Laugh all you want at those old public-access television clips of the late Dr. Gene Scott, the eccentric televangelist who sometimes wore two pairs of glasses at once and shouted at viewers to "Get on the telephone!" whenever his fundraising totals ebbed. He and his Los Angeles Universal Cathedral, operating from the 1927 United Artists Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, turned out to be surprisingly good friends to historic preservation.
And say what you will about the quixotic plan hatched in 2000 by Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of the Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood to turn the Forum, once home to Magic Johnson's "Showtime" Lakers and Wayne Gretzky's Kings, into a thriving combination of mega-church and high-end arena. It was precisely the ambition, even the folly, of that strategy that ultimately helped keep the 1967 Forum from falling into disrepair once the teams left for shinier quarters downtown.
As the United Artists Theatre and the Forum come back to life this winter as concert venues — the first as part of a new Ace Hotel on Broadway and the second run by the Madison Square Garden Co. — we have a rare chance to savor a victory in Los Angeles for architectural character and eccentricity over the forces of sleek homogenization.
For decades the trend in concert-hall and movie-palace architecture in Los Angeles, even accounting for the triumph of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, had been pointing toward placeless design, efficient profit-making and stacked rings of luxury boxes. A remarkable architectural lineage that included the Hollywood Bowl, the Wiltern, Mann's Chinese and the Cinerama Dome, among many other effusive and singular landmarks, had petered out by the turn of the millennium with the arrival of Staples Center and its anodyne neighbor, the Nokia Theatre.
Now the Ace and the Forum are making a stand for a certain kind of architectural authenticity. What really binds these two buildings, though one dates from the Jazz Age and the other from the tail end of L.A. modernism, is that both navigated paths from architectural ambition to decline to comeback.
And in both cases they stayed intact, even pristine, thanks to congregations that took over spaces never designed with worship in mind — and then took remarkably good care of them.
The United Artists complex, which Connecticut investment firm and hotel developer Greenfield Partners bought in 2011 for $11 million, sits on the southern edge of the Broadway Theater District, near Olympic Boulevard. It combines a 12-story tower by the architects Walker & Eisen (who also designed the Oviatt and Fine Arts buildings downtown) with an attached theater with a riotously decorated interior by the Chicago architect C. Howard Crane.
From the start it was an unconventional project. The stars who'd founded United Artists in 1919 — D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks — wanted a showpiece of a movie house that would compete with the better-established theaters up the street. Then as now, the stretch of Broadway where they settled had the feel of a frontier, a lonely edge.
The building made up for that peripheral location with over-the-top ornament and a height that nearly surpassed that of City Hall, the 454-foot-high tower that until the 1950s ruled as the tallest in Los Angeles. Inside the tower, U.A. shared space with Texaco on floors that now hold the Ace's hotel rooms.
In the theater next door, Crane produced a Spanish Gothic fantasia. Dripping with ornament, the auditorium and its lobby combined nods to the cathedral in the Spanish city of Segovia with murals by the artist Anthony Heinsbergen, who also worked on the Wiltern and the Paramount Theater in Oakland.
The theater has had a tumultuous history. It closed briefly during the Depression and over the years has booked stage shows, Spanish-language films and the 70 millimeter widescreen movie format called Todd-AO.
Scott bought the United Artists building and theater in 1986, after first trying and failing to take over the 1914 Church of the Open Door on Hope Street (it was demolished in 1988). He brought the Open Door's "Jesus Saves" neon sign with him and installed it on the roof, facing the new skyscrapers on Bunker Hill. Soon he was televising Sunday sermons from the stage of Crane's theater.
Scott had more than his share of critics, many of whom said he was using church funds to support a lavish lifestyle. A long Los Angeles Times profile in 1994 described "chauffeured limousines, Lear jet travel, a Pasadena mansion, 'round-the-clock bodyguard protection and scenic horse ranches in Kentucky and the San Gabriel Valley."
But Scott, who died in 2005 at age 75, poured more than $2 million into restoring the theater. He had work crews tear up carpeting to expose original tile floors. He paid to clean the ornate columns in the lobby. His ethnically diverse congregation, many of them exiles of one kind or another from more traditional churches, saw the preservation of the theater as God's work.
In Walker and Eisen's tower, which had been remade and subdivided over the years and where the firm Commune has designed the new hotel rooms with nods to R.M. Schindler and Frank Lloyd Wright, the team of designers and architects assembled by the Ace had a huge amount of work to do. But the theater, with its tapestry-like curtain reading "The picture's the thing," a twist on the Shakespearean phrase, was remarkably well-preserved, a kind of burnished time capsule.
The history of the Forum is better known to most Angelenos. Scouting in the mid-'60s for a location to build an arena for the Lakers and a new professional hockey team, Jack Kent Cooke settled on a piece of land in Inglewood, not far from Los Angeles International Airport, and hired the architect Charles Luckman.
Luckman, a former partner of William Pereira and before that an executive with Lever Bros., the soap company, designed for Cooke a streamlined modern riff on the Forum in Rome. White concrete arches march around the exterior of the building, marooned in the center of a giant parking lot.
When Staples Center opened in 2000, the Lakers and Kings moved east and the Forum was left with only its concert revenue. Ulmer, looking for an investment vehicle and a place to house his growing Inglewood congregation on Sunday mornings, seized on the idea of taking over the Forum, which seats roughly 18,000 people.
His plan: run it as a place of worship and as a concert venue. But he clashed with every promoter he brought in to book the building, and stopped holding services there by 2009. Three years later, when Madison Square Garden Co. offered him $23.5 million for the Forum, he decided to end his experiment and cut his losses.
Madison Square Garden is familiar with arenas of this vintage — and with Charles Luckman. Its anchor venue, the much-pilloried Madison Square Garden in New York, is another Luckman design, from 1968. The company hired the same firms that had overseen the Garden's recent renovation, Toronto's BBB Architects, to overhaul the Forum.
As with the Ace, the architects found in the Forum a building in surprisingly good shape. Some of the additions by BBB don't quite mesh with the building's original sensibility; the carpet on the concourse, already presumably absorbing plenty of spilled Bud Light, is less Luckman Modern than Convention Center Contemporary. But on the whole the architects have proceeded with an admirably light touch inside.
As these two venues welcome a broad public once again, they produce some thorny questions about gentrification and what new investment means for urban neighborhoods accustomed to being overlooked.
The stretch of Broadway where the Ace has set up shop occupies the bleeding edge of downtown L.A.'s transformation. For now the revival of the block is entirely encouraging and raises hopes that a developer will invest in the shuttered Los Angeles Herald-Examiner building down the street, designed by Julia Morgan for William Randolph Hearst, the same way Ace has invested in its new home.
But it will be worth watching to see just how soon the revival of this part of Broadway tips from surprising to precious.
Inglewood, soon to see both a giant development on the Hollywood Park site and an economic boost from the new Crenshaw Line light-rail route, is asking similar questions about the promise and perils of gentrification. The recent decision by Stan Kroenke, owner of the NFL's St. Louis Rams, to buy 60 acres between the Forum and the racetrack site as a possible location for a football stadium has intensified the spotlight on the city.
One issue to keep in mind, as new investment pours into Inglewood, is whether the Forum parking lot, which does set off Luckman's design to dramatic effect, can be redesigned to be a more pleasant place to be (or walk through) in its own right. Another is whether Inglewood can build on the commitment Madison Square Garden is making by stitching together some new pedestrian links between the arena and a planned Crenshaw Line station at Florence and La Brea avenues, due to open in 2019.
Inglewood's handsome if struggling downtown, stretching along Market Street, is nearly as well-preserved as the Forum. The city's next step should be trying to make sure that the economic spillover from the Forum's rebirth moves not just south to the new Hollywood Park megaproject but also north to Market and toward the new stations.
The city, after all, could be well-positioned for a comeback given its attractive, affordable housing stock, the new connectivity the Crenshaw Line will bring and its location between the beach and Culver City.
For the moment, though, it's worth pausing to celebrate the fact that two of Southern California's quirkiest and most charismatic architectural landmarks are not just back in action but looking better preserved than we had any reason to expect.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times