Make your own walking tour. There‘s the Deco Building at 5209 Wilshire Boulevard, which is a stunning example of Deco with its rare black and gold terra cotta exterior. There is also the Samsung Building at 5525 Wilshire, and the El Rey Theatre at 5515 Wilshire.
  • Live or work at Desmond’s. The same company that runs The Deco Building has taken over Desmond’s, which is now known as The Desmond and will have space for rent. If what they did at The Deco Building is any indication, Desmond's will soon be restored to its Golden Age glory!

Contact Info:
Desmond’s (a.k.a. The Desmond)
5514 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 592-3600
(this number connects you with The Deco Building, which has Desmond info)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Pipe Organs, Chili Peppers, and Prohibition: The Legendary Park Plaza Hotel

The Park Plaza Hotel opened in 1925, right at the start of the Art Deco years. It was designed by Art Deco architect Claud Beelman, and it was originally an Elks Lodge (Lodge Number 99).  The park referenced in the hotel’s name is MacArthur Park, made famous by a certain Donna Summer song where someone has left a cake out in the rain that took a really, really long time to bake. 
Although the hotel’s neighborhood, which is just outside of downtown Los Angeles, has changed a lot since the 1920s, families still enjoy the park and its lake, and it makes a beautiful view out the windows of the Park Plaza. 

Walking up to the hotel, it kind of felt like we were entering a glamorous tomb or temple, a little reminiscent of the Egyptian Theatre or the Los Angeles Central Library. The Park Plaza has angels perched on the outside, which gives a reassuring feeling that someone is keeping an eye on things, and also the Golden Rule (“Do unto others…”) carved right into the building above the entrance. 
The Park Plaza has an Olympic history, as the basement pool hosted many indoor swimming events in the 1932 games that were held in Los Angeles. The Elks sold the building after their numbers started dwindling, and it became a luxury hotel up until around 13 years ago.
Today, the Park Plaza Hotel is not actually a hotel anymore, but it hosts a lot of weddings and events, although one of the gals who works there told us that there was a chance it might reopen again as a hotel at some point. It is also used for movie shoots; in fact, the lobby ceiling (painted by American muralist Anthony Heinsbergen) was featured in David Lynch’s film Wild At Heart.
Many of the wedding ceremonies at the Park Plaza take place on the massive steps in the lobby, with the audience seated at the bottom of the stairs and sunshine streaming in through the large windows above the main entrance. 
After the vows, the celebration moves to one of the Park Plaza’s four ballrooms (there is also an outdoor space with a gazebo). There are also two bridal prep rooms (one right next to a secret elevator). The Park Plaza Hotel just feels like a place where there would be secret elevators and doors to bring in women and booze during prohibition, and it turns out that the building is full of them! 

One of the ballrooms is the Grand Terrace Room, which once hosted raves thrown by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, according to our Park Plaza guide. Oh, to have been there in the 1990s with a glowstick….
The room has a cathedral/church feel to it, and there is a 1925 Robert Morton organ console in one of the corners. Back in the day, the organ was hooked up to speakers in the Grand Terrace room and also in the lobby, so someone could be playing in one room while the music was pumped throughout the hotel. The perfect soundtrack to be playing as a handsome stranger that looks like Tyrone Power locks eyes with you across the room…
Kudos to the folks that run the Park Plaza! There is a lovely, mysterious feel to the place that you need to walk through the doors to experience. We say that buildings are alive and have a soul, and this one seems like it wants to be packed to the brim with glamorous folks enjoying themselves once again. 

The owners have done a beautiful job keeping things at this Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument true to their original form; whatever design is there, they just do the same design if it needs painting or any kind of upkeep. Now, if only they could find a way to make the walls talk and reveal their secrets…

Contact Info:
Park Plaza Hotel
607 South Park View Street
Los Angeles, CA 90057
(213) 381-6300