Adaptive Use of an Art Deco Department Store: How Southwestern University Transformed Bullocks Wilshire into a New Law Library ( 1994-1997)
California| Posted: 06/05/1998
In an era when many historic buildings are being lost, particularly in urban cores, Southwestern University School of Law purchased, renovated and restored a glamorous Art Deco landmark. In a novel twist, the former department store now houses a state-of-the-art law library.
Built in 1929, the dramatic five-story building was designed by architects John Parkinson and Donald B. Parkinson as the flagship of the Bullocks Wilshire department store chain. The exterior is clad in terra-cotta and copper and topped by a 241-foot tower. Its interior, 230,000 square feet, was decorated in styles from Bauhaus to Art Deco to Mayan.
The building was one of the nation`s first suburban department stores and one of the first to have its main entrance, with an elaborately decorated porte cochere, built next to its parking lot, predicting California`s love affair with the car.
The store soon became "part of the fabric of Los Angeles, in the same category as a concert at the Hollywood Bowl...It was the store where patrons shopped for wedding gowns, graduation suits and prom dresses" (Bullocks Wilshire, Balcony Press, 1996). In 1969, the building became a Los Angeles Cultural Historic Monument and, in 1978, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the years, respect for historic elements was lost. Variegated ceilings were covered with acoustical tile. Brick work was hidden under plaster. The final indignity was the removal of 166 irreplaceable chandeliers, as the building`s owner filed for bankruptcy and closed the store in 1993.
As the building sat vacant and shuttered, a target for graffiti, Southwestern adapted its campus expansion plans to save the landmark, purchasing the building in 1994 as the future site for its new Law Library. Months were spent on exhaustive research in historical archives and determining how to best incorporate the library, before final plans were drawn. The Los Angeles Times noted that the project would "give both uplift and face lift to one of the city`s venerable neighborhoods."
Phase I of the renovation encompassed 83,000 square feet for Southwestern`s Law Library, and cost approximately $10 million. Construction took almost a year, but the careful attention paid off. Many portions of the building more closely resemble the store at its glamorous opening than in recent decades. Damaged columns were again clad in sycamore with copper detailing and light panels. Molded tile was cleaned and retinted. Patterned carpets were recreated, architectural highlights uncovered, returned chandeliers hung, and clocks fixed.
In addition, windows throughout the building were uncovered; fire, life and safety systems were upgraded; a central stairway and elevator were added; and 1,662 new light fixtures were hung to augment historic chandeliers. The final product has been called the finest adaptive use in the state.
Amidst the architectural splendor, students can access a collection of 380,000 volumes and state-of-the-art technology. During the restoration, 78,000 feet of cable was laid for computer networking. The historic landmark now houses 96 networked computers including a new computer lab and two computer learning centers. The technology extends to the 296 custom-designed study carrels which are cabled for future network connections.
The building reopened in January 1997, and the restoration work has not gone unappreciated by Southwestern`s students. According to Betty Chim, "As soon as you walk through the front door, the books, the style and the history of our Library inspire a person to write and study more." Karl Suh finds "Southwestern`s new library...very reflective of Los Angeles. The building`s different architectural styles and diverse murals mirror L.A.`s diversity...It makes anyone who walks into the library feel very special. It`s part of history and part of the future as well."
Southwestern Dean Leigh Taylor led the effort to acquire the graceful landmark. Members of the renovation team were architects Ronald Altoon, James Auld and Sylvia Wallis, with Altoon + Porter; interior designer Sue Freeman, of Freeman Designs; Martha Diaz, President, and Chuck Acevedo, Project Superintendent, with Pueblo Contracting Services; and, representing Southwestern, Professor Linda Whisman, Director of the Law Library, and Janice Manis, Director of Administrative Services.
The new Southwestern Law Library demonstrates the success that can be achieved when the desire to save historic landmarks is combined with creative thinking regarding new and compatible uses. As revitalization efforts become more and more critical in urban cores throughout the nation, this creativity will be essential to preservation efforts. In Southwestern`s case, the Law Library not only serves as the new heart of the law school, but provides a much needed anchor in an area struggling to reverse its decline.
Southwestern University School of Law
3050 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010