Saturday, April 21, 2018

Breathing New Life Into the Eyesores of Downtown LA

They say that the "greenest" building is one that's already been built.

Because no matter how high of a LEED standard a new structure adheres to, the environmental impact of building it from scratch is far greater than reusing an extant one that might be less energy efficient.

Besides, when it comes to interior design—at least in LA—everything old is new again.

Why build something new, just to make it look old? (See also: all of our  newly constructed "Art Deco" and "speakeasy"-style bars and nightclubs.)

And yet so many buildings stand vacant for so long (something that's particularly painful when you see so many homeless camped out outside of them, in a time when we're experiencing a major housing shortage).

The Giannini Building, for example, had become an eyesore at the corner of Olive and 7th Street in Downtown Los Angeles, standing vacant for nearly two decades.

Formerly the Bank of Italy headquarters (named after its founder, Amadeo Giannini), the palatial, 12-story high-rise was dedicated in 1923 and opened to much fanfare—thanks in no small part to the neoclassical design by Morgan, Walls & Clements. At the time, Bank of Italy was the largest bank in the West (and would become Bank of America in 1930).

Its founder pioneered the idea that banking was for regular folk and not just the rich. So, the bank pursued potential customers whose banking potential had been heretofore underestimated—namely, women and children—to fill its 12,000 safety deposit boxes.

The main vault door is one of the only significant features of the opulent bank building that remains.

Weighing 50 tons, it now protects a small lounge area...

...and the public restrooms.

Upstairs, the former offices had already been gutted, leaving little of historical value to be preserved when the Sydell Group took over the building (with some help from billionaire investor Ron Burkle) and renovated it into the NoMad Hotel Los Angeles.

The rooms have been outfitted with vintage-inspired furnishings and decor (as have the public areas like the lobby and the Mezzanine restaurant). However, unlike Giannini's original vision for it, this building is no longer for ordinary people with just a little bit of money to sock away. Rooms start at $280/night ($320/night if you want the nice bathtub) and go as high as $800/night for a corner suite.

The rooftop bar has just opened up to the public...

...though the pool is still reserved for guests of the hotel.

Besides the sweeping views of Downtown LA, the rooftop also offers a little bit of Italy in the form of Orcus, god of the underworld. The statue at the far end of the pool is a replica of one found in the  16th century "sacred grove," Sacro Bosco, in northern Italy.

Up there, you can also get a good look at the Italiante cornice...

...which, though original to the building, also underwent some recent restoration work (as did the terra-cotta panels on the building exterior, some of which had to be replaced).

The Sydell Group wasn't satisfied with reinvigorating just one historic DTLA building by converting it into a fancy hotel—it also set its sights on yet another infamous eyesore, the Commercial Exchange Building.

Built in 1924, it, too, had stood vacant and languishing for 20 or so years...

...despite having a rich history, a solid architectural pedigree, and one of the tallest neon blade signs in LA.

Designed by Walker & Eisen (known also for their work on the Taft Building in Hollywood, the Fine Arts Building, the Oviatt Building, and Hotel Normandie), the 13-story, Beaux Arts-style building actually retained a lot of its original character, despite its extended vacancy.

A lot of original decorative features had been boarded up over the years...

...and were revealed when restoration work (which frequently means excavation) began.

And those original decorative features at the storefront level—particularly a long-hidden medallion over a doorway—were retained as the Commercial Exchange Building transformed into the Freehand Hotel.

In fact, according to preservation guidelines, they had to be saved—and, unlike its neighbor a block away, the interior of the Commercial Exchange Building was largely intact.

That means you'll see original coffered ceilings and marble stairways... well as more original tile, which has been seamlessly integrated with new design motifs.

Upstairs, the former offices—including one once occupied by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs—have been converted into either traditional hotel rooms or shared, bunk-style hostel rooms.

Unlike the NoMad, the Freehand does welcome a more cost-conscious customer—particularly international travelers.

And while the Freehand embraces the style of "Old Downtown," it also brings the experience of staying there into the 21st century—with a mural that was painted by the art collective Cyrcle and that's only visible from certain guest rooms.

Anyone, however, is welcome to dine or drink at one of the Freehand's many establishments, both in the lobby (at the Exchange Restaurant) and on the roof (at Broken Shaker).

As with the NoMad, the pool is for hotel/hostel guests only, but the view is for everybody.

Related Posts:
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Photo Essay: Farmers and Merchants, the Old Bank with Big Plans

Friday, April 20, 2018

A Theme Park Legend Emerges From Behind the Tiki Mask

As my explorations of Southern California become less superficial, and as I start digging a little deeper into its history and how everything fits together to tell a more complex narrative than what you might find in schoolbook history lessons, I find that talking about intriguing people is as important as those fascinating places I tend to cover.

Certain names keep coming up—Mulholland, Grauman, Doheny, and Disney to name a few.

Those, of course, are the famous guys. But there are some not-so-famous historical figures that have also really shaped the SoCal experience.

And one of them is Rolly Crump.

The story behind this under-appreciated Disney imagineer, for me, goes back to New York City and the 1964/65 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where "It's A Small World" made its debut.

In the mid-60s, Walt Disney had already opened and been operating Disneyland in Anaheim, California for a decade. Much of his original innovation was already set in place.

So, the exposition in NYC proved an exciting new playground for Disney and his team—which included Rolly Crump from the beginning.

And perhaps their most famous creation together was, quite simply, a boat ride for children around the world (which is, of course, a world of laughter and a world of tears).

Under the artistic direction of Mary Blair, Rolly built "toys" made out of papier-mâché styrofoam...

...some of which can still be seen on the (somewhat modified) ride that's been installed at Disneyland ever since.

I had no idea that Rolly was the guy behind "It's A Small World"—one of the few relics from the '64/'65 World's Fair that got relocated to California—until an exhibit of his work was recently on display at the Oceanside Museum of Art.

It turns out that that exhibit in North San Diego County was just a precursor to the main event: an auction of Rolly's personal effects, including his own scale models of "It's A Small World," that will take place in one week's time.

Of course, Rolly was also involved in a number of other attractions throughout the 1960s, too...

...not the least of which is the Enchanted Tiki Room.

It's a throwback to 1963—predating the World's Fair in New York—that's incredibly still open and popular in the Adventureland section of Disneyland. The singing birds that star in the show weren't Rolly Crump's creation, though.

He was the man behind the carved totems, masks, and tiki gods that adorn both the interior and exterior of the attraction (some of which actually join in on the action with drumming and chanting).

And although he reportedly researched Tahitian culture extensively in order to execute an authentic "South Seas" feel, perhaps he didn't need to be quite so thorough, since not all of his creations actually made it into the park attraction (including a hand-sculpted, hand-painted fountain shield, now up for auction).

Rolly's designs for the Enchanted Tiki Room came to life in other ways, though...

...including in the designs of host and hostess uniforms (a.k.a. "cast member clothing").

Some of the textile items up for bid are contemporary reproductions of vintage pieces, while others are authentic vintage pieces actually worn by tiki room staff in the 1960s...

...and include their original Walt Disney Productions fabric design labels, sewn right into the tiki-shield-patterned fabric.

Lots of the items included in the auction arose out of various anniversary celebrations of the tiki room, like a ceramic tiki mug modeled after Rolly Crump's original design for Pele...

...and a limited edition ceramic "drink bowl" featuring Rolly's original design for Rongo, god of agriculture.

I'm glad to see Rolly Crump getting some of the attention he deserves, though it always makes me kind of sad when personal stuff like this gets auctioned off to private collectors rather than being made available for the public to see through some cultural institution. But then again, Disney has always been about moving onto the next thing, rather than wallowing in the past.

But I'm grateful to get to know the man behind the tiki mask a little better and to appreciate the process behind the creation of two of the attractions I've enjoyed very much while at Disneyland.

And if it weren't for the animatronic advancements that were created for the Enchanted Tiki Room (replacing the original concept of having live birds in cages), other beloved rides and attractions (like The Haunted Mansion) might never have come to be.

The auction takes place on Saturday, April 28, 2018 at 11 a.m. PT at Van Eaton Galleries in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles and online. For the next week, the items will be exhibited at the gallery for the public to see, with no obligation to bid or buy.

Related Posts:
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Photo Essay: Lighting the World, One Window at a Time