CALIFORNIA LIFE & STYLE

Reel Living

Times Staff Writer

"Master of the Flying Guillotine" was the last film Willard Ford saw at the Kim Sing Theatre. That was 25 years ago. Today, Ford is the proud owner and occupant of the vaudeville theater-turned-movie house, which hugs the edge of Chinatown at the corner of Alpine and North Figueroa.

The theater, built in 1926, had been boarded up for more than a decade when Ford, an amateur bike racer out on a training ride, saw the "For Sale" sign seven years ago. A month later, he was in escrow on the place, along with an adjacent row of neighborhood shops.

Ford, a furniture dealer, called in husband-and-wife architectural team Austin Kelly and Monika Haefelfinger of XTEN Architecture in Los Angeles to walk through the space. "It looked like something out of movie set," recalls Haefelfinger.

"The ceiling had collapsed, and there was a beam of light streaming through illuminating the old theater seats, dead rats, pigeons. It was surreal."

The owner's mandate: turn the theater into a loft home, update the leasable space along North Figueroa--and maintain the integrity of the neighborhood landmark. The architects artfully reconfigured the building, keeping the exterior profile intact. They gutted the theater to make two lofts, then created a 120-foot-long courtyard to bring light into the interior spaces.

Inside the theater, Ford's home is a voluminous space showcasing bow trusses and a dramatic red wall with an alternating pattern of doors and glass. Next to the open kitchen, a recessed seating area marks the spot of the former vaudeville stage and theater screen. Today, it's Ford's media room.

"It's more interesting adding layers to an existing structure than building from your own tabula rasa," says Kelly. "There are few places you can build from scratch in Southern California, so it's important to revive what we have."

Although the theater no longer shows movies, the neon marquee has been painstakingly restored and glows against the night sky. Four renovated stores--a pizzeria, hair salon, market and the owner's furniture showroom, FordBrady--now face Figueroa. "Many of my Chinese neighbors have fond memories of going to the movies here and also shopping," Ford says. "The renovation has brought the whole corner back to life."

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