Unwrapping Hollywood landmark’s many stories

Times Staff Writer

In the beginning, Los Angeles’ first modern skyscraper won acclaim.

Then, the Sunset-Vine Tower somehow turned into the city’s most cursed landmark.

Some of its problems were real. An electrical explosion in 2001 burned out its entire power system. There was a surprise lockout of its tenants by city officials. Squatters took over the 20-story building and turned it into what some called “the world’s biggest crack house.”

Others were imaginary. The 1974 image of the building, at the southeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street, falling apart was merely a special effect for the thrill flick “Earthquake.” The spectacular 2005 fire that turned the place into a towering inferno ended up causing no damage at all.


And now the tower’s asbestos scare of 2007 turns out to be fake, too.

Developers, who have gutted the high-rise to turn it into luxury apartments, say there was no public health hazard when winds ripped away a plastic shroud that encased the tower to stop the escape of asbestos particles, which can cause cancer.

The removal of asbestos fireproofing material from the building had been completed by late December when high winds began tearing the plastic covering loose and blowing through the skeletonized structure, say officials of the CIM Group, which owns the building and is converting it to 63 residential units.

“There’s basically no asbestos left in the building,” said Ryan Harter, vice president of investments for CIM. “The abatement was complete in the third quarter of last year. I want people to know we haven’t put any people in danger.”


When the white plastic was first wrapped last year around the 306-foot-high scaffolding that surrounds the building, locals nicknamed it “the condom.”

After residents complained of the large cellphone company ads that popped up on the plastic, CIM executives in late October explained that the exterior wrap was not there for advertising purposes but to prevent asbestos from escaping.

That prompted some to worry that with the plastic covering gone, the wind was sending asbestos raining down on Hollywood neighborhoods near the tower.

Harter said the outer plastic shell had only been a secondary asbestos barrier. There were other containment “envelopes” inside the high-rise, where asbestos-laden fireproofing material was being scraped away from steel beams. Air sampling was done before those containment barriers were taken down.

New plastic covering will be attached to the exterior scaffolding next month to protect workers who will begin installing a sleek new facade -- an all-glass curtain wall that features space for nine-story, Sunset Strip-style super graphics on the building’s sides.

CIM Group, meanwhile, continues to “work through” issues surrounding the Dec. 6, 2001, electrical fire that caused so much trouble for the Sunset-Vine Tower, Harter said.

The blaze plunged the skyscraper into darkness and sent employees of 40 companies with offices there clambering down stairwells to safety. Tenants said an underground electrical transformer next to the building’s underground parking garage blew up and caught fire.

The high rise’s then-owner, Roy Mehdizadeh, blamed recurring Hollywood-area transformer explosions on power surges related to construction at the nearby Hollywood & Highland shopping center. But the city’s Department of Water and Power denied responsibility.


City building and fire officials allowed tenants to briefly return to their offices to retrieve important papers. But authorities refused to let them rent a generator to run the elevators to help in removing heavy equipment. Officials said the building was unsafe because its fire alarm system had been knocked out by the transformer fire.

Lawyer Thomas Hunter Russell, who had offices in the tower for 26 years, paid a work crew $25,000 to lug legal files and computers from his 10th-floor suite. An executive of radio station KWKW-AM (1330) carried a computer down 16 floors. Broadcast equipment had to be left behind in the darkened studios of radio stations KWKU-AM (1220) and KIRN-AM (670), which were also given a short period to carry as many things as possible down the stairs.

Tenants who couldn’t afford to pay professional movers as much as $1,200 to carry down a copy machine from upper floors were out of luck. So were those who did not remove all their office files and records during the city’s brief authorized re-entry period.

Squatters managed to break in, however, and the results of their vandalism are visible through the darkened tower’s windows. Among the victims was the architectural firm of Honnold, Reibsamen & Rex, which occupied an 18th-floor suite.

“Their offices were vandalized, and squatters destroyed their entire archives,” said Tony Merchell, a Palm Springs architectural historian. “It was a major loss. It’s so hard to recreate a career from newspaper clippings.”

Douglas Honnold was a pioneering modernist architect whose work ranged from the iconic Trocadero and Ciro’s restaurants and the 1950s Biff’s coffee shop to private homes of film stars such as Dolores del Rio and large office buildings such as the Los Angeles County Hall of Records.

Honnold also designed the Sunset-Vine Tower.

Built in 1963, it was the first skyscraper built after Los Angeles rescinded its long-standing ban on buildings taller than 13 stories. By the end of that year, it was garnering state and international design awards. The American Institute of Architects named it the best structure built in Los Angeles in the previous five years, picking it from among 8,000 eligible projects.


Its proximity to Hollywood studios made the tower a popular filming spot. It had its own starring role in Universal’s “Earthquake,” when the movie’s first major quake stunt sequence had it shaking apart and raining debris down on Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner. Also featured in the film were George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Roundtree and a new, theater-shaking sound system called “Sensurround.”

The 2005 roof fire, blamed on a cutting torch used in the renovation, only burned material earmarked for demolition. But firefighters who carried as much as 100 pounds of gear up stairwells to get to the blaze had to undergo asbestos decontamination afterward. Although the original building featured a popular penthouse restaurant, the 360, commercial space in the new apartment tower will be restricted to about 9,000 square feet at the bottom, according to CIM officials.

They said the reconstruction is expected to be finished and the 63 apartments ready for occupancy in the fall of 2008 -- hoping to capitalize on Hollywood’s renaissance.

So breathe easy, Tinseltown.