Sheraton-Town House Is Latest Wilshire Landmark That May Be Doomed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two weeks after the announcement of the closing of the department store occupying the landmark Bullock's Wilshire building, the Sheraton-Town House hotel, another jewel in the crown of the once-fashionable Wilshire Center district, may be doomed to destruction.

If the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission refuses to declare it a cultural historical monument today, the neoclassical hotel that once hosted celebrities such as Howard Hughes and Elizabeth Taylor will probably be replaced by a parking lot.

Urban planners say the loss would be another serious blow to the district west of downtown that was once called the Champs Elysees of Los Angeles. The area has deteriorated to the point that the movie "Falling Down" uses it to evoke its vision of Los Angeles as an urban nightmare.

The Sheraton-Town House, built in 1929, closed in February. To keep it from being torn down, the American Institute of Architects nominated the building and its rooftop neon signs last month for designation as a monument. The group cited the building's architectural significance and its place as a key institution in the historic Wilshire corridor.

"I think in many other American cities something like this would not be allowed to happen," Huell Howser, a well-known broadcast commentator on local history, said of the decline of the Wilshire Center district.

His normally gentle Tennessee twang rose in anger. "What are our politicians doing? Where's the Chamber of Commerce? Where's Rebuild L.A.?"

The area has already seen the closing of the Ambassador Hotel in 1989 and the departure of several hundred employees of the U.S. Borax & Chemical Corp. for Valencia in 1991.

A bright spot in the district, which lies between Lafayette Park and Wilton Place, is the successful rehabilitation of the Art Deco Wiltern Theater at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue.

But for the most part the area has been losing landmarks like loose teeth, victims of recession, riots, Metro Rail construction--and the vicissitudes of international capital.

The Sheraton-Town House, originally built as luxury apartments, was converted to a hotel by Conrad Hilton in 1942. It was subsequently taken over by the Sheraton chain.

When filmmakers wanted to place Mae West in London for her last film, they shot it in the Townhouse. In the '50s the hotel's Zebra Room was one of the city's ritziest nightclubs.

Hughes rented a suite at the hotel for a time. Taylor celebrated her marriage to Nicky Hilton in its garden. Many celebrities who stayed at the hotel shopped across the street at Bullock's Wilshire.

In 1972 a subsidiary of the Tokyo-based Kokusai Kogyo conglomerate called Kyo-Ya bought the hotel. Last month it closed it.

Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment. They have told preservation activists that the hotel was losing money.

In the late 1980s, a high-profile stock market manipulation scandal and a hostile takeover of Kokusai Kogyo by a group of speculators battered the company. Japan's tumbling real estate market further weakened the firm.

Unlike the hotel, the old Bullock's Wilshire building is locally owned. Preservationists are less afraid that it will be torn down after the I. Magnin store occupying it closes at the end of the month. They believe its owner, Caltech, will try to treat the building with respect.

There is talk among preservationists of replacing the store with a museum, college classes, offices or another store. Several South Korea-based companies have been looking into opening department stores in Los Angeles. Preservationists would like that use of the building. But given the state of the retail market, nobody is counting on it.

Built in 1929, the Bullock's Wilshire building was a cathedral of commerce, a Jazz Age icon that critics said had the architectural significance of the Chrysler Building and the social and economic weight of a Saks Fifth Avenue. To many, it represented the city's pride and economic vitality.

Howser said: "I put the experience of shopping at Bullock's Wilshire--and the tearoom and the architecture and the salesladies there for 40 years--in the same category as a summer evening at the Hollywood Bowl, a meal at Musso & Frank's, a ballgame at Dodger Stadium. You feel the city is being diminished when you lose these things."

He said the city's quiet acceptance of the store's departure is a sign that Los Angeles does not care about itself.

When Saks Fifth Avenue threatened to close two decades ago, New York City kept it open with zoning changes, tax breaks and a neighborhood revitalization plan. Nothing like that happened when R. H. Macy, owner of the I. Magnin store that has occupied the Bullock's Wilshire story since 1988 occupies the Bullock's Wilshire building, said it was closing.

"New York is a lot different," said Don Eugene, president of I. Magnin. He said the city of Los Angeles did little to encourage the store to stay. "New York has an economic development department," he said. "They have a deputy mayor for that."

Might the Metro Red Line segment due to open by 1998 bring customers to I. Magnin? Eugene, based in San Francisco, had a vague idea that a subway was coming but did not know when. The subway's potential positive impact did not come up in company discussions of whether to close the store, he said.

During last year's riots, looters smashed through the store's elegant doors and ransacked its first floor, raising concerns about the viability of the location.

Store executives had one meeting with representatives of the city and of Rebuild L.A.

But "nobody ever came back to us," Eugene said. "Nobody said they would do anything."

City Councilman Nate Holden said the closing of the store will be a major loss for his district. Had he known beforehand that the store was closing, "I would have made some furious phone calls," he said. Holden said he did not know about the closing until it was publicly announced, and then it was too late.

A revitalization plan for the district won widespread neighborhood support four years ago. It called for a pedestrian-oriented zone of stores, businesses and residences, mostly privately financed. It has not moved forward because the city lacks money for an environmental impact review.

In any event, it may be too late for Bullock's Wilshire and the Sheraton-Town House.

The announcement of the department store's closing prompted widespread sadness. Architectural historians called the store the best Art Deco building in the city. Economists pointed to lost jobs. Grandmothers wistfully recalled buying their wedding dresses in its deeply carpeted salons and shopping with their daughters and granddaughters for their wedding dresses.

But many of the shoppers in line recently for a last lunch at the tearoom said they hadn't been to the store in months, even years. They said they had been scared away by crime and lured away by malls.

The district's decline "is a casualty of the city's inability to govern itself and to understand the importance of its few symbolic places," said Richard Weinstein, dean of architecture and urban planning at UCLA.

Weinstein was on the team that wrote the still-unexecuted Wilshire Center Plan. An ex-New Yorker, he said that "the entire city government mobilized to do something about it" when Saks was threatened there.

Howser, who hosts a program on public television, loses his folksiness when talking about the demise of Wilshire Center.

"The city at this point in history can ill afford to lose things we associate with quality of life," he said. "People feel it's just another reason to pack up and leave. The city has gotten away from us."

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