Levin Gives New Lease on Life to Landmarks

When architect Myron Hunt died in 1952, he left behind a 50-year-old legacy of landmarks including the Pasadena Rose Bowl, the Ambassador Hotel, the Huntington Library and master plans for three local colleges. The work of the New England-born architect bore a reticence and honesty that, one historian says, made him appear as a puritan in the architectural Babylon of Southern California.

Many of his elegant designs have recently been renovated. But others, like the Ambassador Hotel, are threatened with destruction.

“As L.A. runs out of unbuilt space we have to think hard about recycling what we have for economic and aesthetic reasons,” architect Brenda Levin said. “Now there is a new appreciation of saving buildings to form a new urban identity out of the old and the new.”

Levin leads the field in the increasingly important movement to renovate and recycle Los Angeles’ architectural heritage. Her landmark restorations, including the Wiltern Theater on Wilshire Boulevard and the downtown Oviatt Building, have won a number of historic preservation awards. She has also renovated two historic L.A. markets, the Grand Central on Broadway and the Chapman on 6th Street.


But two recently completed projects illustrate the breadth of Levin’s talent in giving new life to old buildings.

At the high end of the architectural spectrum is her renovation of architect Myron Hunt’s 1938 Thorne Hall at Occidental College. The low end is represented by Levin’s skillful adaptation of an old downtown warehouse into a residential hotel and day-care center for homeless women.

Levin’s $2.1-million renovation of Thorne Hall gave her challenges typically faced by designers striving to renovate historic buildings without compromising their classic character.

“Thorne Hall is one of Hunt’s purest Palladian buildings,” she explained. “Its beautiful Beaux Arts colonnade closes the western end of the main campus axis, and gives it its great sense of calm. I had to try and modernize the hall’s interior without cheapening its relationship to the dignity of its exterior.”


Hunt linked Thorne Hall’s landscaped forecourt, monumental porch and wide lobby to the shoebox-shaped auditorium within, culminating in the proscenium stage at the far end. Altering the character of any part of this progression could easily have destroyed the unity of the design.

“The basic problem was acoustical,” Levin explained. “The hall’s sound quality, designed in an age when the science of acoustics was as yet unborn, simply didn’t measure up to the demands of a modern orchestra and an audience attuned to hi-fi stereo recordings.” To create a better acoustical environment, Levin devised an “eyebrow” of sound baffles that projects out over the proscenium apron to bounce the music out to the 900 seats.

A Daring Departure

Levin’s one daring departure from Hunt’s architectural reticence is a vividly colored carpet, that flows from the lobby down the aisles like a spill of painted flowers.


Levin argued that Thorne Hall’s auditorium, with its dark-stained wooden wainscotting and matching ceiling, “seemed a little somber for modern tastes. I felt an element of flamboyance was needed, to perk up the atmosphere. In Hunt’s sober context the carpet may startle you at first, but I think it gives the eye a needed shock.”

Carl Vance, an Occidental College vice president, said the faculty was very pleased with Levin’s Thorne Hall renovation.

“We admired Brenda’s subtlety in dealing with a historic building,” he said. “She was assured, caring, but not intimidated. She knew what needed to be done, and carried it out with a sure and sensitive hand.”

The conversion of a three-story commercial building on Skid Row into a residential hotel for homeless women presented Levin with a very different challenge.


Shelter From the Hard Life

The Downtown Women’s Center on Los Angeles Street provides small self-contained apartments for 48 women seeking shelter from the hard life of the streets. In addition, a new day-care annex designed by Levin serves another 50-60 women daily with a place to shelter, shower, have a hot meal, do laundry and catch a few hours of safe sleep.

The day-care annex, with its lively color-tiled exterior walls, leaps out like a sign of life in the shabby and dangerous district. Its architecture is tough but playful, offering an oasis of hope for homeless women who often find themselves the ultimate victims in the vicious Skid Row pecking order.

“We get women in here who are really tortured, by street criminals and their own private hallucinations,” said Jill Halverson, founder and director of the Downtown Women’s Center. “It’s important our tenants feel secure at all times within the building, given the violence of the surroundings.”


Her success with historic restoration and architectural recycling has brought Levin respect, but it has also typecast her practice. She feels increasingly confined by the label of “restoration architect.”

‘Branded a Preservationist’

“To some extent I’ve been branded as a preservationist,” she said. “That’s made it hard to crossover into the realm of new architecture with no recycling component--but it’s beginning to happen, thank God!”

Two projects currently on Levin’s drafting tables represent a major shift toward non-preservation design.


The Pasadena Civic Center West development, a mixed-use project including shops, offices and apartments facing the historic Pasadena City Hall, will match the architecture of its neighbors without aping their style. A totally modern Levin design is displayed in the proposed Buena Vista Pumping Station commissioned by the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power.

“After nine years in practice, I feel I’m finally earning my spurs as an architect for all seasons,” Levin said. “For a while there I feared I might be considered too ‘sensitive’ to design non-preservation projects.”

Levin is happy that clients are beginning to trust her with a wider range of projects, where she can begin to bring different design skills into play.

“Whether I’m restoring old buildings or designing new ones, my experience in renovation and recycling has given me an awareness of the value of our architectural heritage, that can create a vital continuity between our city’s first and second eras of growth.”