Decades later, 12-story plan for Pantages revived

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Pantages Theatre is about to get a Hollywood ending.

In the late 1920s, Los Angeles theater mogul Alexander Pantages started work on a costly Art Deco playhouse that would be topped by a 12-story office tower overlooking the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine.

A massive steel and concrete foundation was laid, but the 1929 stock market crash halted construction at two stories. To this day, the Pantages Theatre, currently showing the long-running musical “Wicked,” remains a two-story structure.

Now, 77 years after the Pantages’ spectacular opening night, efforts to finish the landmark theater’s upstairs offices are moving ahead again with those long-forgotten 10 additional floors -- all true to the original Art Deco design.

“How often do we get a chance to bring history back?” said Hollywood’s City Council representative, Eric Garcetti. “This way we get to participate in the first Golden Age of Hollywood while it’s heading into its second round.”

Representatives of the Nederlander family, owners of the Pantages, and local officials are expected to announce today that they plan to move forward on the project -- estimated to cost $75 million to $100 million and take as long as four years to complete.

Local historical preservationists at Hollywood Heritage Inc. are also on board, spokesman Robert Nudelman said.

“When people see the building they say it looks funny, like someone walked away from the job one day and never finished it,” Nudelman said. “This will make it better architecturally.”

Developers said the still-unnamed project architect will work from blueprints drawn by Pantages’ favorite architect, B. Marcus Priteca. He designed 22 theaters for Pantages across the nation. The Hollywood theater was the last and largest in Pantages’ empire.

Alexander Pantages was in deep trouble in 1930 when his flagship theater debuted at the northwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Argyle Avenue. The Times reported that he listened to radio coverage of opening night from his hospital cot in the County Jail.

Pantages was in failing health and had been charged with the sexual assault of a 17-year-old actress named Eunice Pringle. She said Pantages attacked her in his downtown Los Angeles office after they discussed possible stage roles for her.

Pantages said he had been framed and pleaded not guilty. The court battles that followed were a media sensation. Pantages was convicted and sentenced to as much as 50 years, but he appealed and won a new trial. He was acquitted in late 1931.

The trials had been financially ruinous, and Pantages sold his Hollywood landmark in 1932 to Fox West Coast Theaters. Howard Hughes acquired the Pantages under his RKO Theatre Circuit in the late 1940s and moved his personal offices to the building’s second floor.

From 1949 to 1959, the Pantages was the site of the Academy Awards. It received a $10-million restoration and upgrade in 2000, and since then more than $1 billion worth of development has been underway or planned around the junction of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.

Construction has been taking place on all sides of the intersection, and when it’s all done there will be about 2,500 new upscale condos and apartments along with a W Hotel and an array of shops and restaurants.

The completion of the theater’s office tower “is something my father and I had been thinking about for many, many years,” said James Nederlander Jr., whose family has owned the property for decades. “We always believed that Hollywood is a gem of Los Angeles and that good things come to those who wait.”

The Nederlanders’ partner in the planned addition is Clarett Group, a New York developer that will start work in January on Hollywood’s largest mixed-use project, a retail and apartment complex with more than 1,000 units that will rise on parking lots by the Pantages.

A recent structural feasibility study showed that the theater building is still fit to support 10 more stories, said Frank Stephan, senior managing director of Clarett Group. The tower would rise over the Pantages’ lobby and street-front retail, so the theater will continue to operate during construction, he said.

The new tower would be built to modern earthquake standards, he said. The developers would also be required to file an environmental impact report, which they said could delay work as long as two years.

Construction is expected to take another two years, so the offices are unlikely to be ready before 2012.

Developers predicted offices in the building would be sought after and quickly filled. Only about 8% of Hollywood office space was vacant at the end of the last quarter, but the market could change dramatically in the next four years.

There is risk in speculative development, Stephan said, but the builders believe the special nature of the building will attract tenants.

“Now is a good time to go forward because Hollywood needs Class A office space,” he said. “We think entertainment companies will consider it a premier address.”

Indeed, the Pantages “is as Hollywood as Hollywood gets,” said Mitzi March Mogul, a Los Angeles historic preservation consultant and expert on Art Deco, a design style that flourished in the 1920s.

The prospect of seeing another Art Deco tower rise in Hollywood has Mogul and other preservationists a bit giddy.

“Let’s face it, Art Deco is really the style that made Hollywood and in some ways Hollywood helped make Art Deco,” Mogul said. “There is a symbiotic relationship between those two that is forever.”