A shrine to style and sophistication

Times Staff Writer

Absolute elegance permeated Bullocks Wilshire department store in its heyday.

Customers were "patrons." Women were "ladies," and ladies wore hats. White-gloved clerks wrote sales slips by hand so the vulgar "ding" of cash registers would not disturb the genteel atmosphere. The store's 14-karat-gold credit cards alone cost $400.

Chic and sophisticated Bullocks Wilshire was spelled with an apostrophe from the time the store opened in 1929 until the 1970s, when the punctuation was removed to distinguish the place from run-of-the-mill Bullock's stores.

"Salesladies thought it was horrible when the store brought in those point-of-sale cash registers in the 1970s," said Nan Williams, 69, who worked at the store during that decade and trained women on the registers.

Williams and a dwindling number of former buyers, salesclerks and models will return to the 78-year-old Art Deco landmark July 28 for two rare public tours and a trip down the aisles of mercantile memory. Los Angeles' first department store catering to the automobile is now Southwestern Law School.

Film stars didn't just shop at Bullocks Wilshire; they worked there.

"I sold clothes in the collegiate department," said June Lockhart, 82, who sometimes describes herself as "Lassie's mom."

"I had so much fun, and boy could I sell," she said in a recent interview. It was 1943, the summer before her senior year at the Westlake School for girls.

"Helen Gurley Brown worked there as a secretary, and Angela Lansbury was a salesclerk," Lockhart said.

At the end of the summer, Lockhart gave up her $35-a-week sales job for a contract with MGM at $250 a week.

Hollywood gave the store some of its character, according to Times archives and two books: "Bullocks Wilshire" by Margaret Leslie Davis and "Wilshire Boulevard" by Kevin Roderick and J. Eric Lynxwiler.

Mae West would sit in her limo as salesclerks brought designer dresses for review.

Joan Mitchell, 78, who worked there as a model and salesclerk from 1947 to 1971, hand-delivered gowns to West's penthouse at the nearby Ravenwood apartments, she said in a recent interview.

"There was a private entrance for men only in menswear," Mitchell said. "I watched Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Katharine Hepburn walk through there. Katharine bought her shoes in the men's department."

Marlene Dietrich bought her men's trousers there. She also was known to drive up late Saturday afternoon and load her car with store employees, whom she took to her Malibu house for the weekend.

Actress Greta Garbo once asked a clerk to help her choose a swimsuit. When they went into the fitting room, Garbo removed her coat -- which was all she was wearing.

Publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst was a big spender who insisted on shopping in privacy after hours. He would purchase entire swimwear collections and multiple equestrian outfits to fill the closets of his San Simeon mansion for his guests.

Several movies were filmed at Bullocks Wilshire, including Cary Grant's comedy "Topper" (1937), "Bugsy" (1991) and "The Aviator" (2004).

The store was built in the 1920s by John Gillespie Bullock and Percy Glen Winnett, both Canadian immigrants and owners of the original Bullock's in downtown Los Angeles. The site at Westmoreland Avenue and Wilshire, about three miles from downtown, was considered the suburbs but was conveniently close to wealthy Hancock Park.

Architects John and Donald Parkinson, a father-son team who designed City Hall and Union Station, were commissioned to create a style that appealed to affluent shoppers.

On Sept. 26, 1929, the doors opened at the five-story building with a distinctive terra cotta and copper facade and a 241-foot tower that drew the eye from far down the boulevard. At night, the tower was alight until World War II, when it was darkened to shield it from possible enemy bombers.

"Like a jewel of jade upon the breast of a titan goddess, Bullocks Wilshire gleams against the California sky," The Times announced.

Dubbed "the Cathedral of Commerce," the grand edifice was built as a paean to automobile culture. Showcase display windows along the sidewalk were designed to catch motorists' eyes.

Its imposing entrance was in the rear, where a dramatic circular driveway swept up to uniformed valets who parked cars and greeted shoppers under a richly colored Herman Sachs ceiling fresco that depicted the world of transportation: a zeppelin, an airplane and a luxury ocean liner.

When it opened, the store was one of only three commercial buildings in the mid-Wilshire area, along with the Brown Derby and the Ambassador Hotel.

In the 1930s, dress designer Irene Lentz Gibbons, billed simply as "Irene," opened a ready-to-wear salon at Bullocks Wilshire. It was the first boutique-within-a-store to sell exclusively the collection of an American designer. Her clothes earned her attention in the film community, leading to a long career as a costume designer with the studios. In the 1950s, she hired models, including Peggy Smith, to show her fashions.

"Peggy traveled all over the world with Irene," said Williams, who was Smith's roommate and cared for her before she died of cancer in 1999. "She told me stories of Mr. Winnett" (a Bullock's co-founder).

He was a generous man, Smith told Williams, and "oh, such a charmer. He loved the ladies, taking all the models to Hawaii every year for a week."

When Bullocks Wilshire dropped the apostrophe as part of an effort to establish its own identity, it also built Bullocks Wilshire stores in Palm Springs, Orange County and the San Fernando Valley.

The Bullock's and Bullocks Wilshire chains were purchased by Macy's in 1988. Bullocks Wilshire became part of the I. Magnin chain.

Soon, hatbox lids carried elegant gold lettering -- and an embarrassing error:

I. Magnin

B.W. Willshire

In 1993, in the midst of bankruptcy, Macy's closed Bullocks Wilshire and removed many of the store's historic fixtures -- including chandeliers, vases and antique furniture.

"Macy officials nearly destroyed it," Williams said. "Everyone screamed bloody murder when they ripped out sconces and chandeliers."

Then-Mayor Richard Riordan and members of the Los Angeles Conservancy wrote Macy's a letter accusing the company of shoplifting part of Los Angeles' cultural history. Protesters handed Macy's shoppers fliers bearing the message: "Don't let a bankrupt New York company defile one of L.A.'s most beloved landmarks."

Macy's yielded to the entreaties and returned the items.

The law school bought the building in 1994 for $8.6 million and began a $23-million face-lift, which is ongoing.

In 1997, the law school moved in and illuminated the tower.

Today, the fifth-floor Tea Room where shoppers watched fashion shows is a dining room and cafeteria.

The other half of the floor, where John Gillespie Bullock kept a wood-paneled suite, is the dean's office.

The display windows that enticed motorists to buy designer dresses now showcase law library desks and students at work.

cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

Reservations are required for the "Tea and Tour"; (213) 738-6814 or events@swlaw.edu. Proceeds go to Friends of the Bullocks Wilshire, a nonprofit organization that helps fund continued restoration and adaptation of the building.

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