For years, people went looking for Los Angeles Historical-Cultural Monument No. 137: a Dutch-themed hot chocolate shop that was one of Ernest Batchelder's earliest commissions.
They came to a worn-looking building on West 6th Street downtown expecting to see the Arts and Crafts master tile-maker's murals of Dutch maidens in wooden clogs.
What they found instead was a small, drab arcade, with stalls selling bargain vitamins, perfume, jewelry and hats.
Tile was visible on the ceiling and walls, poorly lighted by fluorescent bulbs. But the stalls had plywood walls where the murals should have been, and there was no way to see what was behind them.
Then a few months ago, a new proprietor, Charles Aslan, ripped out the arcade, uncovering a nearly completely intact Los Angeles treasure.
"It's certainly one of the most beautiful and extravagant tile interiors in Los Angeles or anywhere," said Ken Bernstein, manager of the city's Office of Historic Resources. "It's a remarkable example of the use of ceramic tile and a preeminent example of Batchelder's work."
Here were tiled pillars and groined arches in hues of rich caramel, butterscotch, chocolate brown. Here were the murals — of sailing ships, windmills and canals, of Dutch women in bonnets, knitting and carrying jugs; of Dutch men in ballooning trousers, out with their oxen. Here were statues of a Dutch boy and girl blowing bubbles, the bubbles actually colored-glass lamps.
And here was Aslan not just revealing the tile, but promising to revive the hot chocolate shop that first opened in 1914.
The funny thing was that Aslan hadn't come to the building for Batchelder. The exuberant businessman, born in Singapore, had only recently learned who Batchelder was.
But soon this man who once sold over-the-top factory furniture from an open lot on La Cienega Boulevard was expressing his devotion to the Pasadena artisan who epitomized the handmade.
"The whole building is going to be Batchelder," Aslan said proudly of the 25,000-square-foot, four-story structure he has leased for the next 131/2 years.
Aslan, 53, actually has eclectic dreams for 217 W. 6th St. — hot chocolate and sweets on the first floor, a restaurant on the second, some sort of Arts and Crafts studio on the third, possibly producing tile.
He sees downtown residents seated at a hot-chocolate bar, being served fine hot cocoa by waitresses wearing sarongs. He sees the patrons settling in for hours to enjoy desserts, organic juices, free wireless service and live lounge music.
He imagines fulfilling the ambitions of the shop's original owners by creating a chain of chocolate shops, each celebrating a different place in the world.
And he hopes to reopen a bricked-up passageway into the adjoining Spring Arcade Building and open a Dutch chocolate gift shop and a health food store there.
The plan's a little all over the place, perhaps, and he doesn't yet have the cash to make it happen. But that's Aslan.
Raised in Singapore and Hong Kong, he came to Los Angeles at 13 and dropped out of school at 16. By then, he says, he was making serious money, working in the family's swap-meet-centered electronics business. They bought electronics cheap, rebuilt and resold them. They had all the major brands.
"We were the king of electronics," he says. "We sold car stereos, home stereos, 4-tracks, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs."
Later, he ran a downtown paper and printing business. Then in 1992 he took an overnight leap into furniture, helping an old friend sell the contents of a shipping container. Aslan rented a lot on La Cienega, between Pico Boulevard and the 10 Freeway, and lined up his wares, mostly decorative pieces from the Philippines.
"I pull out a carousel horse, a guy in a Porsche pulls up, slams on the brakes. He says, 'How much?' I go, '$7,000.' He says, 'When can you deliver it?' So I call up the supplier and say, 'Send me a whole container of carousel horses,' " recalls this merry-eyed, balding and mustachioed bear of a man, before launching into a belly laugh that lasts a whole minute.
More horses arrived, along with "controversial figurines" — of black beggars, waiters and jockeys.
He called his new venture Going, Going, Gone and delights in recounting his sales pitches.
Every item was one of a kind. Every item was marked down. Each price was about to go up. Buy it now or forever lose your chance.
Before long, he says, he was getting 40-foot containers from 10 countries.
"I had figurines, I had European bronzes, I had silver malachite candelabras, I had antiques, rustic, iron, fountains, redwood, garden furniture — the list is endless," he says, bursting into laughter again. "And I was the first, I was the first to do that."
Soon, he had multiple stores, rented month to month. He'd "saturate an area," he says, then move on.
It stopped working in 2007, but even when he talks about liquidating, he's jolly. He put big ads in the paper that read, "Stick a fork in me, I'm done" and "Rule No. 1: Bring checkbook in hand. Rule No. 2: Check Rule No. 1."
After that came the messy end of a marriage, a long fight in family court, a life at loose ends. Aslan traveled. He found jobs where he could.
He was struggling to find work last year, as a family court judge had ordered, when fate led him to 6th Street.
Aslan likes a good tale. This is how this one goes:
He and his sister were walking in Pan-Pacific Park when they ran into their aunt, who managed some buildings their uncle owned downtown. The aunt said she had space available.
Then Aslan got a call from a friend, looking to open an office for his online business: Helpstopforeclosurefraud.com. Aslan told his friend that if there was a job in it for him, he could broker a great deal on office space.
They took a $500-a-month stall in the arcade last December — and soon expanded to seven stalls.
During this time, they looked up the building, trying to uncover its history.
But just as Aslan got interested in Batchelder and what was behind those plywood walls, his friend skipped town, leaving him short more than $5,000 in rent. Then his aunt had a stroke that left her partly paralyzed and unable to manage the building. He stepped in.
Capitalizing on Batchelder seemed a way out of a fix and into a future, Aslan says. He convinced his relatives to give him some time rent-free, promising down the road to start paying serious money.
He now has a website, CountdowntoBatchelder.com, and hands out Dutch Chocolate Shop business cards and photo postcards of one of the murals.
He has hosted salons to talk tile history and open houses for the Downtown L.A. Art Walk.
He has embraced a downtown that is fast changing, warmly welcoming all the curious.
William Fisher, 62, a street singer who calls himself Wild Bill, wandered in one day. Now he's singing, with his puppet Sancho dangling from his guitar, at all of Aslan's events. A young fashion designer who lives in a nearby loft peeked in and decided this was the perfect spot to get married. Now Aslan is hosting her wedding in October.
"I'm open to downtown, whatever I can do to help," he says.
On a recent Art Walk evening, he stood by the sidewalk, calling out to passersby, "Welcome to the Dutch Chocolate Shop! The Batchelders!
"Relax! Have a drink!" he boomed, ever the pitchman. No drinks were actually on offer.
But people walked inside.
Old merges with new in the space on West 6th.
Old L.A., new L.A. Old Aslan, new Aslan.
While he tries to find investors and get permits, Aslan has filled the space with a friend's wares.
Here is an oil painting of dogs playing poker, another of the Eiffel Tower. Here are shiny benches made of huge, twisted tree roots, bronze angel lamps, gilded French-style commodes, reproduction papyrus scrolls. Most of it comes from Egypt, he says. All of it has yellow clearance tags — an astronomical price crossed out on top, a lower one below.
On a recent day, as a couple paused by the angel lamps, he couldn't resist a little patter. They'd be gone by tomorrow, prices only good today.
He'll try anything to further his grand plan, which is one reason he's been scouring archives.
Hot chocolate was a fad in 1914. After it faded, new enterprises filled the space. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the Health Cafeteria offered "the supreme flavor of wholesome natural foods, particularly vegetables and fruits," according to a 1927 ad. The Bragg family, which ran the cafeteria, is still in the health food business. Aslan is talking to them about one day carrying Bragg products — apple-cider-vinegar drinks, salad dressings, olive oil — in his health food store.
He also is clearly enjoying his new place in the world, meeting and greeting excited tile experts, urban explorers and L.A. history buffs.
At the Art Walk event, crowds moved through the space, reading the signs on the tile saying no touching, no photos: "PLEASE RESPECT THE DIAMOND OF THE WORLD."
"I like the architecture. It reminds me of 'Hugo,' " said Daniel Johnson, 22, of Silver Lake, a film editor, referring to Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning film.
Carla Sotelo, who studied Batchelder for her graduate degrees in art and historic preservation, was beaming.
"I came in 2006 when it was all boarded up, and let me tell you, I cried," she said. "They were selling socks and VHS tapes of bullfighters in here. I love this."
At a microphone, Aslan introduced himself, inviting everyone to the opening, which he said he hoped was just a few months off.
"We're going to have the best chocolate in town," he said.