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DOWNTOWN : Broadway’s Newest Building Has a Past

Business leaders and preservationists last week celebrated the near-complete renovation of a Broadway building that was the only Downtown structure destroyed in the 1992 riots.

Community leaders heralded building owner Walter J. Thomson’s decision to rebuild rather than demolish as one property owner’s commitment to restore the Broadway district to its former glory.

Thomson dedicated the renovated two-story building at 618 S. Broadway in memory of his late wife, Holly Felicia Oberly Thomson, and renamed it the Victor Dol Building in honor of her grandfather, who bought the land in the late 1800s.

Dol, a French immigrant, was a master chef who became a successful Los Angeles restaurateur. The Commercial, Dol’s French restaurant near Spring and Temple streets, was referred to as the “Delmonico’s of the West” because of the celebrities, opera stars and politicians who were frequent customers, Thomson said.

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Designed by architect Charles Plummer, the South Broadway building opened in 1928 to house the popular Schaber’s Cafeteria, which remained there through the 1940s. Another cafeteria, the Forum, operated there from the 1940s to the 1980s, Thomson said. For 10 years before the riots, a Foot Locker shoe store and a Carl’s Jr. restaurant shared the building.

Because of his father-in-law’s history in the area, Thomson, who lives in Santa Ynez, said he did not have the heart to demolish the building after rioters looted and burned it in the spring of 1992.

Angry demonstrators leaving City Hall on the day of the verdict in the first Rodney G. King beating trial smashed cash registers, tables and chairs in the restaurant and other property in the building, Thomson said. Looters took thousands of dollars’ worth of shoes the next night before setting the building ablaze, Thomson said.

The fire nearly gutted the Spanish Colonial Revival-style structure, leaving only the charred facade and the mezzanine standing. Using old photographs and Thomson’s input, architects and contractors sought to restore the building.

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Some of the decorative wrought-iron railings and brackets were salvaged and reused. Unable to duplicate the expensive, Italian-made decorative tile that had lined a circular staircase in the building’s center, workers used solid-colored tile in the same hues--blue, yellow, green, white, gray and black.

Thomson, who said he has so far spent $2.5 million on the restoration, had harsh words for the city building and planning process. He criticized the city’s requirement that the structure be built to current codes, which he said forced him to obtain special permits for nearly every phase of work.

City officials said that current codes aim to improve buildings by requiring fire sprinklers, seismic reinforcement and other safety measures.

But Thomson, who owns another Broadway building and a Spring Street lot, said the city bureaucracy curtails property owners who wish to fix up their buildings. “It’s discouraging to people trying to improve the street,” he said.

Still, Thomson was clearly pleased with the results. The building is a few repairs away from completion, and though Carl’s Jr. and Foot Locker won’t return, the two companies are talking to other businesses about subleasing the property, Thomson said.

“This building has been in the family for more than 100 years, and my two granddaughters, ages 8 and 11, will eventually get the property,” Thomson said. “We have more than an academic interest in this.”


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