Closing time at Hollywood club
Preservationists hoping to save the facade of a Richard Neutra-designed building at Hollywood’s most famous corner have been told they are 70 years too late to stop demolition.
Workers are removing the remains of the Basque nightclub, which was gutted about six months ago by a mysterious predawn fire at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine.
The owner of the site ordered the tear-down after deciding that the damaged building was a safety hazard and that a 1939 remodel of the place had erased all evidence of Neutra’s styling.
This week the demolition was almost complete, with only the curving front of the celebrity hangout -- where Lindsay Lohan celebrated her 21st birthday -- remaining.
But Hollywood activists who consider the building historic have demanded that surviving remnants be saved and incorporated into the design of any replacement structure.
They have protested in front of the fenced-off structure and lobbied state and local leaders to help restore what they claim is Hollywood and Vine’s original “golden era” luster.
Recreation of the original modernist granite, glass and steel styling that Neutra used could easily fit into a contemporary structure, said preservationist Gregory Paul Williams, a Hollywood historian and author.
The building was commissioned in 1931 by Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle. He had originally planned a 900-seat movie theater at the corner, but the Great Depression killed that idea.
In his book “The Story of Hollywood: an Illustrated History,” Williams recounts how Laemmle instead turned the building into a fashionable lunchroom called the Coco Tree Cafe. Neutra’s design made it open and airy, and it was filled with customers despite the period’s economic downturn.
Laemmle died in 1939 and the restaurant was converted by Pig ‘n’ Whistle owner Sidney Hoedemaker into the Melody Lane restaurant. According to Williams’ book, “every trace of Richard Neutra’s architecture” was ripped out.
The place was turned into Hody’s Restaurant in the 1950s and topped by a giant billboard that featured a clown whose beach-ball-shaped nose twirled.
Hoedemaker’s junking of Neutra’s look is what doomed the building in August when city officials evaluated a request for a demolition permit for the burned Basque nightclub, according to a spokeswoman for Hollywood-area City Councilman Eric Garcetti.
Although the site is within the National Register of Historic Places-designated Hollywood Boulevard Commercial and Entertainment District, the 1939 renovation stripped the building of its historic importance, council aide Julie Wong said.
Because more than half of the structure survived the April 30 fire, the demolition application triggered a close review by three city agencies, Wong said. They concluded the remnants of Neutra’s old building did not qualify as historic or architecturally significant.
However, Garcetti “is willing to talk about the facade’s protection,” Wong said Wednesday.
A spokesman for the site’s owner, the New York-based Clarett Group, said it sought demolition only after its own experts agreed that the building’s hulk was not culturally valuable.
But economic pressures similar to those faced by Laemmle in the 1930s Depression have caused the company to indefinitely shelve rebuilding plans for the site, said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified.
Preservationists, meanwhile, held out hope that a state Assembly committee on arts and tourism may come to their aid. The committee chair, Assemblywoman Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach), “is curious to see if it’s something we might want to get involved in,” a committee staff member said.
Los Angeles Fire Department arson experts have not determined the cause of the blaze. “It is an ongoing investigation,” said Investigator Mario Newte.
But some in Hollywood suggest that mysterious fires frequently precede demolition of historic buildings near the Hollywood and Vine intersection.
Officials say they have no evidence that any of the blazes were tied to redevelopment. But Williams said he has counted 10 nearby buildings that were torn down after being damaged by fire. One, the renowned Brown Derby restaurant on Vine Street, was set on fire 16 times, he said.
“This is the unsolved arson capital of the world,” said longtime Hollywood activist John Walsh.
Pool is a Times staff writer.