Last Friday, Southwestern Law School threw a 90th birthday party for its beloved home in the former Bullocks Wilshire department store building. A highlight of the evening’s festivities was the lighting of the store’s famous tower. When Bullocks Wilshire opened in 1929, the tower was topped by a neon lavender beacon, which announced the arrival of this glamorous shopping experience.
The evening began with a welcome reception on the second floor’s Louis IVX Room, formerly a showcase for evening gowns and now used by the law school for events, where Dean Susan Westerberg Prager, the 11th Dean and Chief Executive Officer, and the first woman in the history of the law school to serve in the post, welcomed guests and fans of the building. Dean Prager credited the foresight of Dean Leigh H. Taylor who purchased the building to expand the school’s campus shortly after the store closed in 1993. It wasn’t easy, she explained, as the store was in bankruptcy and the other bidders included an appliance store…so think about that one, she mused. Further complicating the sale was the fact that the store didn’t own the land. Caltech did and it was, not surprisingly, eager to make the sale. But Dean Taylor called his friend Tom, who as it turned out was Mayor Tom Bradley, and Caltech agreed to sell the building to Southwestern.
Thankfully, the law school had both the resources and the commitment to undertake an extraordinary renovation and adaptive reuse of the property, thus preserving one of the city’s more important Art Deco buildings.
Bullocks Wilshire author and historian Margaret Leslie Davis, also a Southwestern Law School alum, credits her legal education with her ability to ferret out the great biography stories of Los Angeles.
When Bullocks Wilshire opened in September of 1929, tens of thousands of visitors streamed into the new department store, which eclipsed everything of its kind. The structure was the first in the city to combine art and commerce in a modern building that welcomed the automobile. Large plate glass windows were added to attract passing drivers on busy Wilshire Blvd. and wrap boys rushed packages out to customers in the porte cochere behind the store.
“They brought modern art into the happy coordination of modern life,” said Davis. The building’s distinctive 241-foot tower was designed to draw clients from surrounding areas, as founders John Bullocks and Percy Winnett guessed correctly that wealthy patrons would drive a considerable distance to patronize a worthy establishment, explained Davis. “The advertising value of the tower paid off tremendously. It became the signature stamp.”
The store was memorable in so many ways, explained Davis. For example: the sumptuous Bullocks Wilshire Christmas tree that decorated the Perfume hall, took staff more than two months to decorate. And the legend of Bullocks Wilshire grew over the years.
“No present had more cache than when gift wrapped in that famous brown and white bullocks bag,” said Davis. Soon, the architectural treasure became a part of the fabric of Los Angeles — the same as a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, a dinner at Perino’s restaurant, or an evening at the Coconut Grove nightclub.
Davis said the city owes a great debt to Southwestern Law School for preserving this spectacular cultural monument for future generations.
“Bullocks Wilshire is an architectural treasure that reflected the best of Los Angeles’s vitality and artistry, and still it holds a secure a secure place in the city’s psyche cultural soul,” said Davis. “John Bullock’s daring experiment in merchandizing and the bold temple that he built to house it became a glorious adventure that proofed enormously profitable. But it was more than a department store. It was a state of mind, for many of its patrons, including me,” said Davis, recalling buying her prom dress at Bullocks Wilshire.
Davis quoted what she said was “one perfect line written about Bullocks Wilshire” by one of the few female architectural critics at the Los Angeles Times, who said, “Bullocks Wilshire is a trip abroad, a gracious lesson in architecture and all together a magnificent gesture.”
Architectural historian Stephen Gee, an authority on the architects John and Donald Parkinson, who were at the pinnacle of their careers when they were asked to design Bullocks Wilshire, said the pair had just finished work on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and were about to begin work on Los Angeles City Hall, when Donald Parkinson and Percy Winnett, Vice President of the Bullocks retail, traveled to Paris and discovered that many French architects were using elements like ziggurats, lighting bolts, and sunbursts – motifs of what would later become the art deco style. The two came back determined to convince their bosses to allow them to use some of the design elements in the new building,
“And, boy did they,” said Gee. “Bullocks Wilshire would become an Art Deco cathedral of commerce. They worked with world class artists to bring the building to life. Never before has modern art been so masterly woven into the design of a building. John and Donald Parkinson transformed the way Los Angelenos shopped. Instant hit with architecture critics.”
During his research, Gee learned that Angela Lansbury started her career at Bullocks Wilshire, and showed an interview clip with her talking about what it was like to work at the store in the 1940s.
Gee also shared an interview with Ronald Altoon, of Altoon and Porter Architects and Freeman Design, who served as the Partner-in-Charge, in which Altoon described the terrible condition of the building when they started the $29 million renovation of the building. That renovation was later recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as its 2000 winner of the National Preservation Honor Award.
A special guided tour of the building was conducted by Bullock Wilshire Ambassador Eric Evavold, including Mr. Bullock’s private dining room, and his former office and patio, which is now the office of Dean Prager.
Evavold’s encyclopedic knowledge of the building and the people who designed the interiors brought the space to life. Just one example is the origin story of the now-famous Bob Baker Marionettes. Mr. Baker was given his first marionette as a gift purchased from Bullocks Wilshire. Henrie Gordon, a puppeteer and part-time employee of Bullocks Wilshire taught Baker how to operate the marionettes.
The store even sold decorative wallpaper for children’s rooms and offered birthday parties featuring the marionettes.
Some of Baker’s original marionettes were loaned to Evavold for his exhibit of memorabilia and ephemera in the Perfume Hall, and they’ll remain on display throughout the year as more festivities are planned for the building’s 90th anniversary year.
Much of the building’s spectacular detail is still visible. Southwestern Law School’s sensitive re-use of the space preserved and even showcased design details that had been covered up during various store renovations over the years. The incredible collection of clocks are still visible throughout the building and everywhere you look, there’s something to see.
Southwestern Law School also periodically hosts events that feature tours of the building. We understand there will be a tea later this spring. If you can go, don’t miss an opportunity to walk around inside this incredible building. There really is nothing like it in LA.
Below is a gallery of photos that show some of these glorious details.