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Villa Riviera’s Gothic Walls Have Tales to Tell

Times Staff Writer

The fierce-looking gargoyles that are perched in stony silence along the roof certainly aren’t talking.

At the Villa Riviera, it’s the walls beneath them that have tales to tell about Long Beach’s most elegant landmark.

The 16-story French Gothic building at Ocean Boulevard and Shoreline Drive has helped define the city for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Once home to movie stars and some of the city’s elite, the Villa Riviera was one of Southern California’s first experiments in East Coast-style co-op apartment living. When the Great Depression killed that venture, it was used as a hotel before being converted back to apartments and then into condominiums.

Its steeply pitched copper roof is 30 feet high, with a green patina, and crowned by a 60-foot tower. Its two wings, forming an obtuse angle, embrace the downtown like arms spread in a warm welcome. A wall next to a circular lounge a few steps down from the main lobby showcases a blowup of a 1928 photograph of the Villa Riviera under construction. It illustrates how architect Richard D. King masked a sturdy steel skeleton held together by triple layers of earthquake-resistant rivets with thick poured concrete.

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King called his mixture of Italian and French Renaissance touches “Tudor Gothic.” At the time, many called his building’s 447-foot height truly gutsy.

In those days, the only taller building in the region was the year-older Los Angeles City Hall. And that heavily reinforced government edifice edged out King’s Long Beach tower by only a few feet.

The hallway walls above the Villa Riviera’s tiny elevators tell of the careful preservation of the building’s infrastructure.

Ornate elevator floor-location indicators still use original behind-the-wall, rope-and-pulley-operated arrows. The elevators themselves are button-controlled, not hand-operated, as in the old days.

Thick ground-floor concrete walls that still have a distinctive Art Deco look to them frame windows in an area that serves as leased office space for architect Meg Beatrice. She and associate Keith Hansell are using the Villa Riviera’s original construction drawings in hopes of restoring a fancy bronze-and-glass entryway that was initially installed in the building but later discarded by one of the hotel operators.

After the repeal of Prohibition, the Art Deco-framed windows helped create a spectacular semicircular bar that dominated one end of the Villa Riviera’s cocktail lounge -- the area now used as a design studio by Beatrice.

Not that everyone in the Villa Riviera took the national ban on liquor all that seriously.

The accidental discovery last year of a secret safe behind a phony wall in Don Stone’s 15th-floor closet proved that drinks could flow freely through the residential tower during Prohibition. Workers hunting for a plumbing leak discovered the large floor safe behind the fake wall. When a locksmith opened it, Stone found old newspapers dated 1929 to 1933. An engraved invitation to a 1929 dinner-dance included a detailed, hand-written liquor inventory on its back. At the bottom of the safe was an unopened bottle of G.H. Mumm & Co. champagne, which experts calculate dates to about 1913.

“They probably stored their liquor in the safe during Prohibition,” said Stone, a consumer electronics applications engineer who has a view of the Hollywood sign from one of his windows and Catalina Island from another.

Across the hallway from Stone, the wall of neighbor Kristen Autry’s quiet study speaks of spirituality, not spirits. Framed color photographs that she took depict sunrises, sunsets and shimmering nighttime city lights from the stunning panorama seen from upper-level Villa Riviera units.

That breathtaking view prompted some early Villa Riviera residents to take sledgehammers to some of the 30 signature gargoyles molded from poured concrete and rebar at the time of the building’s construction. Half a dozen of the figures were blocking penthouse views of the ocean and were demolished, according to Pete Smay, who has spent years studying the history of Villa Riviera.

Smay’s research shows that the Villa Riviera was briefly owned by silent film star Norma Talmadge. Her ex-husband, 20th Century Fox President Joseph M. Schenck, bought it for her during the 1930s so she would have something to do after talking pictures put an end to her film career.

But Schenck didn’t keep up on the payments, Smay said, and several owners ran the Villa Riviera after that until its units were returned to co-op ownership in the mid-1950s. They were converted to condominiums in 1991.

The building tower’s interior walls show the history of less famous residents and guests of Villa Riviera. A narrow spiral staircase made of 44 cast-iron steps climbs to a tiny room encircled by an outdoor balcony high above the copper roof.

The tower and its balcony were used by World War II coastal sentries watching for enemy ships offshore. And by plenty of others too.

Inscribed in pencil on the inside of the tower are names and dates spanning seven decades, listing visitors such as Bob Lemke, who was there Aug. 10, 1941, and Leon Lankford, who inscribed his name on Nov. 26, 1938. Embedded in the concrete ledge that rings the exterior balcony is a U.S. Coast and Geological Survey Marker dated 1933.

Plaques on the front wall outside the ground-level entrance to the Villa Riviera proclaim that the building was designated a historic landmark by Long Beach’s Cultural Heritage Commission in 1979. It was placed on the U.S. Interior Department’s National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

One resident, Mary Ann Grossnick, will celebrate her 101st birthday a few months before the building celebrates its 75th anniversary next April. But the majority of the 200 residents are young professionals, according to building manager Ted Manzano. There are no vacancies among the 134 units, although one two-bedroom condo is on the market for $465,000, he said.

Douglas Gastelun, a lawyer who heads the Villa Riviera’s condominium association, said plans are being made to mark the building’s 75 years with public events and tours.

Part of the celebration may include the opening of a museum displaying early Villa Riviera furniture, crystal and other dinnerware, and vintage photographs, according to resident Sally Logan, who heads a nonprofit group called Friends of Villa Riviera, which is raising money for things like the new glass-and-bronze front door.

Replacement of the missing gargoyles is also on the list, although no one dares to suggest out loud that the tower interior be repainted or the old-fashioned elevator arrows be replaced.

The walls at the Villa Rivera talk. And they also have ears.

For a video of the Villa Riviera, go to www.latimes.com /surroundings.


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