Monday, October 3, 2005

L.A.'s Main Drag

At nine years and counting, I’ve lived nearly twice as long in Los Angeles than I have anywhere else (having grown up an Air Force brat).

Therefore, as I drove Sunday morning to the Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Curating the City: Wilshire Blvd.” event, it dawned on me: Given my jobs at Variety and Electronic Media, I’ve spent more of my waking life on Wilshire than any other street in my life. In other words, Wilshire Blvd. is my Main Street.

The L.A. Conservancy’s decision to celebrate Wilshire couldn’t come at a more important time, as the street continues to undergo evolution. Perino’s is already gone; and as readers of this blog are well aware, the Ambassador isn’t much long for the world. At the same time, the Miracle Mile and Wilshire Center are in for some major changes, as condo projects dot the street.

And hey, even MacArthur Park is safer than it has been in years… giving you yet another reason to grab some pastrami at Langer’s.

Here’s how the L.A. Conservancy introduced Sunday’s event, via the day’s program:

Spanning nearly 16 miles from downtown to the beach, Wilshire Boulevard is the symbolic spine of Los Angeles. It crosses three cities, includes the most dense and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Los Angeles, reflects nearly every major architectural style of the twentieth century, and embodies the role of the automobile in the growth of Southern California. The story of Wilshire is the story of Los Angeles.

Of course, it would be impossible to check out all of Wilshire’s cool historic and architectural gems in a day, so the Conservancy stuck to six:

Elks Club/Park Plaza Hotel (607 S. Park View St.) Curlett and Beelman, 1925

Wilshire Boulevard Temple (3663 Wilshire Blvd.) A.M. Edelman, S. Tilden Norton and David C. Allison, 1929

Bullocks Wilshire (now part of the Southwestern Law School) (3050 Wilshire Blvd.) John and Donald Parkinson, 1929

Johnie’s Coffee Shop (6101 Wilshire Blvd.) Armet and Davis, 1955

Wadsworth Chapel at VA-WLA (Eisenhower Ave. and Bonsall Ave.) J. Burton Lee, 1900

Miles Memorial Playhouse (1130 Lincoln Blvd.) John Byers, 1929

With Blogger Baby in tow, there was no humanly way to see all six. So I decided to hit Bullocks Wilshire and Johnies. But first, we had to stop by the Park Plaza Hotel, where registration was being held.

You may remember, Maria and I snuck on the Park Plaza roof back in April, when we were attending Jeff and Jess’ wedding there. Got some great shots, and discovered that the building’s upper floors were completely gutted.

The Park Plaza was originally the Elks Club, where the city powerful and wealthy could stay (in one of 169 hotel rooms), exercise, swim and bowl. The Elks Club moved out by 1970… and these days the building is used mostly for film shoots.

Stationed at the Park Plaza on Sunday was LAObserved’s Kevin Roderick, as well as J. Eric Lynxwiler (above), who were signing copies of their just-released “Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles.”

On to Bullocks Wilshire. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of the famed old department store – I moved here in 1996, three years after Macy’s (which bought Bullock’s and shut down the location) closed the store down for good. Southwestern Law bought the building and began a ten-year, $29 million rehab in 1994.

The Art Deco masterpiece looks great. Unfortunately, the Southwestern Law folks are camera shy, and wouldn’t let us take any shots. But here are a few from their official web site:

Bullocks Wilshire Central Hall – the entrance way, as well as home to the perfume counters

The famous fifth floor Bullocks Wilshire Tea Room, restored to its original 1929 colors. Still used for dining by law students and faculty.

The restoration is fantastic, and a textbook case of how reuse can work (did you hear that, LAUSD?). We checked out several floors, including the famed Bullocks Wilshire tea room (which Maria remembers visiting once).

Bullocks Wilshire was built in 1929, back when this strip of Wilshire was completely empty. The department store’s developers were already hip to the age of the automobile, placing its entrance in the back where the cars parked – a revolutionary idea at the time.

Johnie’s Coffee Shop, with the old May Co. store (now LACMA West) in the background

Next, it was down to Wilshire and Fairfax, home to one of L.A.’s last remaining examples of Googie-style architecture, the Johnie’s Coffee Shop. Johnie’s shut down in 2000, but the building – now owned by the 99 Cents Only Stores family – remains.

I’m rather bummed that I never made it to Johnie’s before it closed down for good. But I have my excuses: In its final years, Johnie’s hours were short. And the place was already past its prime.

But today, I made sure to check it out (and have some pie). Johnie’s first opened in 1955 as Romeo’s Times Square, before becoming Ram’s… and then settling in as Johnie’s. These days, Johnie’s remains a popular film shoot location; the building’s flashing-light-bulb-and-neon megasign also regularly still illuminates the nighttime sky.

One of the things I love about L.A. Conservancy events: For a moment, classic L.A. spots come alive once again. Here, at least for one afternoon, pie is back at Johnie’s.

Peeling back paint, Johnie’s restorers discovered… a mural of dogs hanging out at a bar. No lie.

Before it was Johnies… it was Romeo’s Times Square. But only for about a year and a half.

In its final years, Johnie’s didn’t see nearly this amount of foot traffic.

Two stops was about all Evan could handle… but he was a prince, staring wide-eyed at the art deco fixtures at the Bullocks Wilshire (and flirting with himself in the mirrors at the store’s Louis XIV room) and trying to grab my pie at Johnies.

The Wilshire event also brought out the bloggers. Besides Roderick, Evan and I ran into’s Laurie Pike, as well as Trained Monkey’s Jim Winstead and Sha in LA, who had some nice things to say about Franklin Avenue.

(Postcard image from Yesterday L.A..)

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