Forgotten by time, but not out of style
A block south of Pershing Square, Marc Chevalier strolls along Olive Street in a flawless 60-year-old Oviatt suit of shimmering white silk. Despite its age, the design is so up to date that he could have stepped out of a window display at one of today’s exclusive menswear stores, except for his two-toned Spectator shoes, which are more fitting for a Raymond Chandler novel.
Chevalier, 45, is the unofficial curator of all things Oviatt, whether it pertains to clothier James Oviatt, who died in 1974 at the age of 85, or the 1928 Oviatt Building at 617 S. Olive St., also known as Historic Cultural Monument No. 195. To be escorted by Chevalier through the building and its penthouse is perhaps as close as one can come to rubbing shoulders with Oviatt’s ghost.
Today, we know the former clothing store as the Cicada Club, where several scenes of “The Artist” were filmed. In its golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, Oviatt’s catered to the elite, whether it was Hollywood royalty, wealthy executives or visiting politicians.
“What really attracts me to him,” Chevalier says of James Oviatt, “is that he had one religion — the best. He wanted to find the best, make the best and sell the best.... I’m a perfectionist. I really love the idea of someone who was so devoted to the best.”
The son of a Utah blacksmith, Oviatt was a self-made man who came to Los Angeles in 1909, founded his clothing store in 1912, when the city was booming, and opened a store of imported “men’s fine furnishings” at 6th and Hill streets in 1915. By 1927, he was building the 13-story Art Deco high-rise that would carry his name, and his clothing business would occupy the first three floors.
“You follow his path and you’re sort of following the path of Los Angeles at that time,” Chevalier says. “Whatever was going on, he was there. And he’s been forgotten, in a way, which is also very Los Angeles, isn’t it?”
The doors of the Oviatt opened in 1928, revealing a creation that was lavish from floor to roof: Lalique glass, custom woodwork, a tower with a large neon clock (the first such clock in Los Angeles, according to The Times), French Napoleon marble and an elaborate 30-ton glass ceiling for the outdoor lobby.
But Oviatt’s insistence on traditional fabrics like wool and cotton made him hopelessly out of date in the era of synthetic suits and wash-and-wear shirts. By 1967, the once-grand palace of clothing had closed its doors for good.
Trash accumulated in the entryway and the homeless slept beneath the grand glass ceiling. Oviatt’s widow, Mary, whom he married in 1945 (he was 57 and she was 22) began selling off the building’s finest pieces, including the famed glass ceiling, to settle debts. Through a series of deaths, wills and bequeathals, the building was eventually left to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which put it on the market as a tear-down.
It was this shabby old building that Chevalier saw in 1975 at the age of 7, when his father took him for swimming lessons across the street at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. “It was pretty dirty in the mornings when I would see it,” Chevalier says. “But I still thought it was really cool looking.”
Oviatt’s became a thread running through Chevalier’s life.
By the 1990s, after the building was renovated by developer Wayne Ratkovich, Chevalier was persuading the elevator operators to let him see the penthouse by telling them he was an architecture student at UCLA. In 2008, Chevalier made a documentary on the building that mushroomed from 15 minutes to 80 minutes. It is titled — not surprisingly — “The Oviatt Building” and premiered at the old Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
On a recent visit to the penthouse (arguably one of the best tours in the city), Chevalier launches into a minutely detailed description of each room and every piece of furniture, rug, painting and piece of Lalique glass that was sold off by Oviatt’s widow — all from memory.
“This is the one that everybody goes nuts for,” he says of the bathroom, which has a skylight, walls painted a stunning deep red, a bidet toilet, a sunken bathtub and a steam room with a massage table. “He must have really liked bathrooms.”
“You’ve got your Oviatt suit and tie, and your Spectator shoes,” I tell him later. “What does it feel like for you to be here? When you look out the windows, do you see 2012? Or does time stand still?”
“It’s as if I have a clear glass photo, so I see what is there now but I also see the outlines of what was there then,” he says. “At this point I know more about this building’s history than anybody else alive. There’s this nice little feeling that ‘I know something you don’t know. I’ve got a secret.’ Except that I want to spread it.”
So is this a passion, an avocation or an obsession?
“Infinite riches in a little room,” Chevalier says, quoting from an Elizabethan play by Christopher Marlowe.
“I’m an English teacher but my passion is history,” he says. “Specifically the part of history in which you can unearth the lost, the buried. James Oviatt and his building allow me to take that passion and focus it like a laser beam on this one, small little corner of the Los Angeles story, realizing that this small story is also a microcosm of a much bigger story.”
Like revealing the history of a city through a shimmering white silk suit.
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