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Landmark Application for Sontag Drugs Building Inches Forward


The Sontag Drugs Building, 5401 Wilshire Blvd., as it looked when first built, today, and as proposed as part of the new Mirabel apartment development.

While we haven’t heard much news lately about the 42-story Mirabel development, planned for the 5400 block of Wilshire Blvd., there has been some recent news regarding the Art Deco Sontag Drug Store building at 5401 Wilshire, where developer Walter Marks plans to incorporate the historic building’s facade into the new 348-unit apartment project.

Currently at issue is whether saving the building’s facade is enough, or whether the full structure should be protected as a valuable part of the Miracle Mile’s architectural heritage.  The Art Deco Society of Los Angeles believes the latter, and has filed an application to have the building named an Historic Cultural Monument.   On February 4, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission voted to accept the application for further consideration.  And on February 23, the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council’s Land Use Committee voted to recommend that the GWNC Board support the application.

According to presentations the ADSLA and its consutant, Architectural Resources Group, made at both recent meetings,  the building, constructed in 1936, was designed by Nordstrom and Henderson Architects, a firm specializing in low and mid-rise commercial bulidings from the 1920s to 1940s.  It was executed in the Streamline Moderne style, with a very characteristic rounded corner entrance, strong horizontal design elements, and a squared spire on the roof.

The building, which today retains much of its original exterior character, was home to one of the Sontag Drugs chain’s flagship stores during its early years.  It was later divided up into smaller commercial spaces, and is now home to Wilshire Beauty Supply.

Google Maps image of the current Wilshire Beauty Supply buillding

In the presentations, ARG’s Andrew Goodrich noted that the interior of the building has been significantly altered over the years, but it does retail several key Art Deco features, including the original Streamline Moderne staircase, with porthole openings in the walls, leading to what was originally a mezzanine level in the drug store.

Image of the Art Deco staircase at the Sontag Building, from the HCM application for Sontag by the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles and Architectural Resources Group

At the CHC hearing, ADSLA board member Steve Luftman said the building is a designated contributor to the Miracle Mile Historic District (the only official Art Deco district in the city), was one of the specific influences for the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay zone, and that it is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places based on two separate criteria.

At the CHC meeting, seven members of the community spoke to support the historic nomination.  However, when property owner Marks was asked for his input, he deferred to his legal representative, who said Marks does not support the historic monument nomination because it would add extra layers of review to the approval process for the Mirabel project.

The discussion of how the Sontag building would fare in the Mirable development was a key part of the recent discussions.  While the developers’own historic assessment for the building says two original exterior walls would be kept and “the remaining volume of the building would be removed and rebuilt to its original configuration,” the ADSL advocates disagree.

Luftman says the developers are actually proposing what preservationists call a “façade-ectomy,” in which an outer wall or two is preserved, but the rest of the building is removed completely, leaving little left to preserve, and no way for the historic elements to ever again stand on their own.  This kind of treatment is generally frowned upon preservation circles, Luftman said, and does not adhere to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for historic preservation.

But if the building were to be named an HCM, said ADSL president Margo Gerber at the GWNC LUC meeting, the developers would have to treat it much more carefully.

In a statement to the Buzz after the CHC meeting, Luftman called the Sontag,”one of the most exuberant examples of Streamline Moderne architecture on the Miracle Mile,” and noted that removing or compromising the building’s integrity could also threaten the whole Miracle Mile Historic District.

“The building is also a contributor to the Miracle Mile Historic District,” Luftman wrote. “The district was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places for representing important patterns of commercial development, and most importantly to the ADSLA, as a rare and intact concentration of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne commercial architecture in Los Angeles. As far as we know, it is the only Art Deco District in Los Angeles.”

“This façade-ectomy would mean that the Sontag would no longer be a historic resource and the building would be a non-contributor to the district, possibly endangering the eligibility of the entire Miracle Mile Historic District,” Luftman said, pointing out that the district designation depends on the continued existence of a certain percentage of contributing structures.  Luftman also noted that the district has already lost other architectural contributors.  In fact, he said, “Walter Marks’ own Historic Resources Assessment for the Mirabel points out that 5359 Wilshire Blvd., once another contributor to the district, is no longer considered a contributor even though its façade was retained as part of an apartment building.”

And Luftman said the Mirabel project will diminish the Art Deco district in other ways, too.

“The project will demolish 5413-5415 Wilshire Blvd. and 5405-5411 Wilshire Blvd, claiming that these buildings are no longer contributors to the Miracle Mile Historic District,” Luftman wrote. “While these buildings are not individually eligible for Historic Cultural Monument designation, I believe that both these buildings are still contributors to the district. The only real alterations to the outside of these buildings is the covering of the ground-floor window openings. These two buildings, the Roman’s Market and GallenKamp Shoes building, retain all their major Streamline Moderne and Art Deco detailing.”

Photos showing other existing buildings on the same block as Sontag Drugs, which will be removed for the proposed Mirabel project. Images provided by Steve Luftman. Click to see larger version.

Again, though, the developers’ report disagrees, saying its plans for the Sontag building and others on the block will “not result in significant impacts to the Miracle Mile Historic District or any historical resources in the near vicinity of the Project site.”

And again Luftman disagrees. “The importance of the Historic District to our city’s heritage and character cannot be understated,” Luftman concluded. “The Historic District influenced the 2005 Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay with its stated goal of preserving the unique Art Deco character of the area. In the Overlay, the Sontag Building is called out as an example to influence new buildings.”

The CHC voted unanimously in Feburary to further consider the landmark application, and the next step will include more research (including a site visit) and further discussion at a future CHC meeting.

Unlike the CHC’s tally, the GWNC Land Use Committee vote was not unanimous (as a result of some discussion about whether or not it was appropriate to weigh in on a matter several blocks west of the GWNC’s official border), but the final vote was five in favor, one opposed, one abstention, and one recusal.  The full GWNC board will vote on whether or not to accept the Committee’s recommendation at the March 10 GWNC board meeting.




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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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