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The Fine Arts Building: Art, Artifice, and Illegal Operations in L.A.'s Commercial Cathedral

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Saturday afternoon is probably not the best time to take a leisurely stroll on West Seventh Street in downtown Los Angeles. The sidewalk is jam packed with people, most of who seem to be carrying something cumbersome -- a screaming, wiggling child; a filled to the brim trash bag; or a sticky treat that somehow gets on the front of my brand new sundress. The sky is bright blue, and the buildings are all tall and gray and look vaguely the same. At first, I'm not sure which structure is the one I am looking for -- but then I see it. The exquisite Romanesque-styled arched entrance, and the odd terra cotta statues of naked figures lounging on the third story ledges. Without even checking the number, I know that this must be the Fine Arts Building.

A driver lays on a car horn, after almost hitting a pedestrian two feet in front of me. I cross the street hurriedly and walk up to the Fine Arts Building. I peer into the lobby, which is so dark and still, I assume it is closed. Not one to let that deter me, I push open the door and enter what can only be described as a sanctuary. Designed like the nave of a grand cathedral in the Renaissance Spanish-style of brown and gold, the dim lobby is illuminated by misty streams of light from chandeliers high above. Golden display cases (which look like niches for the relics of saints) line the walls, metal stars dot the elevator doors, and ornate Batchelder tiles cover almost every other surface.

In the center of the shadowy lobby are bronze statues of children frolicking in the water of a shallow blue pool. A security guard sitting at a low desk is the only other living person I see, and she scarcely acknowledges my presence. I take a few more pictures and a few more cool, deep breaths. Then I push open the heavy bronze front door, bracing for the noise and the smells and the bright blue sky.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

Artland

During the 1920s, Los Angeles was riding high. The Jazz Age was a time of massive expansion in Southern California. L.A. was gaining a reputation as an exciting, cosmopolitan metropolis -- the home of fast-living motion picture people and high flying aviation pioneers. Nowhere was this excitement more visible than in downtown Los Angeles, where new "skyscrapers" were rapidly altering the city's skyline.

In October, 1925, the Fine Arts Building Company announced its intention to build a height limit skyscraper, constructed specifically for the use of local artists and artisans. The 12-story building at the corner of Seventh and Lebanon would feature high-ceilinged ateliers and galleries, as well as a suite of rooms for the Artland Club. The celebrated firm of Walker and Eisen -- known for the James Oviatt Building, the Beverly-Wilshire, and the Title Insurance and Trust Building -- were hired to design the "Romanesque Revival" structure. "Show windows of a most interesting architectural handling" would run the length of the great lobby, "affording the upper story tenants an opportunity for a display and exhibition of their various lines." 2

Over 1200 tons of structural steel was used to construct the skeleton frame of the building. Befitting a structure dedicated to the arts, some of the most talented artisans in the Los Angeles area were hired to beautify the space. Pasadena's Ernest A. Batchelder, one of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement and the "nation's premiere designer of decorative tiles," 3 supplied countless custom tiles for the exotic lobby. Anthony B. Heinsbergen created the paintings and murals. The Dutch-born designer and muralist was known for his work at the Roosevelt Hotel, L.A. City Hall, and for the "delightful mish-mash of Byzantine sumptuousness, Art Deco cubism and pure kitsch" of the over 700 movie theaters he decorated over his career.

Claremont sculptor Burt William Johnson designed the reclining figures representing "sculpture" and "architecture" on the third floor exterior. He also modeled the sculptures of the children in the lobby. One is a representation of his daughter, Cynthia Mae, catching a slippery fish. Though only 37, Johnson had major heart problems and worked from a wheelchair (he would die three months after the building opened). His sculptress sister Annetta Johnson Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor Robert Merrill Gage, and other assistants helped him with his work on the building. To reach his sculptures on the façade of the exterior, he was hoisted in his wheelchair up the side of the building. Adding to the edifice's hipness, the mosaic, arches, and exterior and interior sculptures and molding were done in terra cotta, an inexpensive, pliable material that was greatly in vogue in the 1920s.

On December 8, 1926, the completed building at 811 West Seventh Street was opened to over 27,000 guests, who braved a lightning storm to view the gargoyles, spires, and griffins of this very modern skyscraper. On December 12, L.A.'s elite held a gala reception, in the Artland Club's suite, to honor the architects and artists responsible for the building's creation. A speech was given by Godfrey Edwards, president of Fine Arts Building Inc. A troupe of Spanish artists supplied the music, and a buffet supper was served in celebration of "one of the finest business blocks in the southland." 4

Fine Arts Building under construction, ca. 1926 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Fine Arts Building under construction, ca. 1926 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Fine Arts Building, ca. 1928 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Fine Arts Building, ca. 1928 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Like Paris

The Fine Arts Building soon became a center of the artistic and social whirl of the city. Numerous large events were held in The Artland Club's suite. These included art exhibits, and a tea given for the stars of the Los Angeles Grand Opera Association, which was attended by "500 persons prominent in art, dramatic and social circles of the city." 6 The 1920s was the height of the vital club scene, and many groups met in the building's clubrooms. Clubs that called the Fine Arts Building home included the League of American Pen Women, West Coast Arts Incorporated, the Cadman Creative Club, the California Federation of Music Clubs, and the Southern California Federation of Business and Professional Women. The Scribblers Club, a group of amateur writers, met frequently, critiquing each other's work and listening to lectures. Speakers were as varied as screenwriters from Warner Brothers to someone named Princess Trisaninn, who talked about Indian lore, accompanied by a man on an "Indian" instrument. Another night, a woman performed "whistling solos."

Luxury shops and services also found a home in the Fine Arts Building. The fur salon of Arthur W. Isaacs was a chic shop decorated in black, silver and red. L.A. Times reporter Olive Gray enthused it was "the last word in the modern art of furnishings and surroundings." 7 Jack Lane's "so different" hats were always "unusual, chic and becoming." 8 Madame Lorraine created "charming new frocks for the most discriminating, but also transforms the gowns of yesteryear into today's most fascinating modes." 9. Anne Irby did "the cleverest work in remodeling and shaping of the head and re-trimming last season's hats." There were also numerous hairstylists offering "new cool fridgeline waves,""croquignole no-water waving," and "rich glow henna" and expertise in shaping "the hair to frame the face becomingly and to suit each individual type." 10

But all this luxury and artistic exploration was sadly short-lived. The depression hit the Fine Arts Building's artists and artisans hard, as all the delights they provided were suddenly excesses that a majority of the public could not afford. The building became a more practical, traditional commercial structure. It was sold in 1930, and renamed the Signal Oil Building. It was sold again, for one million dollars, in 1933, to the Octane Petroleum Corporation. The corporation moved in, along with "virtually all of the major independent oil interests in Los Angeles." 11 The Bank of Italy and the Pig and Whistle Café occupied the ground floor. Attorneys, doctors, developers and some resilient hairstylists occupied many of the other suites.

Not every operation was above board. In the summer of 1936, a coalition of police from the LAPD, San Francisco and Alameda forces raided a doctor's office, which occupied the entire second floor of the building. The office was one of three in the L.A. area that was suspected of being part of a statewide ring that provided "illegal operations" to scores of desperate women. A doctor and two nurses were arrested after one of the nurses scheduled an illegal procedure for an undercover female cop. According to the Los Angeles Times, more than a "truck load of medical instruments, medicines and operator's paraphernalia was confiscated on a search warrant." 12 A safe was found with envelopes containing "fifty articles of jewelry, including many diamond rings, bracelets and watches -- notations on the envelopes indicated the articles of jewelry had been pledged as security by women unable to pay cash for operations." 13

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Seventh Street Shuffle

The structure was eventually renamed the Havenstrite Building, in honor of owner and oil man Russell E. Havenstrite. Havenstrite, a founder of the Beverly Hills Polo Club and associate of Walt Disney and Darryl Zanuck, used the building's penthouse as his private party palace. On the floors below, the business of commerce continued, even as the fortunes of downtown declined. The sumptuous lobby was still used occasionally for art exhibits. The succession of restaurants on the ground floor were popular with ad men and attorneys from nearby offices.

In 1970, the building was bought and remodeled by Global Marine Incorporated. The next few decades were a never ending shuffle in ownership, as the designated historic- cultural monument was flipped and flipped again. The structure was rechristened the Fine Arts Building in 1983, when it was carefully restored by the developers Ratkovich, Bowers and Perez, under the architectural direction of Brenda Levin. The firm had already restored the James Oviatt Building, as well as the Wiltern Theater in the Mid-Wilshire district. After going through a bewildering succession of more owners -- including the attorneys of Michael Jackson -- the building was sold in 2012 to the Italian firm Sorgente Group of America, (owners of the famed Flatiron Building in New York) for 28.5 million dollars. At the time of the purchase, President Veronica Mainetti stated;

Today, the Fine Arts Building is managed by Riverrock Real Estate Group. It is home to numerous offices, including the firm of Brenda Levin. As the revitalization of downtown takes place all around it, it remains consistent -- a beautiful reminder of a noble and short lived dream.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

_____

1 "Downtown Fine Arts Building" Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2003
2 "Fine arts structure to be built" Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1925
3 "Opulent building bought" Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2004
4 "Fine Arts opened" Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1926
5 "Specialty Shops" Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1929
6 "Stars of opera shine" Los Angeles Times, 1927
7 "New salon" Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1929
8 "Peg o la" Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1928
9 "Madame Lorraine" Los Angeles Times, 1928
10 "Jack Walton" Los Angeles Times, 1929
11 "Signal Oil" Los Angeles Times, April 1933
12 "Operations gang" Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1936
13 Ibid.
14 "Landmark renovated" Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1983

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