Seriously, what about a tarp?

Times Staff Writer

It's become, for some, a symbol of the era and an embodiment of the region's excesses.

"It represents everything I loathe about Los Angeles," says Daniel Schwartz, a longtime television producer who left town a few years ago but still vividly recalls 8500 Melrose Ave. "It's sort of a cross between Leni Riefenstahl and 'La Cage Aux Folles.' Clearly a lot of money was spent erecting it, but I used to study it and ask, 'What was the concept here?' "

This year marks the 20th anniversary of 8500 Melrose, a pink-trimmed, black-and-white checkerboard mini-mall at La Cienega Boulevard that just may be Los Angeles County's ugliest building.

Officially in the bounds of West Hollywood, it leaves no mystery as to the era of its origin: To its detractors it evokes synth-rock record jackets, the Reagan tax cut, Duran Duran haircuts, conspicuous consumption and the over-the-top television of the 1980s.

"It's the 'Miami Vice' of buildings," says Paul Davidson, a screenwriter whose rage has helped inaugurate a new feature called "Tear It Down" on the L.A.-centric website LAist.com. "I would have loved to sit in on that conversation where they looked at the mock-ups and said, 'This pink and black checker is really going to.... ' What?"

Part of what makes the building startling is that it seems to have been airlifted in. It appears in a quietly urbane side of Melrose, far from the candy-colored teenage stretch to the east. Because it appears on a corner, at a place where Melrose narrows and turns slightly as it hits La Cienega, the structure is boldly framed by the street.

"I'm surprised the Urth Caffe [two blocks to the west] hasn't asked them to get rid of it," says Davidson, who suggests the building be covered with a waterproof blue tarp or converted into a home for Don Johnson retrospectives. "They should give out special glasses to people who drive past it."

Originally conceived as a foil to the Pacific Design Center about a quarter-mile to the west, 8500 Melrose opened in June 1985. Its designers -- Albert C. Martin & Associates, a venerable L.A. firm that designed both the Deco-style May Co. Building (now LACMA West) and the original Sherman Oaks Galleria -- called it "a provocative and elegant easterly portal to the design community."

Project architect Robert Murrin said at the time: "In order for a building to make a statement along Melrose Avenue, it must be unconventional; the context demands it."

Made of black granite and white marble, the 34,000-square-foot building, built at a cost of $5 million, soon became known as "the bleeding zebra" for its bold color scheme.

Part of the reason 8500 Melrose annoys so many people, says Jessica Ritz, a preservationist at Historic Resources Group, is that it's in a neighborhood devoted to aesthetics.

"That stretch of Melrose has a lot of high-end, big-money decorating and design firms. But they've never gotten a high-end anchor tenant there," she says of the building, which now houses a Mattress Gallery, the Crystalarium, a neglected cafe and the Chrysalis Music Group. "It seems like it didn't deliver."

Schwartz says the building reminds him of high-concept '80s films packaged by Hollywood agents tossing disparate elements together. When he sees the building, he thinks of the Keanu Reeves surfing-heist film "Point Break," or Cher as a workaholic lawyer chased by a guy with a knife in "Suspect."

It's a high-concept building, he says. "But I don't know what the concept is."

Ironically, the Melrose building dates from a period currently being lovingly ransacked by musicians and fashionistas.

It's not just retro bands like Franz Ferdinand, Interpol and the Killers; or designers such as Marc Jacobs, who strip-mines John Hughes films; or Helmut Lang, who's bringing back skinny ties. It's neo-"Flashdance" and Donald Trump.

It's '80s stars like Prince, Morrissey, the Pixies and the Cure who led enormous concert tours last year and became hip influences for young groups. One of the hot art shows in New York today is about the early-'80s East Village.

But Alan Hess, an architectural historian who's written books on Googie, Palm Springs and the ranch house, hasn't noticed an uptick of nostalgia for '80s architecture. "Not every era has the qualities to stick in the public consciousness" the way Victorian, Deco or Modernism did, he says.

The L.A. area has fewer '80s buildings than one might expect, given the period's economic boom, he says. But around the same time 8500 Melrose was going up, the city was witnessing an influx of large malls -- Westside Pavilion, Beverly Center, Santa Monica Place -- and many nondescript mini-malls. Among the more striking buildings of the time were restaurants, such as Morphosis' Kate Mantilini, or sleek office towers like Scott Johnson's Fox Tower in Century City (the "Nakatomi Building" from "Die Hard").

Boldly '80s buildings, Hess says, stir up bad memories for California's current Democrat-majority culture. "The design proclaimed the shift to a very different, more Republican era, the Reagan revolution and its full-tilt celebration of excess. This building's mere existence criticized the '70s -- an era of limits and constraints -- by saying, 'We can have it all.' That's what today's blue state California mind-set still reacts against."

Jim Heimann, a graphic artist who's just completed editing "All-American Ads of the 80's" for Taschen, points out that design had moved beyond checkerboards, faux-Tuscan marble and classical pillars by 1985. "By that time," he says, "Postmodern Classicism had lost its luster."

The building was dated even when it opened.

And Schwartz thinks 8500 captures the worst elements of the 1980s. "It doesn't welcome you; it's imposing. It says, 'I've got lots of cash and you don't.' And 'I'm not trying to be anyone but myself.' That's very '80s, that narcissism. It doesn't even reference the street."

Despite the derision, some architectural authorities, and many preservationists, think 8500 Melrose could become historically important. Some even have a winking admiration for it.

"A lot of '80s stuff is purely exterior," says John English, a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee who helped save the oldest remaining McDonald's, in Downey. "But this was a total statement. It's a singular, ground-up building that exemplifies the era in color, materials and style. I think it will be worthy of preservation at some point."

Tastes change vastly with time, Heimann says. " '50s styles like Case Study houses were considered too severe and unfriendly in the '60s and '70s. There tends to be 20 or 30 years before we can get enough distance."

Sometimes it takes longer: The Victorian homes on Bunker Hill, he points out, were torn down around 1960 to build the Music Center, in part because they were considered ugly.

"There's a segment which says that architecture should be timeless, it will last for eternity," Hess says. "But that isn't what most of Los Angeles is about. It's timely -- most of it is about fashion, about what's popular.

"I'm interested in California continuing to be a generator of remarkable and fantastic architectural ideas. You get things which turn out to be controversial. But Los Angeles absolutely needs to encourage the expression of a variety of tastes."

Even some preservationists have mixed feelings.

Ritz, who went to elementary school across the street from 8500 Melrose when it was going up, says her classmates considered it garish even then.

"The only worthwhile use for it," she says now, "would be as an all-'80s souvenir shop."

Murrin, the architect, today admits he was a young man at the time, looking to make a mark. But he's proud of 8500 nonetheless.

"The client, an Iranian gentleman, basically said, 'I don't care what people say about it, as long as they talk about it,' " says the humble-sounding Murrin, adding with a laugh: "I'm glad that somebody still remembers it."

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