Levin & Associates Architects
Profile | Essays | Contact

The Pellesier Building & Wiltern Theater
The Pellesier Building & Wiltern Theater
Joseph Giovannini
California-born Writer and Architect
Former Critic of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner

In the early 1980s, Brenda Levin was one of the chief engineers of the epiphany that the city of the perennial future had a past. Fresh from Harvard's Graduate School of Design, she was the right architect in the right spot at the right moment to restore a succession of historic buildings in Los Angeles that ushered in a civic awareness that the city which had sprawled its way into suburban amnesia had an inventory of buildings of national interest in its historic centers. Los Angeles was so geared to a chromed mirage leading out of the city that it forgot the pedestrian streetscape and Red Line thoroughfares of its Downtown and inner neighborhoods. Citizens had lost the sense that Los Angeles had been both urban and urbane. They had lost any notion of the city's depth of time.

"Along with the historic architecture itself, Levin was bringing back a piece of the city, and a piece of Los Angeles' consciousness."

In the early 1980s, no less than City Hall was trying to sell the ground out from under one of its major historic monuments, the Los Angeles Public Library by Bertram Goodhue, to pocket the change and build the pancake library that is a cart-pushing librarian's dream. There was a void of cultural leadership about how to handle the city's built patrimony. Who can forget, then, the revelation of the Oviatt Building, only feet south of Pershing Square, when Levin restored that eclectic splendor, with all its Art Deco Lalique glass, and helped convert the paneled haberdashery downstairs into the elegant Rex restaurant. Working with the visionary developer Wayne Ratkovich, who realized that he could beat the real estate market on an upswing by refurbishing an old building, Levin brought the forgotten treasure back to its state as a landmark of design and craftsmanship. The Oviatt helped catalyze the preservation movement in Los Angeles--the nascent Los Angeles Conservancy had one of its inaugural meetings there. In the context of Los Angeles' push to build high-rises on the new Gold Coast next to the Harbor freeway, the Oviatt represented a daring walk on the wilder side of Pershing Square, and a foray into what for Los Angeles was little known architectural territory. Levin's designs never succumbed to pastiche, sentimentality or historical theming: its architectural quality resided in a taut interpretation based in historical accuracy and skilled execution.

The gamble paid off for Ratkovich, who went on with Levin to restore the Fine Arts Building, another landmark structure on the fringe of Downtown's prosperity. With its Romanesque lobby and facade, the style of the building was different, but Levin's skills were applicable to other historic contexts--and she was willing to face inflexible City Hall bureaucrats, who did not yet understand that historic properties represented a condition different from building new. In 1988, Ratkovich and Levin went on to their largest and most significant challenge, the restoration of the magnificent Art Deco Wiltern Building on Wilshire, located in an urban frontier near blighted neighborhoods. Ahead of the curve again, Ratkovich and Levin helped turn around a neighborhood by restoring one of its flagship structures. The preservation of the magnificent theater within the Wiltern also gave Los Angeles a high-profile performance venue large enough to draw crowds from throughout the city: the theater itself was an advertisement for the rebirth of this stretch of Wilshire, and for the preservation cause. The Conservancy and the National Trust for Historic Preservation were celebrated opening night, made memorable when an organist thundering at the keyboard arose from the orchestra pit like Lazarus to a standing ovation. It was a moment of civic joy for everyone in the audience--a moment that affirmed the dynamic role that preservation was playing in the city. Ratkovich and Levin followed up on their success in mid-Wilshire with another sensitive project, the restoration of the serenely beautiful but seriously neglected Chapman Market, a Spanish Colonial building done in an elaborate Churrigueresque style.

Building by building, Levin was establishing a reputation as Los Angeles' premier restoration architect. Each project, however, represented a very particular case, requiring mastery of detail and execution: sometimes Levin had to invent a lost trade by deploying craftsmen with different skills. Historic preservation was not an idea whose time had come in Los Angeles: it was a matter of a handful of dedicated people like Levin pursuing an almost personal mission that happened to have civic import. Nothing could be done by the book, because the book didn't exist, and the code didn't help. In 1989, the restoration/reinterpretation of Grand Central Market represented one of Levin's greatest restoration challenges. The ecosystem of this bargain-basement market was fragile, and could not support gentrification: she had to preserve an ethos and the cost infrastructure while upgrading the cavernous plant. There was no "style" to speak of, but a saw-dust ambiance of a working market characterized by neon signs. Levin worked on the project with preservationist developer Ira Yellin, and in 1991, crossed the street with him to take on Los Angeles' crown jewel, the Bradbury Building, one of the city's most auratic structures. This turn-of-the-century legend is highly refined, with delicate detailing, and its environmental quality is really atmospheric: light descending from the skylights turns amber in an atrium lined with warm brick. Restoring the Bradbury was especially sensitive because, like a piece of literature, the interior could not suffer a lapse in tone.

Since these signal projects, Levin has gone on to a much broader career, building new structures from the ground up. But Angelenos will always be grateful to the young architect who came to maturity as a practitioner specializing in the restoration of the city's great landmarks. Each project was more than a stand-alone building frozen in time. Along with the historic architecture itself, Levin was bringing back a piece of the city, and a piece of Los Angeles' consciousness.

Education | Arts & Culture | Civic & Social | Urban Revitalization
About Levin & Associates | Home