El Capitan Courageous

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the El Capitan office building on Hollywood Boulevard was left red-tagged and uninhabitable.

The quake's brute force had compromised the building's frame. Sprinklers flooded the structure's interiors. El Capitan's owner walked away, leaving Iowa-based CUNA Mutual Life Insurance Co. holding a very unpromising mortgage.

But CUNA's officers decided they would not only keep the property, but give it a $9.8-million face lift. At the time, this sounded a little reckless.

Hollywood Boulevard was a distant cry from its 1920s glory. The tacky, crime-troubled stretch of street had proved immune to various attempts to upgrade its image.

Jeffrey Rouze, CUNA's senior asset manager, hoped that by sinking a huge sum into El Capitan's restoration, he could start a chain reaction.

"We wanted this project to be a catalyst for the revitalization of Hollywood," said Rouze, who is based in Madison, Wis. Naysayers countered that Hollywood was too far gone. But Rouze was unconvinced.

To understand the degree of Rouze's ambitions, one has to consider Hollywood Boulevard's free-fall into squalor.

In the 1920s, developer Charles Toberman, often called "The Father of Hollywood," almost single-handedly transformed the area into a colorful theater district. Responsible for 36 projects there during his lifetime, Toberman erected the Max Factor Building, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Hollywood Masonic Temple, and, with Sid Grauman, three "themed" theaters--the Chinese, the Egyptian and El Capitan.

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Designed by Art Deco specialists Morgan, Walls & Clements, the $1.2-million El Capitan theater was a singular jewel. Boasting an elaborate Churrigueresque (peasant baroque) facade, the building drew raves from those who first beheld it. One awed reviewer went so far as to proclaim it "one of the most palatial structures in America."

It featured elaborate friezes and figures in its ornamentation. Its cast-iron colonnades were ornately carved with shields, masks, sea creatures and faces from literature and drama, amid acanthus leaves.

"Hollywood's First Home of Spoken Drama," as it was called, opened its doors in April 1926, and such actors as Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. performed there.

El Capitan's six floors of commercial space were leased by Barker Bros. Furniture Emporium. For nearly 50 years, Hollywood's elite clientele (including director Cecil B. DeMille) shopped at this flagship store.

World War II took a toll on Hollywood and El Capitan, however. During the 1940s, attendance declined precipitously at El Capitan's live performances. Later, television stole further receipts from the once-majestic theater.

And as middle-class families fled their Hollywood bungalows for the distant suburbs, El Capitan finally was forced to shut its doors. It reopened briefly as the Paramount Theater, then suffered through a variety of incarnations as a TV studio and cinema.

The neighborhood declined as well. No longer were the sidewalks of Hollywood paved exclusively with gold stars. They were caked with soot, coated with chewing gum and littered with fast-food wrappers.

"Hollywood" itself--the movie industry, that is--quietly tiptoed to the Valley and Westside in the 1960s and '70s, leaving Hollywood-the-destination a decadent ghost town for tourists bent on buying souvenir T-shirts and placing their Florsheims in John Wayne's cement footprints outside the Chinese Theatre.

Barker Bros. finally closed its doors in the 1970s. And after "Father of Hollywood" Toberman's death a few years later, El Capitan was sold and its commercial space converted into office suites.

In 1991, Pacific Theaters and Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc.--a division of Walt Disney Co.--restored El Capitan's theater, with much fanfare. A second upgrade of the theater is to be completed by November. But it took a natural disaster to trigger the refurbishing of El Capitan's long-neglected commercial space.

While other mortgage-holders might have shuddered at the idea of pumping millions of dollars into an enfeebled, earthquake-damaged building in an "iffy" section of town, CUNA's Rouze foresaw a cinematic happy ending. He became single-mindedly determined to restore El Capitan to its 1920s splendor, and, in so doing, inspire neighboring property owners to take similar action.

The Community Redevelopment Agency lent CUNA $1.3 million at low interest for earthquake reparations, and offered it a $250,000 matching-fund historic commercial loan to repair the building's lobbies, elevators and office complex. CUNA also received a $225,000 federal disaster relief loan for additional seismic repairs. The remainder of the tab would have to be footed by CUNA.

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After consulting with architects and engineers, Rouze decided to take an active stance in his retrofitting tactics. He'd bring El Capitan above Los Angeles' then-current earthquake requirements, and protect it against damage from MTA's subway installation, then under construction.

In 1995, Rouze retained the West Los Angeles structural engineering firm of Ismail Associates for this $3-million upgrade.

Rouze also hired Los Angeles-based John Ash Group to oversee El Capitan's $5.5-million historic renovation work. JAG's project architect, Gordon Olschlager, was in charge of what Rouze called "a big detective job." To reclaim the ambience of Roaring '20s Hollywood, Olschlager had to scrape away layers of paint--some lead-based--analyze paint chips, X-ray walls, match ancient fabrics and research decor of the period. "We wanted to recapture the spirit of the times," Olschlager said.

The lobby, while evocative of Hollywood's early elegance, also radiates present-day panache. Non-historical fabrics and material were jettisoned from the premises and replaced with flapper-era cherrywood, cast-iron, gold-leaf, stone and plaster detailing.

Domolite limestone, accented with black marble, highlights the lobby's walls. The floors are paved with Italian stone.

One can almost picture a leggy socialite and her dapper escort walking their Airedales toward El Capitan's American cherrywood and brass elevator cabs.

But the work at El Capitan was far from completed. Its damaged exterior stonework had to be repaired via a two-part epoxy-injection process, and its broken carvings recast using latex molds.

CUNA spent an additional $1.3 million on miscellaneous improvements, such as fiber-optic cable and a new air-conditioning system.

Finally, the sign tower needed to be replaced. On El Capitan's rooftop had once stood a 50-foot black illuminated beacon that beckoned to passersby with its China-red lettering spelling out "El Capitan."

But the fixture was removed during World War II, when the country required blackouts to thwart potential invaders. With help from Ad Art/Electronic Sign Corp., Olschlager pored over 1927 architectural drawings to re-create this signature element.

Rouze's dream to stir Hollywood from its somnolence seems to be coming true. With encouragement from Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, Rouze was able to lobby property owners along Hollywood Boulevard from La Brea to McCadden to form the Hollywood Entertainment District, a self-taxing business improvement district that has pooled $600,000 in a year's time, to finance increased security, street-scaping, marketing and publicity for Hollywood Boulevard.

Several other ambitious real estate developments are planned or underway.

CUNA completed restoration of El Capitan last December. It now offers leased space in the building for $2 per square foot monthly, considerably more than Hollywood Boulevard's going rate of $1 to $1.35. "It's a Class A office building, and we believe the price is reasonable," Rouze says.

David Malmuth, senior vice president of development for TrizecHahn Centers, El Capitan's first tenant, agrees. Last month, Malmuth set offices on El Capitan's top floor, where he can overlook TrizecHahn Center's own work-in-progress, a 425,000-square-foot "entertainment destination" across the street from El Capitan, which will feature restaurants, studios, a hotel and theaters.

"We wanted to have a presence in the area, and were willing to pay top-of-the-market price because quality was important," says Malmuth. "And I think that El Capitan is the finest-quality building on Hollywood Boulevard right now."

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In 1990, El Capitan was designated as L.A.'s Cultural Heritage Monument No. 495.

Several months ago, as El Capitan's restoration neared completion, Mayor Richard Riordan issued it a "Historic Preservation Award of Excellence."

The sidewalks in front of the building are Beverly Hills-clean. A few of El Capitan's neighbors, like jealous rivals, are now undergoing face lifts, too.

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