A friend to L.A.'s best old buildings
The gig: Founder and principal of Levin & Associates Architects, a Los Angeles firm that specializes in historic building renovations. Levin has been the architect responsible for restorations of such local landmarks as the Wiltern theater, Griffith Observatory and City Hall.
Her latest challenge is the restoration and expansion of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, home to one of the city’s oldest Jewish congregations and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Completed in 1929, the domed structure of Moorish influence needs major infrastructure improvements.
“Wilshire Boulevard Temple is one of the greatest rooms in Los Angeles, if not the greatest public space,” said Levin, who is a member of the congregation.
Background: Born in New Jersey, Levin lived on the East Coast until she was 30 and never expected to leave. After studying graphic design at Carnegie Mellon and earning her degree at New York University, she worked for a few years before returning to school to secure a graduate degree in architecture from Harvard.
There she met her future husband, David Abel, who was determined to go west and convinced Levin there would be more opportunities there for women in male-dominated fields such as architecture. Her first job in California was working with prominent residential architect John Lautner on his design of a Palm Springs house for comedian Bob Hope.
Big break: Levin later found work in a Los Angeles commercial and industrial architecture firm that specialized in designing concrete tilt-up industrial buildings. When developer Wayne Ratkovich asked for help renovating an old haberdashery and office building in downtown Los Angeles, the firm gave Levin the job. The dramatic resuscitation of the Oviatt Building brought acclaim to Ratkovich and Levin and helped launch a movement to bring the city’s best old buildings back to glory.
“Developers and architects were not paying attention to the existing patrimony in the city, and then Wayne came along,” she said. “I was sort of attached to his wagon.”
Key timing: Levin calculates that she arrived on the scene at just the right time to ride atop a growing wave of interest in reviving the city’s historic structures. Levin continued to work with Ratkovich and another urban revival pioneer, Ira Yellin, as they restored such local treasures as the Bradbury Building, Grand Central Square, the Fine Arts Building and the Wiltern.
“It was a moment in time that did afford me this extraordinary opportunity,” Levin said.
The concept of saving and upgrading old buildings was so new in Los Angeles that Levin and her developers set a precedent for urban redevelopment that became codified in the city’s adaptive-reuse ordinance of 1999 and the California Historical Building Code. She also credits Los Angeles developer Tom Gilmore with helping cultivate the city’s interest in its old structures.
Learning from past masters: Restoring and sometimes expanding buildings now considered old but great has given Levin the chance to see how other generations of architects thought.
“When you are working on a project you are, in a sense, living within someone else’s skin,” she said. “You get an extraordinary appreciation for detail and how buildings go together.”
Levin said she endeavors to bring that attention to detail to her own designs. Among them are the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery at the Huntington Library in San Marino, the Johnson Student Center at Occidental College and the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, both in Los Angeles.
Still to do: After Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the historic Los Angeles building Levin most wants to work on is the Spanish-Mediterranean-style former Herald-Examiner newspaper headquarters downtown that was completed in 1914. She had agreed to design renovation plans earlier this decade, but the makeover was thwarted by a lawsuit and then the recession.
Levin is eager to closely examine the methods of architect Julia Morgan, who designed the building and Hearst Castle for publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Morgan, who designed hundreds of structures, including many institutions for women, has long been an inspiration to Levin.
“I channel Julia Morgan, I really do,” Levin said. “She was an amazing woman, well before her time.”
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