A showplace of the early automotive age in downtown Los Angeles a century ago is set to be revived by new owners who have ambitious plans to turn it into offices, a restaurant and a nightclub near L.A. Live.
Long vacant, the stocky five-story building at 11th and Hope streets was a warehouse for the now-defunct local department store chain Desmond’s. It still has the company’s name affixed to the top.
But its glory days began in 1916, when it opened as a full-service outpost of Ohio automaker Willys-Overland Motor Co., which sold luxurious Willys-Knight cars to the city’s well-to-do.
Developing the project is Lincoln Property Co., which bought the property last week for $16.25 million. It plans to spend an additional $9 million over the next 12 months in hopes of making it a showplace again, Executive Vice President David Binswanger said.
Lincoln Property is one of the lead developers at the Playa Vista planned community near Marina del Rey, where most of the offices have been built to appeal to firms in creative fields, including entertainment, technology and advertising.
Such firms have clustered around Santa Monica, Venice and Culver City in recent years, and Binswanger now hopes to tempt some of them to move downtown.
Although the property is close to several new residential high-rises, Lincoln is forgoing the chance to make it into apartments or a hotel and is opting instead for offices.
In other parts of the city, old industrial buildings converted to offices command top rents, but there is a dearth of such properties in the financial district downtown.
“We are reaching out to Westside tenants,” he said. “There isn’t another product like this.”
The property was heralded as a head-turner even in 1916, when many people assumed the unusual concrete and brick structure was a car assembly plant because it seemed too big for a mere dealership.
“The building comprises five stories, all designed exclusively for the handling of the tremendous retail business of the Willys Overland company,” The Times said.
It went on to explain that the first floor was devoted to offices and a showroom for the complete line of the company’s products “ranging from the smallest Overland to the luxurious Willys-Knight eight,” its eight-cylinder model.
The second floor was the service department and could be reached by a ramp on 11th Street. It also had facilities to charge as many as 50 car batteries at a time and a crew of electricians to work on lighting, ignition and other electrical needs.
Another shop for major overhauls — equipment included riveting machines — occupied the third floor. The fourth was for painting cars and varnishing their numerous wooden finishes. New cars were stored on the fifth floor.
A massive elevator ferried cars to every floor and the roof, where mechanics tuned the vehicles and ran their motors to break them in.
The open-top elevator capable of giving passengers the willies still works, and Binswanger envisions using it to ferry patrons to a bar he plans to build on the roof, essentially adding another floor to the structure. Visitors would have views of the downtown skyline and, three blocks to the west, Staples Center.
At street level, the old showroom with 18-foot ceilings and white octagonal-tiled floors should be used for a restaurant and perhaps a new showroom for a tenant in the tech or fashion business interested in displaying products, he said.
The last owner, Evoq Properties Inc., also had plans to fix up the building but decided to sell it instead and use the money to fund another downtown redevelopment project, Chief Executive Martin Caverly said.
“We were reluctant to sell,” Caverly said, but it made sense to redeploy the company’s financial resources to Alameda Square across downtown in the arts district. “We are getting much more traction on that.”
The vast historic industrial complex near Alameda Street and Olympic Boulevard is also being converted to offices for tenants in creative fields, including clothiers Splendid and Ella Moss.
Downtown’s residential renaissance has helped position it to attract sought-after creative businesses such as design firms, said real estate broker Marc Renard of Cushman & Wakefield, who represented Evoq in the sale of the former car dealership and furniture warehouse.
“Downtown L.A. is just at the beginning of what is going to be a major influx of this kind of office space,” Renard said. “The fact that you can get higher rent for creative offices than for high-rises is an indication of demand.”