Koreatown's cool old buildings point to L.A.'s future

Christopher Hawthorne
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Architecture Critic

A 1941 Los Angeles guidebook described architect Myron Hunt's I. Magnin building on Wilshire Boulevard, finished two years earlier, as an "elaborate new" department store with shop floors "furnished in shades of apricot" and featuring "indirect lighting effects like those achieved by Parisian artists and technicians."

On a Saturday night inside S Bar, the club tucked away on the building's fourth floor, prewar elegance didn't exactly come to mind as a DJ perched on a high platform looked out at a sea of twentysomethings, their tables crowded with shot glasses, beer bottles and stale popcorn. With pulsing strobe lights and a U-shaped bar outlined in ice-blue neon, the place was closer to the design equivalent of vodka and Red Bull in a plastic cup.

Yet S Bar and the other businesses in what is now called the Wilshire Galleria, pitched to a largely Korean and Korean American clientele, have protected Hunt's Art Deco landmark from the wrecking ball simply by keeping it economically viable.

The relationship between the nightclub and the building suggests the peculiar respect — jostling, energetic and impious — that Koreatown shows the architecture of its host city.

If K-town increasingly resembles an empire on the march, gobbling up new territory by the week, it is not an empire made of bricks and mortar. It is a net draped over the existing cityscape, a net of signage and light, easily stretched and infinitely expandable. It fills, cloaks or remakes spaces in the city others had abandoned or forgotten about.

In a city that has often demolished even its best-known landmarks, that makes it both an anomaly and a suggestion of the L.A. to come. Threaded through a neighborhood that in demographic terms is mostly Latino, well served by subway and bus lines, K-town is a thriving, charismatic advertisement for a more intensely urban Los Angeles.

It is also a reflection of a city whose immigrants are more settled than ever before, increasingly gaining the clout to shape public and private architecture.

We think of Southern California as region of immigrants, and for good reason: 36% of the Los Angeles County population was born outside the U.S., a figure three times the national average.

But immigration to L.A. County peaked in 1990. The foreign-born population is older, better connected socially and more financially stable than it's ever been. A recent study found that just 5% of children here are immigrants but that a remarkable 60% have at least one immigrant parent.

As debates over legal and illegal immigration continue to roil Washington, the rest of the country looks to Los Angeles to catch a glimpse of its cultural future, to see how a metropolitan region, over many decades, has dealt with profound demographic change.

And when L.A. wants to see its own future along those lines? It looks to Koreatown.

The first Korean immigrants to Southern California, a small group that included a number of Presbyterian evangelists, arrived in the late 19th century, settling first on Bunker Hill and later near USC. In the 1960s, thanks to relaxed federal immigration rules, Koreans began arriving in much larger numbers.

Many found housing or opened businesses in the once-glamorous mid-Wilshire area. Rents were cheap, and there was a stock of impressive architecture, including Art Deco buildings wrapped in terra cotta and postwar towers of glass and steel.

"The buildings were not in great shape," said Katherine Yungmee Kim, author of a recent book on Koreatown. "And some of them are still not in great shape. But they're intensely beautiful."

Hi Duk Lee, who arrived in Los Angeles from South Korea in 1968, became the most outspoken champion of the area's postwar growth. His boldest plans, including a huge hotel designed in a traditional Korean style, were never realized. But he opened the popular VIP Palace restaurant on Olympic Boulevard and helped convince Mayor Tom Bradley in 1980 to officially give the name "Koreatown" to the neighborhood.

Whatever stability Koreatown achieved in the decade that followed was shattered by the 1992 riots. They exposed deep rifts between Koreans and African Americans, some of whom saw immigrant merchants as interlopers or worse. Hundreds of Korean-owned businesses were burned in six nights of violence.

Though the unrest convinced thousands of Korean Americans to sell their businesses or move to the suburbs, many stayed, including a developer and entrepreneur named Kee-Whan Ha. When the riots exploded through the center of the city, Ha owned a small chain of Hannam supermarkets. (He would go on to buy the Wilshire Galleria, among other properties.)

As the violence intensified, Ha went on the air at Radio Korea to urge Korean merchants to defend their stores by force if necessary.

"Don't go home," he pleaded. "Protect your business. Your business is your life."

He then drove to his Hannam market on Olympic Boulevard and climbed onto the roof with his handgun, joining friends and relatives. In the firefight with rioters that ensued, a Hannam security guard was killed in what Ha has described as friendly fire.

Ha's exhortation — "Don't go home" — suggested that what is true now was true in 1992: that many Koreans who own businesses in K-town live elsewhere. Today, the residential population of Koreatown is 52% Latino, 21% Korean, 7% white and 5% African American.

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Koreatown's expansion can seem relentless. It's now at least two miles wide, from Crenshaw Boulevard east to Virgil Avenue, and roughly as deep, from Beverly Boulevard down to Olympic. Korean-language signs stretch far past those edges in all directions.

There is some ground-up construction, like a new glass-and-steel condo tower called the Vermont. The Wilshire Grand Center, a few miles east in downtown Los Angeles, is a 73-story tower being built by South Korea's Hanjin Group.

But most of K-town's striking landmarks are existing buildings lightly dressed to suggest a friendly, low-key and perhaps reversible takeover by Korean culture.

Among the best known examples is the Chapman Park Market on 6th Street, an elaborate 1928 design by architect Stiles O. Clements.

In 1990, architect Brenda Levin carefully restored the courtyard shopping center — the first drive-in market in America — with the developer Wayne Ratkovich, repairing its intricate Spanish Revival ornament and adding a large "Chapman" sign to the red-tiled roof along 6th Street. After the riots, business stalled, and Ratkovich was forced to sell.

Chapman Market then got a second, decidedly less reverential redesign. Colored lights, the kind you might see on a Christmas tree, are draped along seemingly every patch of exposed roofline and on the Chapman sign. Its restaurants and coffee bars are now packed on weekend nights with young Koreans and Korean Americans.

The current epicenter of K-town nightlife, the Line Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, occupies a 12-story concrete tower that was built in 1964 as a Hyatt Hotel. It has been remade by the 44-year-old Korean-born chef Roy Choi, who made his name with a fleet of Kogi taco trucks, and designer Sean Knibb.

In Koreatown, Knibb said, "so many powerful old buildings had lost their way. The city was really focused on Hollywood and the beach. Everything in between was sort of left to rot."

There has been expensive, serious preservation work in K-town in recent years, like the $150-million restoration of A.M. Edelman's 1929 Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

And there has been a whole lot of, well, kitschier reimagining: At the Prince Restaurant & Bar, on the ground floor of a 1927 apartment building on 7th Street, you can sit in a red Naugahyde booth sipping an Old Fashioned to go with your Korean fried chicken.

Not every landmark in Koreatown has been destined for reinvention. The 1921 Ambassador Hotel, site of six early Oscar ceremonies and the 1968 shooting of Robert Kennedy and among Hunt's most important designs, was razed in 2005 over the objections of preservationists. It was replaced by a complex of public schools.

The school district might face a tougher demolition fight today, thanks to the impressive string of restoration projects nearby. Koreatown, like downtown, has helped make old buildings cool again in Los Angeles.

It has also made clear that a denser L.A., an alarming prospect for many longtime residents, is highly appealing to others. Architect and developer Christopher Pak, who designed the 22-story Solair apartment tower above a subway station at Wilshire and Western Avenue, said the neighborhood was drawing new residents, many of them college students or recent graduates from Seoul, who want urban amenities even if that means living in small spaces.

For them, "quality of life is not a big house and a backyard," said Pak, who came to Los Angeles from Korea at age 8 with his parents in 1970. "It's time. If they can walk downstairs and get breakfast or go to the market, instead of spending 20 minutes each way driving, that's a big advantage."

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One of the most stubborn stereotypes about Los Angeles is that it relies on an architecture of detachment. Each famous landmark — Griffith Observatory, Dodger Stadium, Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 22 — stands apart from the city around it, marooned on a hillside lot or in a sea of parking spaces.

We've tended to think of immigrant neighborhoods in the same way. You are now entering Little Tokyo. You are now entering Thai Town. Little Armenia. Historic Filipinotown. One is here. The other is there.

But L.A. has for decades been a messier, more crowded and more layered place than the clichés let on. And more than any other factor it was an intense period of immigration, peaking a quarter of a century ago, that produced this layering, bringing a definitive end to the deeply privatized, essentially suburban Los Angeles of the postwar years.

Koreatown suggests more directly than any other neighborhood what the city's next phase — post-immigrant, post-suburban L.A. — will look like.

K-town uses the past without venerating it. It makes do. It expands (and expands, and expands) but not by building on vacant land.

It grows by stacking, piling, adding to, invading, burnishing or pushing aside. By hanging a sign on, exposing, illuminating or prettying up.

Koreatown is an overloud, overdesigned nightclub squeezed near the top a five-story department store once famous for Art Deco interiors in shades of apricot. It is a late-modern mid-Wilshire hotel remade in the gregarious if carefully tended image of a Gen-X street-food impresario.

It is a string of colored Christmas lights laid over Spanish Revival ornament from the 1920s and twinkling every night of the year.

Follow me on Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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