Demolition of the Wilshire Grand fascinates passersby

At lunchtime, businessman Joe Wilson likes to check out the action just down the street on Wilshire Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. It’s not the traffic he’s watching; it’s the slow but methodical demolition of the old Wilshire Grand Hotel at the corner of two of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.

“Every afternoon when I go out for lunch, I walk by to see what they’re doing,” said Wilson, who has now seen the hotel reduced to an entire city block of rubble. It’s the first step toward construction of a 73-story skyscraper hotel planned for that spot by 2017.

In the meantime, a surprise of sorts has emerged. Once partially hidden by the Wilshire Grand, the 21-story Wedbush Center at 1000 Wilshire — seen mainly from the Harbor Freeway — now stands prominently for all to see, facing South Figueroa Street. Even if only briefly.


Before and after photos of the Wilshire Grand demolition

“I never seen it, but I knew it was there,” subway passenger Eric Portis said of the Wedbush Center after he emerged from the Metro station across the street from the building. “I think a lot of people would say that.”

Also getting a fresh downtown profile west of Figueroa are a neighboring 22-story office building at 915 Wilshire built in 1980 and the 52-story Figueroa at Wilshire tower, built 10 years later.

Still in progress at the Wilshire Grand site is the demolition of the underground garage. And starting in August, crews will begin digging the massive hole where the $1-billion Korean Air skyscraper will soon have its foundation, which is scheduled to be complete by year end.

Panoramic view from the demolition site

Keeping the Wilshire Grand name for now, the new tower will have 73 stories that include a hotel, office space and spots for restaurants and stores. It will have 900 guest rooms, double-decker elevators and an observation deck that will afford ocean views.

Businessman Wilson, who watches the progress daily, is eager for work to begin on what will eventually grow beyond the nearby U.S. Bank Tower and become the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

“The older building was obsolete,” he said. “It wasn’t the highest or best use of the land here. They’re just doing what any good property owner does.”

“As a little kid, you love seeing stuff like this,” said Wilson, 49, a Santa Clarita resident. “It’s still as intriguing as an adult. I have two boys who are 9 and 11. They love coming down and seeing what’s going on with this.”

Demolition of the 16-story Wilshire Grand Hotel began in September, according to Brendan Murphy, the project’s operations manager for Turner Construction Company.

Today, the lot at Wilshire Boulevard and Figueroa Street sits slightly below street-level as crews work to remove the last couple of layers of concrete and steel that served as an underground garage.

“It’s floor-by-floor demolition,” Murphy said. “Each floor has to come down one at a time.” It takes three or four days to take down each floor, he said.

Time-lapse video of the demolition

Down the street, security guard Armando Avila monitors the FigAt7th mall, about a block south of the construction. Because he spends so much time outside, Avila said, he watches for hours each day as the project unfolds before his eyes.

“I love the noise,” Avila said. “I love the fact they work as a team. It looks like they’re working like gears to a clock. The way these guys work together is amazing.”

All of the old concrete, steel and other building materials are transported to a recycling facility in Irwindale. Project manager Murphy estimates that it will take about 8,000 truckloads to clear the material from the site, adding that about 16 tons of material fits in each load.

The destruction and leveling of the old hotel building have not been too disruptive to some of the surrounding businesses, according to Eric Brichacek, who works at a nearby high-rise.

“We thought it was going to be dirty and messy, but so far it’s been fun to watch inside,” Brichacek said. “We just assumed there would be a huge wrecking ball for months and months.”

Another area office worker, Ryland Taylor, is more interested in what will soon take shape there. “I hope it’s some good architecture,” he said. “I think L.A. could use it. I want to see downtown L.A. become somewhere people want to spend time.”

Not everyone in his office is always very thrilled with the construction, he said. “Sometimes you’ll get some grumbling from the constant squealing of industrial machinery.”

At lunch near the construction site, office worker Chris Song said he was sad to see the old hotel building go, noting that there are several vacant nearby spaces where the new tower could have gone.

“It was a pretty nice hotel,” he said. “History cannot build up in a short time. Over 50 years, a lot of stories accumulated. We’ve got to keep that kind of history.”

Bernard Sichel, general manager of the Wedbush Center, said he couldn’t be happier that the old hotel is gone and that his building is now having its day in the sun. Passersby had only a limited view of the shimmering granite and glass building that now overlooks a huge open space — strewn with the dirt, rubble and piles of steel beams.

“I’ve had a lot of comments because the way the [Wilshire Grand] was built, it took the whole block,” Sichel said. “More than half of my building was hidden by the hotel. Now you can appreciate it and now you can see it.”

Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, a New York firm, and the local Langdon Wilson Mumper architect firm designed the Wedbush to play a visual trick on viewers. Because the building has both granite and reflective glass as its exterior, it can look to have about eight stories from a distance, instead of the 21 it actually has.

Although the wide-open view of the Lincoln Property Company-owned building that had been tucked away since it opened in 1987 won’t last forever, the Wilshire Grand project’s spokesman Sean Rossall said people will still have a good view of it even after the new Wilshire Grand is finished.

“The new hotel is going to be spectacular,” Sichel said. “I think having it as a neighbor will be good. It’ll be a new landmark for Los Angeles.”

Twitter: @CaleOttens