L.A.'s invisible builder

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It is a gray day at Parker Center, the nearly 50-year-old headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, and cops and customers alike shuffle glumly across a much-scuffed terrazzo floor. The place seems entirely glee-free on this recent morning until Chris Nichols, a chunky 31-year-old preservationist with a bow tie and a wide grin, steps through the front doors like a child entering the See's factory. "It's just freakishly intact," whispers Nichols, scanning the walls and ceiling. "Corporate Modern things like this get such a bad rap. But look at this. It's like a World's Fair!"This is what it means to be bonkers for Welton Becket. And this is why, in coming days, scores of the architect's admirers will celebrate his centennial (several months late) by taking to the streets to marvel at his many works.

Between 1933 and his death in 1969, Becket and his architectural firm's staff designed dozens of corporate and civic landmarks in Los Angeles and hundreds more around the world. Finding his work on this city's skyline is like finding a Volkswagen on the freeway or Hal Holbrook playing the president on a late-night television drama: You may not be looking for him, and he may not look exactly the same every time, but there he is. And there, and there and there.

Becket's firm designed the Music Center (1964-67) in downtown Los Angeles, along with the General Petroleum Building at Sixth and Flower streets -- the largest office building in Southern California when it went up in 1947. (Now it's being converted into lofts.) His firm's name is on the Capitol Records building (though staffer Louis Naidorf gets credit for the cylindrical shape) and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood (now known as Arclight's Cinerama Dome).

Becket master-planned the vast Century City complex beginning in 1959. He laid out the Beverly Hilton (1955) and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (1958-59), and gave Bullocks Pasadena (1947, now Macy's) a stately, automobile-conscious home that some architectural historians credit for largely creating the postwar suburban department store as a building type. He co-designed the much-loved Streamline Moderne Pan-Pacific Auditorium (since burned and razed) in 1935, and 26 years later collaborated with Charles Luckman, William Pereira and Paul Williams on the spider-legged Theme Building at LAX.

Despite this enormous output, Becket's work hasn't always gotten much respect. At Parker Center, which Becket designed in 1955, police officials have been lobbying for demolition and reconstruction for at least six years, arguing that the existing structure is hopelessly outdated. In the most recent edition of the authoritative "Los Angeles: An Architectural Guide," authors Robert Winter and David Gebhard cautioned that "as with most Corporate Modern buildings of the 1950s and 1960s," Parker Center "has not aged well."

But when Nichols and his modernist brethren look upon Parker Center, they delight in the dozen blue-tiled columns out front, the brass fixtures, the glass walls, the 20-foot vertical louvers in the lobby, and the specially commissioned bronze in front by Bernard Rosenthal and mosaic tile mural inside by Joseph Young. They see an architect at the peak of his career, defining what modern Los Angeles will look like.

And at a time of growing designer nostalgia for the mid-century look-- indeed, separating the earnest appreciators and kitsch-collecting appropriators is no easy job --Becket is ripe for rediscovery.

"Welton Becket's greatest buildings are as much a part of Los Angeles as Christopher Wren's are of London," writes Alan Hess, author of "Googie" and "Viva Las Vegas," in a new essay for the Los Angeles Conservancy. Becket's buildings, Hess suggests, "cannot be divided from the way we see or think of L.A."

The centennial of the architect's birth came in August, and a clutch of Becket's family, friends and admirers gathered at Trader Vic's to celebrate. But for the activists of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee, something more public seemed in order.

And so on Tuesday, the ModCom invited Becket family members and friends to join the public for a lecture by Hess, a round-table discussion and several film clips at Arclight's Cinerama Dome. (See related story.)

On Saturday, organizers have arranged tours of three key Becket projects -- Bullocks (now Macy's) Pasadena, the Music Center, and the Post-War House at Wilshire Boulevard and Highland Avenue -- linked by a booklet that proposes self-guided driving routes past more Becket buildings.

On Sunday, about 55 big-ticket donors to MOCA and the conservancy will take a daylong bus tour (which by late February had a long waiting list) designed to explore commercial architecture of the city and Becket's central role.

But there's more than one way to investigate the Becket legacy. Calendar Weekend convened a rolling colloquium of its own a few days ago. We invited Nichols, who serves as chairman of the ModCom's outreach efforts when not absorbed by his day job as an editor at Los Angeles magazine. And we called Laura Massino, who possesses a master's degree in architectural history, a business license for a company called Architecture Tours L.A., and a shiny black 1962 Cadillac.

In her three years of leading tours here, Massino confessed, nobody has asked her for a Welton Becket itinerary. (Hollywood and the modernist Schindler and Neutra homes of Silver Lake are the favorites.) But what better time than now? And what better vehicle than a 1962 Cadillac (with a separate cigarette lighter for every seat) to evoke those days when Becket was biggest?

Serving the client

With Massino at the wheel, Nichols at her side dispensing trivia, old postcards and photos, and a photographer and reporter in back, the Cadillac crawls from Becket building to Becket building. "Ahh," says Massino, approaching the Music Center. When its plaza and three performing arts venues went up from 1964 to 1967, the event was hailed, along with the opening of William Pereira's Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard, as a civic and cultural coming of age. With its reflecting pools, pale stone walls and gentle curves, the Music Center was viewed as a bold statement of modernity. But now it has a daunting new neighbor: Frank O. Gehry's gleaming, curling stainless-steel-skinned Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is set for a ribbon-cutting in October. With Gehry's steel apparition so close by, said Massino, "some people might think the Music Center looks dated. But I think it just adds to the beauty of the area."Becket wasn't an aesthetic ideologue. Instead, he excelled at befriending captains of industry and retaining them as repeat customers. One reason was his ability to estimate budgets accurately. (Becket credited the Depression for sharpening his financial skills.) Another was his credo of "total design," which meant capitalizing on technological advances and offering a broader range of services than most architects' offices could handle. A third was his stylistic pliability.

Unlike many celebrated architects before and since, Becket built his empire in part by insisting that each project serve the client's taste and needs, not illustrate the architect's unique sensibility. This was true in the relatively small number of residences he did near the beginning of his career, and equally true in the 1950s and 1960s, when a busy six weeks might find Becket conferring with three heads of state (as he did with the U.S.' Eisenhower, Egypt's Naguib and Cuba's Batista in late 1953).

In his 1972 book on Becket, "Total Design: Architecture of Welton Becket and Associates," author William Dudley Hunt sketched the architect as a player of golf and pool, a drinker of Scotch, possessor of a potent temper.

He had been born and raised in Seattle, and played quarterback for the University of Washington football team -- at a reported 140 pounds -- before embarking on post-graduate-study architecture in France.

From 1933 on, he made Los Angeles his home, and from the mid-'30s until 1949, his firm was a partnership with his best friend, Walter Wurdeman. When Wurdeman died of a heart attack, Becket went solo, his client list fed by friendships with countless Hollywood stars, captains of industry and other notables, including Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney and President Eisenhower (for whom he designed an Indian Wells house).

"Some architects design to suit their own fancies and costs skyrocket and there is no functionalism," Becket complained in a 1958 interview. In another interview two years later, he went a step further: "We design for the client," he said. "I see no reason why I should express Welton Becket."

Hail Precipitron

The Cadillac passes the old General Petroleum Building on Flower-- where Massino reminds us how Becket found a way to build lighter skyscrapers by changing concrete mixing formulas -- then noses onto Wilshire, passing a steady succession of tall, broad Becket buildings that thousands of Angelenos pass daily without a second thought, including the massive 1969 Equitable Life Building at 3435 Wilshire; and the 22-story Travelers Insurance building at 3600 Wilshire. The march of the office buildings is interrupted, however, at Wilshire and Highland, where we come upon a tiny ranch house at 4950 Wilshire, mostly hidden by landscaping and dwarfed by the buildings around it. This, explains Nichols, producing a 57-year-old souvenir program from his bag of tricks, is the Post-War House. Fritz Burns, a pioneer developer of San Fernando Valley tracts, conceived the project and enlisted Becket to show Californians how they should live in the postwar world. Squint at its courtyard fireplace and flagstone exterior details and you can begin to imagine its 1946 opening and the estimated 1 million visitors who trooped through to gaze upon such domestic wonders as the Precipitron, an electronic air purifier slightly larger than a refrigerator. After several years of service as a model home, the property passed into commercial use. Today, the interior has been altered beyond recognition and houses a German social club and a Korean newspaper. The Precipitron is missing.

By 1969, Becket's company was among the largest architecture firms in the world, with more than 400 employees and building credits from Havana to Cairo (Hiltons) to Warsaw (a U.S. embassy) to the 1964 World's Fair in New York (for which he designed the exhibits of Ford and General Electric).

After his death, Becket's company endured another 20 years, then was bought by the Minneapolis-based firm now known as Ellerbe Becket. (Becket's son, Bruce, has his own architectural firm in Los Angeles and helped the conservancy assemble its tribute.)

Becket's granddaughter Alisa, who was born the year the architect died, recalled that when she was little, "it seemed like we'd never go across town without there being at least a few of my grandfather's buildings along the way. But as a kid, I never really quite got it."

"Growing up," confessed Alisa's 26-year-old sister, Alexandra, "I was embarrassed by how outdated the designs seemed to be, according to a lot of people's opinions."

New respect

There's still plenty ahead. From Wilshire, the Cadillac heads up to the Capitol Records building (where a security guard blocks entry to the lobby), then to the Sunset Boulevard complex now known as Arclight's Cinerama Dome, where the manager shares a wealth of detail about the design and construction of the dome. But time is tight. Our tour is doomed to stop after just this handful of sites, leaving, oh, 100 or more unexplored. Nichols is philosophical. "The Becket Experience includes some great individual pieces," he says. "But it's really about how one firm is so responsible for the look of the city."

About three years ago, both Becket granddaughters moved back to Los Angeles after years away. And once they met the Los Angeles Conservancy's ModCom mavens, their grandfather, and their city, began to look different.

Now Alexandra Becket consorts regularly with ModCom members and wrings her hands over prospective demolitions and renovations.

Alisa Becket, who manages travel programs for the Museum of Contemporary Art, eagerly ticks off her favorite structures: the Pan-Pacific Auditorium; the Pasadena Bullocks; and the McCulloch House in Rancho Mirage, built in the mid-'50s for the popularizer of the personal chainsaw, who went on to import the London Bridge to Arizona. The house (now in the hands of new owners whose renovation plans have raised alarms with preservationists) is full of electronic gadgets, including a "human lazy Susan" in the backyard to facilitate even tanning.

"There are so many buildings," says Alisa Becket. "I've started to feel so connected to the city. You hear people complain that Los Angeles has no history or culture, but it really does -- including the buildings my grandfather designed. There's no doubt that they are dated. But they've become the city's treasures."

Times researcher Cary Schneider also contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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