Friday, September 15, 2006

Yet Another Wilshire Building Turns to Dust

Demolition has begun (above) on the 1949 Mullen and Bluett building located on the Miracle Mile -- just the latest in a string of recent Wilshire losses (not as heartbreaking, of course, as the loss of the Ambassador Hotel, or even Perino's. But every loss stings).

We've written several times about the debate over whether the building should be saved, most recently last year. The Mullen and Bluett building has been empty since May 28, 2005, when the last tenant moved out. Until recently, Office Depot and Sav-on Drugs took up most of the building.

Above, the Mullen and Bluett building in its prime. The structure, originally home to the men's clothing shop, is believed to have been designed by Stiles Clements, who was also behind the famed Wiltern Theatre, as well as several classic Los Angeles buildings that are sadly long gone: The Miracle Mile's Coulter's Department Store, built in 1938 and razed in 1980 (and still just a pit today); the 1929 Richfield Building downtown, razed in 1969; and the 1936 KFI studios, torn down by the LAUSD in 2003.

But as the Los Angeles Times noted in 2003, there's some debate over whether Clements actually designed the Mullen and Bluett building. Legacy Partners, which is developing the land, aggressively pursued that theory in order to silence preservationists:

One side says the sprawling two-story building is a historic gem of a Miracle Mile department store that today is one of the last remaining examples of mid-century "California design" by acclaimed Los Angeles architect Stiles Clements.

The other asserts that the building was never a department store, that it suffers from humdrum architecture that is out of character with rest of the famed retail boulevard — and that it probably wasn't even designed by Stiles Clements at all.

It's an odd dispute, because many of Clements' certified architectural landmarks have been unceremoniously torn down in the past with people scarcely batting an eye...

Preservationist Eric Lynxwiler was doing research a few months ago for a planned book on Wilshire Boulevard for writer Kevin Roderick, author of "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb," when he learned that the boulevard's Mullen & Bluett building was next on the hit list.

Irvine-based Legacy Partners had filed plans with the city to demolish the building and a smaller structure next door. The development firm proposed building 197 apartment units and ground-level retail storefronts on Wilshire between Burnside Avenue and Ridgeley.

"The design of Mullen & Bluett is amazing. It's a style that is just now being appreciated. It's a 1949 structure that looks like it's from the '70s," Lynxwiler said.

With a brick facade balanced by first-floor flagstone, the store featured men's furnishings on the first floor and a women's section on the second. "This was the first architectural style after World War II, a 'late Moderne.' This is what led to the '50s and '60s modern that everybody's familiar with," he said.

Lynxwiler hurriedly organized other preservationists in a campaign to persuade Legacy Partners to preserve the Mullen & Bluett building — now occupied by an Office Depot and a Sav-On Drugs. He urged that the apartments be designed in a style that complements Clements' structure and be built behind the retail structure...

Legacy Partners responded by hiring Los Angeles Art Deco architecture expert Mitzi March Mogul to evaluate the Miracle Mile building. Her findings, filed two weeks ago, caused jaws to drop.

"Although Clements may have designed some excellent buildings, [this] building is not one of these. It's demolition will not damage Clements' oeuvre," the report concluded.

The building was never a department store, it was only a men's clothing store, Mogul reported. Its architectural style exhibits "no particular design identity" and doesn't really fit in with the overall Art Deco-look of the Miracle Mile area.

Mogul questioned whether Clements even designed the 1949 structure.

"The building does not appear representative of Clements' personal style and appears more likely the work of a younger person, schooled in a different attitude toward ornamentation. The building may not have been executed by Clements, but only approved by him."

If Clements did design it, the building may "have been just a bread and butter commission" for "an architect near the end of his career" at age 64, she said.

Here's the design of the building that will take its place. Lynxwiler refers to buildings similar to this as "fake art deco" -- a style that appears to be growing on Wilshire, particularly the Miracle Mile.

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