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COVER STORY : Red-Tagged Relics : Battered, Blighted Hollywood Landmarks Teeter on Edge of Extinction

When the Hollywood-Western building was completed in 1928, movie star Norma Shearer opened it with a golden key. Today, the young vagrants who live there don’t need any keys--the back door is wide open and admits anyone brave enough to enter.

In these offices, early movie moguls made big decisions on censorship, antitrust laws and trade unions. Now squatters use the rooms as crash pads, slumbering amid ripped sofas, crumbled plaster and dried puddles of blood.

The 66-year-old building--Los Angeles historic-cultural monument No. 336--is rotting inside and out, a victim of the January earthquake and years of apathy and neglect.

Preservationists worry that the red-tagged architectural jewel, an Art Deco landmark on the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue, will soon fall through the bureaucratic cracks and face the wrecking ball--if one of its illegal inhabitants doesn’t set fire to the place first.

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Numerous earthquake-damaged historic buildings in Hollywood face a similar plight. These include the Egyptian Theater, the Hillview Apartments and the Henry Fonda Theater.

The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission reports that about a fourth of the city’s 596 historic-cultural monuments were damaged in the quake. Such buildings represent prime examples of a certain architectural style, were designed by a prominent architect or played an important role in Los Angeles history.

The commission’s figures are not broken down by neighborhood, but it is believed the damage was extensive in Hollywood. The short list of Hollywood’s ‘20s and ‘30s buildings seems to get shorter every year because of demolitions, fires and natural disasters. The fate of what is left depends on a handful of Los Angeles agencies and scattered preservation groups that often have proved powerless to save old or damaged sites.

Just this year, preservationists lost bitter battles to save the Brown Derby on Vine Street--a universal symbol of old Hollywood that was battered by fires, vandals and finally the powerful Northridge temblor--and the Hastings Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.

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Tourists seeking a bit of Tinseltown glamour have found many vacant lots and orphaned buildings. The locals know better. They say parts of central and east Hollywood have been deteriorating into a slum for 30 years.

Preservationists blame absent-minded city officials for allowing the decay. City officials blame neglectful property owners. Property owners blame government agencies and the bad economy.

“The biggest threats to historic buildings are neglected or deferred maintenance,” said Tim Brandt, project architect for Historic Resources Group, a private consulting company. “But there’s also a certain lack of respect for the past. There just isn’t the mind-set for the preservation of old buildings (in Los Angeles) that there is back East.”

In Hollywood, such buildings have gotten little respect.

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Take the Egyptian Theater, which at 72 is several years older than the celebrated Mann’s Chinese Theater just to the west on Hollywood Boulevard. Film showings ceased at the Egyptian several years ago, shortly before the Community Redevelopment Agency bought the run-down property from United Artists.

American Cinematheque, a film-preservation organization, has proposed taking over the building to show classic films, but that plan was stalled after the earthquake left the Egyptian looking like an ancient ruin. Fragile hollow-clay tiles--the 1920s precursor to cinder blocks--collapsed in the south and east walls, exposing the interior to sun and rain. Then vandals stripped the theater of whatever they could sell on the street.

The redevelopment agency has estimated the earthquake damage to the Egyptian at more than $5 million. That’s about three times as much as the agency paid for the building in 1992. (It can be more expensive to repair such a building than to buy it.) Officials now hope that insurers and the federal government will pay for repairs so the American Cinematheque plan can proceed, but the building’s fate remains uncertain.

The Hillview Apartments, a pink stucco structure that once provided temporary housing for silent movie stars, is now the only residential building in the Hollywood historic district. It was heavily damaged in the January earthquake and by street sinkage in August related to Metro Rail subway construction. City officials say repair efforts have been stalled by disputes between the Hillview landlords and the remaining tenants, who are fighting eviction from the building.

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The Henry Fonda Theater--a 68-year-old movie house formerly called The Pix--had often been dark even before it was damaged by the quake. The theater is operated by the Nederlander company, whose officials say they hope to renovate the structure by early 1995.

Still, the most attention-grabbing blighted property is the Hollywood-Western, at one time one of the most important buildings in the movie industry. City officials declared the site a cultural-historic monument six years ago, but that won’t necessarily save the building from demolition.

Louis B. Mayer, the second M in MGM, and his “boy wonder” production executive, Irving Thalberg, originally built it in 1928 to house two movie organizations, the Assn. of Motion Picture Producers and the Central Casting Bureau.

The first was a powerful trade association that governed the general policies of studios during Hollywood’s golden era, including the infamous Production Code that limited directors’ discretion in depicting sex on the screen. Central Casting was formed in 1925 to place extras and other day workers in film jobs.

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During the ‘30s and ‘40s, studio brass frequented the Hollywood-Western, particularly the west wing of the fourth floor, which housed the offices of the trade association and its imperious czar, Will Hays. The Hays Office, as it came to be known, did a lot more than keep movies free of nudity and naughty words. The group battled a federal antitrust suit against movie companies and played a game of chicken with various trade unions during tense labor standoffs before finally moving to another Hollywood site in 1950.

The four-story building originally had 60 offices and 10 stores, including a billiard hall in the basement. But its most distinctive feature was, and still is, a series of seminude friezes on the fire escapes, which showed Greek gods and goddesses cavorting with movie cameras and megaphones. (This was architect S. Charles Lee’s inside joke aimed at the puritanical Production Code. A couple of years before his death in 1990, Lee quipped that his “was the first porno work in Hollywood.”)

The decline of the Hollywood-Western mirrors the slide of the surrounding neighborhood, which has been hit hard by poverty and the 1992 riots. At one time the building’s upper floors were rented out for rock-band rehearsals. The ground floor has for years housed a bargain shop selling cheap trinkets.

In recent years, the building has been known as the home of Hollywood Billiards, a 22-table basement pool parlor “open 10 a.m. to God Knows When.” By the mid-1980s, the hangout was attracting celebrities while the rest of the building went to seed. Many tenants moved out and squatters began breaking in as the neighborhood declined.

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The people who live there now don’t spend much time admiring the architectural details.

Graffiti adorns interior walls, boarded-up doors and windows, and the gray stone facade. “I Been Dirt But I Don’t Care,” reads a typical message scrawled in a stairwell.

“This is Mr. and Mrs. Bill’s love nest,” smiled Corina Manderley, a 17-year-old self-described entertainer and poet who was roused from her loft bed in the Hollywood-Western one recent morning. Her squalid, closet-sized room on the second floor was carpeted with wadded-up clothes, garbage and junk.

“I’ve been living here just about a month,” said Manderley, a pale, skinny girl with a penchant for funky clothes like stocking caps. “My (boyfriend Bill) has been living here for years. Ever since the building was opened (by squatters) after the earthquake, he made it OK for the rest of us to be here.”

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At least a dozen people stumbled out of various rooms in the darkened building as a group of journalists and activists toured the site. Among them was Manderley’s boyfriend, Bill, a rail-thin 32-year-old who screamed curses at reporters and ordered them to leave.

As one of East Hollywood’s best-known “squats,” the historic building has become a haunted, frightful place, governed by the law of the streets. For a trip down the hall, squatters arm themselves with baseball bats and crowbars. One night not too long ago, the squatters said, a girl coming up the stairs failed to identify herself properly and was savagely beaten. A trail of dried blood led from the landing to the downstairs lobby, where it ended in a sickening red smear.

Nearby, a brass-plated elevator sat moldering at the bottom of a pitch-black shaft, its cables long ago plundered.

“If your mother was dying, would you just leave her lying there?” asked Doug Carlton, a community activist who has been leading a fight to rid the Hollywood-Western of the squatters, whom he considers drug addicts and dealers. “Well, Hollywood’s mother is dying, and no one seems to care.”

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The January quake may have sealed the building’s doom. Virtually all remaining paying tenants had to vacate the red-tagged site. Now the owner says she doesn’t have enough money to repair the building.

"(Squatters) are ruining the building,” said Charlotte Reed, who since 1979 has owned the Hollywood-Western with her sister, Natalie Robin. Reed complained that she had been turned down for a Small Business Administration emergency loan and has fallen behind on her mortgage payments because of the earthquake damage. “We want them all out or we’re not going to have a building to save,” Reed said.

If the building isn’t repaired soon, city officials say they could pursue several options. One would be to seize it through eminent domain, a legal precept that gives government the right to take over private property for public use. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and developers have expressed interest in turning the building into a low-income community housing site.

If that doesn’t work, officials say, another scenario would be to have the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety declare the structure an imminent hazard and raze it.

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But preservationists say that would just be more business as usual in Hollywood.

“I’ve lived in Hollywood all my life, but I don’t know if I even want to work here anymore,” said Greg Williams, a board member of the preservation group Hollywood Heritage and co-owner of a puppet studio at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. “Hollywood still wants to be the glamour capital of the world, and it isn’t. . . . The whole place is falling apart.”


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