February 01, 2014

Photo Essay: The Ace Hotel & Its Rehabilitation of the Historic United Artists Theatre

[Ed: Updated 9/11/16 with some new photos and text]

Upon my second visit to the newly-opened Ace Hotel in Downtown LA today, I had my first crack at the reopened United Artists Theatre. Although it officially closed in 2010, it had been closed to non-members of Dr. Eugene Scott's University Cathedral Church for 10 years before that.

Unlike many other theaters in LA's Broadway Historic District, the UA was built as both a theater and an office building - making it a prime candidate for the Ace's notorious cases of adaptive reuse. Now, thanks to taking over the neighboring former Texaco office building as well, they have a hotel with plenty of rooms to accommodate guests, and a built-in performance venue to entertain them (and attract non-guests alike).

The building itself has been a curiosity for many passers-by, frequently referred to as the "Jesus Saves" building because of the two illuminated signs erected across from the top floors, just below the roof.

One of the signs was taken down and carted away while the building was still for sale in 2011.

But the other one remains, a testament to the building's odd and very private religious history.

(The sign originally topped the Church of the Open Door building in Downtown, and was relocated to the UA building by Dr. Scott when its original home was demolished.)

People also recognize the UA building by the tower on top of its roof, which actually made the building exceed the height limit at the time (such that no building be taller than City Hall)...

...but because it housed elevator and other types of equipment - and the building permits called it "signage" - it was allowed.

After it was cleaned, it looked remarkably brighter than the rest of the building exterior.

Up on the roof there's now a tiny swimming pool and the "Upstairs" bar—plus a fabulous view of the Eastern Columbia building (and a glimpse of the Jesus Saves sign).

Downstairs, there's a lobby coffee bar and the restaurant L.A. Chapter, which features some stained glass window details by Judson Studios.

Outside on Broadway—towards Olympic, at the far south end of the historic district—it's hard to ignore the bright, colorful marquee of the United Artists Theatre, thanks to the Ace's restoration efforts. It's not the original marquee from the theater's 1927 opening, but it dates back to about 1936. It's gotten a fresh paint job and lots of new tubing.

Out front, the checkered sidewalk still remains...

...and the brass property line plaque on the sidewalk (denoting private property, "permission to pass over revokable at any time") is in much better shape here than others up the same block.

The new ticket booth / retail shop is one of the few areas where the architects leading the construction job could actually have some input, and it's not quite complete yet, since their first public, ticketed show isn't for another couple of weeks. The original box office was lost decades ago, with a small replacement built in the 1950s. [Ed: As of 9/11/16, it houses Moon Juice.]

The building was designed in a kind of "Spanish Gothic" style, with faces staring out at you from everywhere, from the moment you walk under the marquee.

Its design was inspired by child actor / silent movie star Mary Pickford's travels through Europe, particularly the Cathedral at Segovia, Spain. A founding member of United Artists (alongside Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and her husband and fellow movie star Douglas Fairbanks), Pickford selected the construction site and the architects herself.

The United Artists Theatre is elaborate, but it's not exactly unique. Pickford spent so much money on its construction and design that the plaster molds had to be repurposed for two other theaters (in Detroit and Chicago) in order to amortize the costs of intricate plaster castings, fresco mural paintings, chandeliers...

...And not to mention the drapes. Lots of drapes. Natural light streams in now, but everything used to be covered in drapes.

It stands to reason that the UA Theatre would be taken over by a church once it ceased its movie screening operations. After all, it was built as a "cathedral to film."

When it was built new, it was meant to look old... the ancient cathedrals of Europe.

Its lobby space is pretty huge, a total length of a half block long...

...with a new paint job by the Ace...

...but some original stenciling remains.

Many of the lighting fixtures are original, too...

...but the Ace has added their little red touches to them.

The carpet is new, with a pattern selected by the Ace...

...and runs up original marble stairs to an upper lobby, which used to serve as an entrance to the since-demolished mezzanine level in the house. (The orchestra and balcony sections still remain.)

Up there, there are a number of "Juliet balconies" where moviegoers could see and be seen...

...and, of course, get a better look at the ornamental details.

When Dr. Scott moved in, he added the inscription "Forever o Lord the Word is settled in Heaven," which - like the Jesus Saves sign near the roof - the Ace has kept.

Dr. Scott used to also display the largest private collection of bibles in the balconies (as well as an original Rembrandt painting in the lobby below, which was once stolen but thankfully returned).

The mezzanine foyer ceiling pattern can also be seen downstairs on another new patterned carpet.

Downstairs... the Ladies' Lounge, the mirrors are original, and are mounted above tables which Dr. Scott's people found in pieces in the attic, restored, and reinstalled.

The sinks are original, and unfortunately, there are only 7 stalls for the female contingent of an 1800 person capacity.

A phone booth now houses a mop, and other cleaning supplies.

By the men's lounge, the phone booth has the appearance of something more like a confessional, lending to the cathedral theme of the venue.

The men's lounge area also functioned as a smoking room, and the lobby for Mary Pickford's private screening room, whose seats and screen have been removed, but whose (newly carpeted) floor is still raked. It appears to be a small space available for rental, with the former projection booth being used for storage and a production office.

At the time of my visit (and these photos), things were still very new at the new Theatre at Ace, which wasn't yet open to the public. Finishing touches were still being applied. Some debris was still tossed about (especially since the theater was used as a base camp for the construction project of the hotel next door).

I took too many photos for one post, so stay tuned for those of the house, stage, and balcony.

See some "before" photos (not mine, unfortnately) here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Iconic Hotel Normandie
The Los Angeles Athletic Club: The Story of an L.A. Icon (Excerpt)

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