ARCHITECTURE : Gold-Towered May Co. Store Is Glittering Beacon for Shoppers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture

The corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue is one of the most memorable spots in Los Angeles. What identifies this intersection among all the thousands of crossroads in the city is a three-story-tall, gold-colored object with no particular function or meaning. Hovering over the streets, caught in a frame of polished black marble, and seemingly about to spin away from everyday reality, the gold mosaic corner tower of the May Co. stands as a beacon of consumer urbanity.

The whole May Co. building is nothing but a big prop for this single gesture. In fact, you might say that the design of the building is a perfect illustration of what a department store does: It stores up and makes available a large amount of goods, and then makes them attractive with the addition of a little advertising.

The May Co. building is a warehouse and a sign, and few department stores have ever more clearly expressed their function. In this case, the main bulk of the establishment is housed in a four-story white structure, clad in vermiculated white stone and slightly skewed in its geometry because of the angle of the streets coming into Wilshire Boulevard at that point.

Department stores don't really need windows, but designer A. C. Martin in 1940 helped relieve the monotony of the May Co. facade with bands of them, translucent panels set into frames that are slightly raised from the face of the building. To the rear, the building is L-shaped, its bulk spreading out along the major avenues to the front while accommodating the parking lot (turned into a structure in 1953) to the rear.

Anonymous but well-mannered and even a little snazzy, the structure would not otherwise catch one's attention if it wasn't for the almost surreal imposition of the gold tower on the corner.

What makes these two disparate things, sign and box, work together is the base. The white mass of the building is cut off not just from the corner but also from the street by a streamlined canopy above the ground floor that zips around from end to end and shelters a luxurious world of shop windows framed in riveted gold-colored metal placed against a backdrop of black marble.

This streetscape of shiny luster setting off the goods for sale is made all the more sensuous by the alternation of planter boxes with the shop windows. Dense groves of banana plants there sprout from the marble, giving the sense of tropical mystery and abundance. Out of this streamlined and steamy world, the ribbed gold mosaic tower rises in a frame extruded from the shop window backdrops.

The rising fins of black marble shooting up from the base also act as a billboard on which the name of the department store is spelled out in neon letters four times, so it's seen from every direction. Those fins join at the top into a concave frame for the gold box, allowing the tower to look as if it could indeed start rotating.

The black-and-gold world of sign and sidewalk unfortunately promises more than the May Co. can deliver these days. The gold mosaic is falling off, one of the two street entrances is permanently locked, and the inside of the store is an oft-remodeled maze of the usual perfume counters and Lucite display cases in which only the sheer height of the room and the gold-edged uprights around the edges remind you of the former grandeur of the space.

Now they are threatening to tear down the whole structure, leaving Los Angeles with one less icon, one less reminder that such mundane activities as shopping or driving down the street can be enlivened by the kind of bold, if somewhat surreal, architecture that could be the signature of the city.

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