Restoration Planned for 'Million Dollar Building' : Developer Buys Downtown Landmark

Times Staff Writer

The Million Dollar Building, the elaborately embellished structure at 3rd and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, where Latinos have flocked for years for movies and live entertainment, has been sold for $6.5 million to the developer renovating the neighboring Grand Central Market.

"I intend to restore it to a Class A luxury office building, with a fully rebuilt interior . . . and full restoration of the exterior historic facades," said Ira Yellin, whose Yellin Co. closed the purchase on Dec. 30.

The Million Dollar name, however, will likely be bulldozed. "We'll probably rename the building," Yellin said Thursday, "and the name that keeps coming to my mind is the Mulholland Building."

According to Yellin, legend has it that William Mulholland, the Department of Water and Power engineer who selected the route for the Los Angeles aqueduct system, waged some of his political battles in still intact offices and a board room on the 12th floor of the Million Dollar Building. The offices housed the Metropolitan Water District for more than 30 years until it moved in 1963.

The Million Dollar Theater will continue to operate, Yellin said, under an arrangement with Metropolitan Theaters, a Southern California theater operator whose 25-year lease on the theater does not expire until 2009.

The building, at 307 S. Broadway, is rich in history and is considered one of the most important structures architecturally in Los Angeles. The preservation-minded Yellin bought it from Frank Fouce, who moved into the building as a tenant in 1950 and bought it 20 years ago in partnership with a family trust.

Built by Sid and D. J. Grauman and designed by architect William Lee Woollett, the theater opened Feb. 1, 1918, and for decades was a popular first-run movie house. Now it features films and live shows from Latin America.

It features a combination of Spanish and Baroque architecture and ornamentation and is well recognized as a Latino cultural center not only in Los Angeles but also in many parts of Latin America. Mexican vaudeville acts still perform monthly in the building's theater.

A 1984 book called "The City Observed: Los Angeles" describes the Million Dollar's facade: "(The) exterior drips with outsize . . . ornament, some traditionally Spanish, some brazenly Western. Resembling an aging Miz Kitty in her dated dance-hall finery, it oozes populist character. Longhorn cattle skulls resplendent with life-size bronze horns nuzzle volutes and Spanish moldings; bison head corbels support a silent-screen parade of statues representing the Fine Arts, including . . . a cinematographer behind his camera."

Embedded in the sidewalk are plaques featuring the names of Latino performers such as Cantinflas, the actor and comedian.

Bruce Corwin, president of Metropolitan Theaters, which operates 80 screens in Southern California, said: "We have in the Million Dollar the most successful Spanish-language theater in the country. It is to the Hispanic community what Radio City Music Hall is to people in New York." Corwin said the theater will continue to operate while the rest of the building is being renovated.

Ruben Jauregui, a prominent Latino businessman and a member of the Los Angeles 2000 Committee, recalled going to the theater as a child. "Sometimes my mom would send me to the theater while she went next door to Grand Central Market to do her shopping," he said. "It conjures up fond memories."

He said, "I think it's a wise investment. They are . . . placing themselves on the leading edge of developing that area."

Yellin said plans call for a 450-space garage at 3rd and Hill streets that will be attached to the Million Dollar. The garage will house an international newsstand and bookstore. In addition, he said, he hopes to locate a "New York- or San Francisco-quality" restaurant in a huge basement space that until the late 1970s featured a favorite downtown watering hole.

Rents, he said, will be less than $2 a square foot a month, about 25% cheaper than in comparable office buildings downtown.

As for how a luxury office building will blend with crowds of shoppers and long lines of moviegoers, Yellin said: "We have the opportunity to develop a truly integrated society where you will have a lot of Latin, Asian and Anglo people working, mixing and functioning together."

Yellin said he intends to begin the restoration, at a cost of as much as $5 million, no later than April or May. The architect for the project is Brenda Levin, who is now working on Yellin's Grand Central Market and is known for her restoration of the Fine Arts Building on West 7th Street and the Wiltern Theater.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 14, 1989 Home Edition Business Part 4 Page 2 Column 6 Financial Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction A story in Friday's Business section incorrectly identified the architect of the Million Dollar Building at 3rd and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The building was designed by the firm of Albert C. Martin Sr. William L. Woollett designed the interior of the Million Dollar Theater in the building.
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