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The Mural Medicis of L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Victor Clothing Co. had not made a profit in years, but Ramiro Salcedo couldn’t shut the business down. He had to find someone to save the murals.

The huge paintings dominate the exterior of the Victor Clothing building on Broadway near 3rd Street.

They are recognized as symbols of downtown Los Angeles in art circles locally and worldwide; the somber bride and groom, the glowing Olympic athletes, the speeding horse and, most notable, “The Pope of Broadway,” a dancing tribute to Eastside actor Anthony Quinn.

The murals were born of a deep friendship between Salcedo and one of the men who hired him, Paul Harter. When they met in 1956, Salcedo was a shy 17-year-old, freshly immigrated from Mexico and looking for work.

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Harter, then 40, was more outgoing, an avid traveler and dancer, the son-in-law of the company’s founder. In time, Harter would make his young protege co-owner of the building.

The men were clothes sellers by trade but, as they would discover, art lovers at heart.

“It was one of those things that metamorphoses into a relationship,” recalls Harter, now retired and living in Coronado. They became like brothers, he says.

So, as they toiled in the building through the decades amid shirts and pants, they also commissioned artworks that became synonymous with the Los Angeles mural scene. They rented space to artists, often young and Mexican American, looking for studios. Some of those artists became famous.

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The murals became famous too. Photographs of them appeared in everything from ads pitching L.A. vacations to foreigners to textbooks teaching Chicano history to American students. Salcedo and Harter declined to be photographed themselves, preferring to let the spotlight shine on their murals.

When the clothing company’s fortunes faltered, it became clear that the building would have to be sold. But could the murals be saved? If a new owner erased them, “they would erase a part of my life, really,” says Salcedo. So the search began, even as the company’s losses mounted.

At one point, a potential buyer stepped forward. He wanted to level the building for a parking lot.

The five-story structure was built in 1923. It houses Victor Clothing on the first floor and a dozen artists--along with a law office--in the upper four stories.

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Roots Dating to 1920

Downtown businessman Leo Fonarow founded Victor Clothing in 1920. The store--which was originally a block north of its present location--sold formal attire for generations. Company folklore has it that Fonarow named the store after its first employee, a janitor, but Harter says he can’t remember for sure how the name originated.

The firm bought and moved into this building in 1962. When Fonarow died in 1966, his son Charles, daughter Ione and son-in-law Paul Harter kept the business going. By then, Salcedo had been with the company a decade. He had started sweeping the floors and doing a little bit of everything, working his way up to handle much of the store’s finances.

Meanwhile, the building’s future role as an arts patron was looming.

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Salcedo did not have extensive training in the arts, though he received a brief introduction while in a seminary in Mexico.

Nonetheless, the young man admired Michelangelo and collected art books. He had taken business courses in junior college hoping to become an accountant, “but my heart was in art all the time.”

As his friendship with Harter deepened, his boss sometimes invited Salcedo to house-sit while the Harters traveled. In the house, Salcedo found art of all types: beautiful paintings on the walls and art books from the 1800s on shelves. Salcedo especially noticed artifacts and small figurines: folk art that the Harters had collected during their trips to Mexico.

“I had all night to read and look at all the pictures,” recalls Salcedo, who had already started collecting a few pieces in the basement of his house on 28th Street, his first home in the United States.

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Soon the men were discussing their common passion. When new art exhibits opened around town, the Harters brought Salcedo along. Or if the Harters attended an exhibit with one of their artist friends, legendary animator Chuck Jones, they reported back to Salcedo whatever they had learned and seen.

By the 1970s, the Harters and Salcedo began commissioning murals for Victor Clothing--whose outer white walls had featured hand-drawn advertising signs--and renting the upstairs lofts cheaply to artists needing studios.

The first work was Kent Twitchell’s 1972 piece, “Bride and Groom,” which had a not-so-subtle commercial tie-in. The mural provided work for Twitchell, but it also was meant to advertise the tuxedos and wedding gowns that were among the company’s products.

Then, the Harters and Salcedo began commissioning work as a goodwill gesture toward their largely Latino clientele.

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“The Victor Clothing Co. was making money and supporting the employees from the Latin community,” says Harter. “We were very particular in selecting artists who were Latin.”

They were also willing to take risks. One day Salcedo spotted a 14-year-old boy, art books in hand, waiting for a bus outside the store.

“Do you paint?” Salcedo asked Juan Garduno.

“I have never done it, but I’m studying it,” the boy replied.

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Salcedo brought him inside and introduced him to Harter. Soon, Garduno had launched “The Aztec Mural"--a 12-by-120-foot indoor mural, finished in 1977, that recounts the history of Mexico.

Harter had long been drawn to Mexican culture and spoke Spanish fluently--a vital skill for manning the credit desk at Victor Clothing. When downtown started changing demographically--immigrant businesses moving in and white business owners moving out--Harter made a point to advertise on Spanish-speaking radio.

Mexico fascinated him--and not the tourist traps. When he and Ione vacationed in Mexico, they always took detours to the countryside or poorest parts of town. “We would stay in great places,” Harter says, “but we saw to it that we understood what was really happening.”

From that understanding came a piece of art. The Harters had once traveled to a village so poor that some people lived in caves and had to walk down a hill to get water. The poverty made Ione Harter weep. But as they left in a taxi, they saw a young boy riding a horse bareback alongside the road. The Harters found beauty and freedom in that scene--a bright spot amid the misery.

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Decades later when Harter told muralist Frank Romero the tale, the artist said: “I can paint that.”

“Well,” Harter said, “we have a wall.”

Even after he retired, Harter frequently returned to downtown, walked around the building and stopped in front of the south wall to look up at “Boy and Horse.”

“It’s something that Ione and I loved for years,” says Harter, whose wife died five years ago.

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A year after “Boy and Horse” went up in 1984, next to it appeared the most intriguing mural of them all: Eloy Torrez’s towering painting of Anthony Quinn as Zorba the Greek.

Torrez had already painted murals around town of Hollywood celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe. But this time he wanted to honor someone from his own neighborhood, and Quinn was a Mexican-born actor raised on the Eastside.

The idea delighted the Harters, especially because they lived at the time in a Hollywood Hills home they had bought from Quinn.

“The Pope of Broadway” depicts the actor dancing joyfully, with the facade of the Bradbury Building, another historic structure near Victor Clothing, in the background. Torrez, now an acclaimed artist, also rented a studio at the clothing firm and did some of his earliest work there.

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The last mural, on the north wall, was one Harter and Salcedo commissioned after the city declined it.

The 1985 Olympics-themed “El Nuevo Fuego--New Fire"--was painted by the East Los Streetscapers: Wayne Healy, George Yepes and David Botello.

The murals--all of which incorporated the name Victor Clothing Co.--never won the firm much new business. But they and the other art in the building began to command their own attention.

The building radiated creativity through the late 1970s and ‘80s when it housed Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions--LACE, now in Hollywood--which started here with a core of Latino artists and the now-defunct High Performance magazine.

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When educators wanted to put the murals and paintings in schoolbooks, Salcedo and Harter didn’t charge a fee. When students on field trips shuffled in, Salcedo explained to them the meaning of the art.

The Harters and Salcedo’s love of art also engulfed their homes--where they built huge personal collections.

In the Harters’ collection, the art ranged from paintings by Picasso to works by their friend Chuck Jones. Salcedo, who never married, packed his Lincoln Heights home with drawings and art books.

At a time when muralists were not yet established and galleries yet open to them, many young Latino artists found solace and support at Victor Clothing. Harter and Salcedo allowed one struggling artist--and his wife and young child--to temporarily live in the basement.

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“That building always supported the artists,” says John Valadez, 49, who grew up in Boyle Heights and now works out of his Highland Park home. “We were trying to find jobs. And for me, it was a very lucky thing that I was able to go there and ask if I could do a mural.”

The first time Salcedo and Harter had to fight for the murals was years ago when some downtown businesspeople wanted them removed, artists remember.

“They took pride in the pieces and defended them,” says Healy, 54, the proprietor of East Los Streetscapers. “So I really consider those guys art connoisseurs.”

Yepes, recalling the art patrons of Renaissance Europe, calls them “the modern L.A. Medici popes.”

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Victor Clothing also paid for paintings--including pastel portraits of the firm’s employees--that became part of its indoor collection.

But as the building became known for its art, the clothing business declined--which Salcedo chalks up to various factors. As the downtown business scene changed, relying more on immigrants and foot traffic, the firm was largely left out of the action because it is on the northern fringe of the shopping district. And, simply, fashion habits changed, he says.

In its better days, Victor Clothing carried 5,000 suits and had 60 employees. On any day, Harter might be seen negotiating with salesmen from New York.

But by 1995, the business was losing money. Today it employs only six.

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In 1997, the building was on the market and saw four potential buyers--two of whom might have turned the site into a parking lot. Salcedo and Harter held on, hoping for a buyer with a vision to match their own.

They hired real estate brokers Sandy Bleifer and Dan Trapp of First City Corp., and said they were willing to accept a lower bid if a buyer agreed to retain the murals.

Bleifer, a former muralist now involved in the wide movement to preserve historical buildings in downtown, began looking for the ideal investor.

She heard of Nathan Korman, a 30-year-old investor and member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, who had agreed to preserve a mural by artist Norman Zammitt on a building on 4th Street in Boyle Heights. When the city gave him an award for the preservation, Bleifer told him about Victor Clothing.

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If Salcedo and Harter would sell, he promised, the murals could stay.

‘The Premier Mural Building’

The new ownership takes over today. Korman plans to rent out the first floor to a retailer and convert the upper four floors into pricier live/work lofts--the trend with numerous downtown buildings under renovation.

“I knew he would be sensitive to the value of that building,” says Bleifer. “This building is probably the premier mural building in the entire city.”

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Korman aims to have the site placed in the National Register of Historic Places. A federal loan he acquired that will pay 20% of renovation expenses requires that the building’s original architecture be preserved. The price of the sale was not disclosed, but the initial asking price was $2.6 million.

For some artists, the new ownership is a mixed blessing. Artists such as Lari Pittman and Alfredo de Batuc, who maintain studios there, must leave to make room for construction of the new lofts.

“It’s the end of an era,” says de Batuc. “I welcome the change; I just wish it wasn’t so abrupt.”

Salcedo plans to keep the remaining employees and open a smaller version of the clothing business elsewhere in the city. But his first priority is finding buyers at an auction today for the rest of the company’s art collection: about 50 pieces valued between $1,000 and $100,000.

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Some of the art has already been purchased. Santa Monica art collector Peter Norton has claimed Valadez’s “The Broadway Mural"--a 1981 canvas drawing of downtown’s transformation into a working-class commercial district, featuring pedestrians, sidewalk newsstands and discount stores. He bought the mural and the 28 pastels of the firm’s employees for $100,000.

Salcedo has been asked to donate or sell some of the pieces to private collectors or universities. The Texas Board of Education, he says, has lobbied for Gonzalo Plascencia’s 1986 drawing “460 Years of Chicano History.”

But just as he and Harter aimed to preserve the outer murals, Salcedo says he wants to keep all the art closer to home.

“I don’t want to let them go that far,” he says. “They’re a part of Los Angeles.”

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