October 04, 2018

Photo Essay: A Rare Visit Atop An Art Deco Shopping Palace on Miracle Mile

I'd been non-committal about my birthday, as usual.

Michelle was coming into town for work, and I knew I wanted to spend my birthday with her. What we were going to do together—besides share a meal and some drinks—was still to be determined a week before her arrival.

And then I saw the announcement about a members-only cocktail party in an Art Deco penthouse, on the night of my birthday.

The location was secret to non-members like me—but regardless of where it was, it seemed like it would be worth re-upping my Art Deco membership after having let it lapse six years ago. At least, if I could get Michelle in.

"Could it be Desmond's?" I wondered, I hoped.

"It's Desmond's," Joanna, already a member and "in the know," told me.

I signed up shortly thereafter.

Although the Desmond's department store hasn't been open for business for decades, the tower of the so-called "Desmond's Building" still bears the neon letters of its name, making it a local landmark for even those of us who never got to shop there.

And fortunately for vintage aficionados, many of its other original features remain, too, even on street level...

...including the starburst terrazzo sidewalk with black and red granite...

...a brass lettered inlay...

... and the Wilshire Boulevard signage.

Now, the Gilbert Stanley Underwood-designed monument is known as The Desmond, offering upscale residential units.

If you round the corner...

...and head towards the back of the building... end up at the parking lot entryway...

...where you can slip into the dark, ornate lobby...

...dimly lit by the remaining daylight...

...and those "wedding cake" pendant fixtures (not original) that have become synonymous with "Art Deco."

I'd already been that far into the former Desmond's department store before—back in 2011, on a walking tour of Miracle Mile. But until my birthday, I hadn't ridden the original antique manual elevator, which dates back to 1929.

Nor had I met its captain, Ruben Pardo—one of the last working elevator operators in LA, who's been safely transporting visitors and tenants up and down the tower for the last four decades, manually lifting and descending, and opening and closing the safety gate with a ka-thunk. "We're going to the top," he announced.

Desmond's was first in line to transform this section of Wilshire Boulevard from farmland, tar seepage, and residences into a thriving commercial district that brought shoppers west of Downtown.

Its top-floor penthouse is essentially empty, ripe for cocktail parties such as ours, where beverage-toting looky-loos such as myself can climb out onto the fire escape, strappy, peep-toe heels be damned...

...and gaze up at those larger-than life letters that have been beaconing and beckoning for so long.

But the real pièce de résistance of the event wasn't the penthouse, but the roof.

From up there, we could look north towards the Hollywood Hills, east towards Downtown and the mountains beyond...

...south towards an intact residential area, and west to face the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean, a perfect time capsule of LA new and old, low- and high-rise, modern and Moderne.

And, of course, it was probably my only chance to get a good look at the building itself—known in its entirety as the Wilshire Tower, as Desmond's was one of two flagship retailers that occupied the street level (the other being Silverwood's) and many other tenants occupied the upper floors.

LA's Dapper Dans came out in full force on Sunday night, sporting their nattiest period-appropriate costuming.

And the red, Pacific sky delivered on a classic LA autumn sunset, replete with dramatic clouds and a surreal palette of blood and ice cream, swirled with gold and dreams.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Miracle Mile
Why You Need Eyes in the Back of Your Head in LA
Photo Essay: Bullocks Wilshire, The Art Deco Law School Campus (Updated)
Photo Essay: Wilshire May Company Building, Miracle Mile

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