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Thursday, Feb 2, 2023

Time Transforms Role of Buildings on Wilshire Boulevard

In a city where reinvention comes second nature to much of its citizenry, the Wilshire Corridor fits right in.

Stretching 1.7 miles from Hoover Avenue on the east to Wilton Avenue on the west, mid-Wilshire rose from virtually nothing in the early 1920s to become home to some of the city’s swankiest apartment buildings. Decades later came high-rise office buildings comprising the largest center for insurance companies west of the Mississippi. Now, after an extended slump, the corridor has reemerged as ground zero for the Korean-American business community.

“It’s really quite remarkable,” said Cathy Gudis, director of education at the Los Angeles Conservancy. “Mid-Wilshire has gone through so many transformations.”

The first development along what is now Wilshire Boulevard came in 1895, when developer Henry Gaylord Wilshire purchased 35 acres around what is now Lafayette Park for $52,000; the land had been used as a city dump. He then agreed to have a street run through the property as long as it bore his name and began building homes.

Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, land baron Isaac Van Nuys and other prominent Angelenos moved into newly built mansions along the street.

In 1921, two landmark buildings went up. One was the opulent Ambassador Hotel, built on a 23-acre site that had been a dairy farm. Almost directly across the street, Wilshire built the 14-story Gaylord Hotel, which set the standard for posh apartment-style living. It was followed by the Langham, the Fox Normandie, the Los Altos and most lavish of all the Talmadge, built by United Artists president Joseph Schenck for his actress wife Norma Talmadge at the corner of Wilshire and Berendo Avenue.

With so many wealthy residents moving into so many elegant apartment buildings, it wasn’t long before businesspeople took note. In 1926, Gloria Swanson’s husband Herbert Somborn opened the Brown Derby, a hat-shaped eatery at the corner of Wilshire and Alexandria Avenue, a couple of blocks west of the Ambassador. It closed in 1982 and was converted into a Korean nightclub in the early 1990s.

Alongside the extravagant apartments and entertainment venues, another building boom was taking place: houses of worship. Wilshire Christian Church was the first to be built in 1911; in the 1920s came St. James Episcopal Church, Immanuel Presbyterian Church and Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

By this time, the art-deco movement was in full swing, and would be epitomized in 1929 with the opening of Bullock’s Wilshire on the corner of Westmoreland Avenue. Dubbed the first department store designed for the suburban auto age, Bullock’s Wilshire featured a “porte carchere,” or a covered rear entrance for cars.

As with the Ambassador and the Brown Derby, Bullocks would draw the well-to-do from all over L.A. Two years later, the Wiltern Theater at the corner of Wilshire and Western Avenue would bring another art deco touch to the neighborhood.

Over the next 15 years, the fizz went out of much of the boulevard largely the result of the Great Depression but a transformation took place after World War II that would turn mid-Wilshire into L.A.’s new downtown. In 1952, three high-rise office towers developed by Tishman Realty and designed by Claude Beelman opened on Wilshire, and Tishman was able to lure International Business Machines Corp. from its downtown digs.

Attention later shifted to the rapidly growing insurance industry, where dozens of companies had been operating out of older buildings on Spring Street in downtown.

“There was no parking on Spring Street. The floor plans were small, the elevators were small and often broke down it was a terrible place to have an office at the time,” said Michael Dunn, regional sales manager for Charles Dunn Co. realtors. “Then you look at mid-Wilshire: brand new buildings going up, lots of parking and huge floor plans.”

Over the next 15 years, more than two dozen insurance companies moved to the corridor. Later, they would leave, in part because Gov. Jerry Brown repealed a premium tax deduction for companies that built and owned buildings along mid-Wilshire. Without any financial advantage to owning their own buildings, insurance firms sold the towers to private and institutional investors.

Korean influx

Meanwhile, the demographics had shifted dramatically. The Hollywood and professional crowds had moved from the Wilshire apartment buildings to nearby Hancock Park or farther away to newer suburbs. They were replaced by Korean immigrants and by Latinos.

By the time the insurance company leases came up for renewal in the late 1980s, the surrounding area had deteriorated. Gang violence intruded most notably in a fatal gas station shooting at Vermont Avenue and Seventh Street and robberies had become more frequent.

“The whole neighborhood was turning down by the late 1980s,” said Denise Taylor, an attorney with Bonne Bridges Mueller O’Keefe & Nichols, who has been in mid-Wilshire for nearly 20 years.

Capping the downturn were the 1992 riots and the tearing up of Wilshire for subway construction.

A new group of Korean investors led by internist David Lee began snapping up buildings at bargain prices. Over the next 10 years, Lee and his Jamison Partners group would amass one of the largest and most concentrated real estate portfolios in the region, with more than 70 buildings totaling well over 13 million square feet.

Instead of relying on blockbuster tenant deals to fill the space, Lee sought out small Korean businesses, non-profits, government agencies and labor unions in search of cheap rents. Korean professional and financial firms now make up the single largest block of tenants in mid-Wilshire.

In the mid-1990s, property owners formed the Wilshire Center Business Improvement Corp., hiring security guards for bike patrols. Around the same time, Southwestern Law School purchased the Bullock’s Wilshire building as part of its expansion; the property has undergone a 10-year renovation/preservation.

The completion of the Red Line in the late 1990s attracted developers interested in mixed-use projects. Upside Investment Inc. converted a former Union Bank building into 262 apartments and 25,000 square feet of retail space at the southwest corner of Wilshire and Western. Archeon International Group has proposed a $55 million project on top of the Wilshire/Western subway station that is to include 240 apartments and 50,000 square feet of retail.

Some of the old apartment buildings like the Los Altos have been painstakingly restored, drawing new tenants seeking an urban lifestyle.

The granddaddy of all projects in the area has long been the proposal by the Los Angeles Unified School District to turn the Ambassador Hotel into a school complex housing more than 4,000 students. The district bought the property in 2001.

The proposal ran into turbulence from the L.A. Conservancy, which wanted to preserve the much of the hotel, while the School District opted to tear most of it down. On July 26, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge upheld the district’s decision; the conservancy has appealed.

Howard Fine
Howard Fine
Howard Fine is a 23-year veteran of the Los Angeles Business Journal. He covers stories pertaining to healthcare, biomedicine, energy, engineering, construction, and infrastructure. He has won several awards, including Best Body of Work for a single reporter from the Alliance of Area Business Publishers and Distinguished Journalist of the Year from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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