Bullocks Wilshire was the quintessential Los Angeles department store: It was created, back in 1929, for the automobile.
Ironically, when the venerable Art Deco building closes its doors today, it will be in part because it fell victim to the machine that created it: Cars have taken customers to live in more distant suburbs, abandoning the once-elegant district that surrounded the store.
Unlike earlier stores, its front door faced the parking lot--or “motor court,” as the store insisted--not the boulevard. Uniformed valets whisked shoppers out of their cars at the porte-cochere under a richly colored ceiling fresco depicting a brave new world of transportation: a Zeppelin, an airplane, a luxury steam liner--as well as Mercury, the winged god of commerce. The store’s soaring tower in green copper and beige terra cotta was meant to attract the eye from far down the avenue.
The part of Wilshire where the store is located was the suburbs back in 1929, a stylish area of hotels and stores and the pristine MacArthur (then Westlake) Park, with fine single-family homes and apartments on the side streets behind. Well-heeled residents of the new developments of Hancock Park and Windsor Square started a tradition of shopping near where they lived rather than downtown.
The Twenties are considered by many the most important period of Los Angeles architecture, a time when the city was booming and developing a sense of its identity as a modern place with a quality of life no other American city could match.
“The 1920s are to Los Angeles what the Victorian period is to San Francisco or the 18th Century to Philadelphia,” said architect Martin Weil. He calls the Bullocks Wilshire building, which was designed by the same architects who worked on City Hall--John and Donald Parkinson--"probably the most important building in L.A.”
Now, the structure will remain shuttered until its owner, Caltech, can find another use for it--a difficult task during bleak times for the retail industry.
Bullocks Wilshire became part of the I. Magnin chain in 1988, when it was acquired by R.H. Macy & Co. The parent firm filed for bankruptcy last year and last month announced that it was closing eight I. Magnin and Bullock’s stores in California. The Bullocks Wilshire store had lost much of its business to suburban malls and suffered millions in damage during the 1992 riots.
When it was built, the store was hailed as a piece of art that would define a generation. Architectural critic Pauline Schindler, wife of the Vienna-born architect Rudolph Schindler, wrote: “The achievement of Bullocks Wilshire is equal to the designing of a great medieval cathedral. Greece built temples, the Middle Ages built cathedrals. But we, whose life lies not in worship but in producing and buying and selling, build great stores.”
Remarkably, much of the interior has been maintained in its original state.
Intricate bronze-colored doors welcome the shopper into a cosmetics hall more like a marble basilica than a store, with vertical stripes of lights reaching from the pale, rose-colored walls across the ceiling.
To the sides are salons: one features an abstract multi-textured mural in copper, bits of mirror, wood, and subtle colors; another gives onto a little courtyard studded with brass palm trees. In the men’s department, dun-colored terra-cotta tiles echo Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Mayan” period.
There used to be a saddle shop with a plaster horse where riders could try out their breeches; today, the deep plaster relief of bucolic scenes remains on the walls.
William Randolph Hearst purchased dozens of swimsuits for his guests at Hearst Castle in the sportswear boutique; Marlene Dietrich bought her men’s trousers here; Angela Lansbury and the future Pat Nixon worked as salesclerks, according to a history compiled by Mary Alice Wollam, a docent for the Los Angeles Conservancy.
Chandeliers are 1920s modern frosted wheels of glass; bronze door trims are abstract and intricate. And everywhere there are wall clocks: a yellow and black Cubist clock, a clock like a sun, a clock like a gear.
Enthusiasm for the machine age is everywhere in the zigzag Moderne styling. From the abstract sunbursts of the wrought-iron parking lot gates to the sculptured elevator doors to the clean curves of the ventilator grills and dressing room hooks, every detail is designed to reflect the concept of the whole.
The second floor features a lingerie shop in pink Carrara glass, and takes the shopper from Roaring Twenties Los Angeles to 18th-Century France. Salons for Yves St. Laurent and Chanel were designed to evoke Marie Antoinette’s apartments, with heavy moldings and gilded leafy trims.
The fur salon features floor-to-ceiling wall murals of the monuments of Paris, and a fireplace. The Hollywood designer Irene had a beige and pink salon with a little hooded stage from which models emerged, sashaying past a painting of a seraglio scene. Throughout these salons, tacky racks were avoided; dresses were brought out to customers.
The tearoom has been jammed with nostalgic customers since the store’s closing was announced. Originally styled in desert tones as the Cactus Room, it was redecorated in the 1950s in tones of rose and green. Some women still wear hats and gloves as they sip tea and nibble scones and caviar on toast tips.
Sheila Tepper, a Hancock Park resident who has been shopping at Bullocks Wilshire since the Thirties, said the store “represented more than just a place to spend money. It’s like a good friend that’s gone.” Born the same year the store was built, she says she feels a kinship to it. When she visited the store after its closing was announced, “I made eye contact with other women like you would at a funeral--we were too overcome to speak.”
Nostalgia has given the store more business than it has seen in years. Since the store announced at the beginning of March that it was closing, its usually empty aisles have been crowded with old-timers and bargain hounds.
Jill Wien took time out from her job downtown to meet her mother for an eleventh-hour architectural tour. She could remember playing dress-up in her mother’s “Bullock’s dresses,” and her mother’s stories of wearing them on dates with her father when they were courting. Dorothy Wien, her mother, recalls paying the then outrageous sum of $99 for her wedding shower dress in 1953.
Gwynne Gloege, who drove down from her home on the Westside, remembers buying a ball gown for a 1945 party at an elegant Spanish-style house in Pasadena where Nat King Cole performed.
“The store represented gentility, civility and courtesy,” said Tepper.
She is sad that little was done by the city to try to keep it from closing.
“I think we have a city that doesn’t have a sense of its history. Certain things are anchors--we don’t have so many. And then we forget what we have.”