Friday, September 18, 2009

Dancing Girls - Part Eight

The graceful brick building at 833 South Spring Street was built in 1924 as the headquarters of the City Club, a Los Angeles civic organization with a membership of 2500 leaders of business, industry, and finance. But after less than ten years, the Club was gone, replaced by a nightclub and then, for the next sixty years a taxi-dancehall. Now it's trying to go straight with a renovation aimed at attracting high-end fashion industry tenants.

I called the phone number on the banners, and made an appointment to view the building. On a bright September morning, I walked beneath the carved stone letters into the lobby.

The souvenir bulletin commemorating the building's opening in 1924 describes the entrance:
"The first impression of the visitor is gained from its entrance which is dignified and of classic simplicity architecturally. On the right wall in the entrance way is a brightly colored "out-door" California landscape done in tile, which is most effective from a decorative standpoint."

And there it was, as fresh and bright and pure as it had been in 1924. I had to marvel. Had it been here all along? Had gamblers, drinkers, dancers and customers walked past it each night, taking in the gentle light of the sky, the dancing flowers, the graceful figurine in the foreground? Or had it been hidden, covered with panels, drapes or signs? Why wasn't it lost, defaced, stolen, or ruined?

It gleams, in perfect condition. Overhead, a wrought iron chandelier lent a stately flavor to the lobby. The floor was paved in checkerboard marble, light and dark grey. The walls were concrete, finished to look like stone, just as the bulletin described.

Up a modern elevator to the second floor building office. I met the owner, an older man named Shawn. I told him I was researching the building history and wanted to take some photos if it was okay. To my surprise, he invited me to walk around on my own, anywhere I liked. "Go everywhere," he said. " The first floor, the garage. Go to the fourth floor, you'll love it."

So I did. The first place I went was the second floor next to his office. A spacious room, gracious, with the large windows opening onto Spring Street. Along one wall were a jumble of boxes of papers and some large framed photos and prints, propped against the wall.

There were three large framed portraits of women, faded and water stained. One full-length in a slinky gown, photographed against a full curtain, one elegant in strapless black, one flirty in off-theshoulder gingham, they smiled out in sepia. Were these the portraits of taxi-dancers? What else remained?

There was a bin of blueprints, some new, some old. There were some empty picture frames, too.

The rest of the room was clean, featureless, a sheen of plaster dust on the polished concrete floors. The owner had chosen to divide his rental spaces with thick, clear glass walls and doors, so even though it was divided, you got a sense of the spaciousness and the light. The walls were bare, and the structural columns were featureless.

On the third floor, the front suite was occupied by a tenant, colorful clothes and fashionable, arty furniture arranged on their showroom floor.

When the elevator opened onto fourth floor, I stepped out into a space that was both magnificent and - for me - profoundly disappointing.

Clean, open, lofty, with those arched windows and ceiling skylights, the space was beautiful. Yet it was stripped bare; the same featureless columns, the same bare concrete walls. The floor was concrete, with a faux-tile effect provided by shallow lines.
As part of the upgrade, a modern heating and cooling system was in, and the ductwork ran beneath the concrete ceiling beams. Sprinkler pipes and electrical conduits also ran along the walls and underneath the ceilings. Large halide light fixtures with ribbed glass shades hung from the ceiling, too - the space had a very industrial feel.

The main space was ringed by the balconies of the fifth floor, accessed by a staircase. Near the front of the building, the rooms beneath the balconies were small, divided into offices, as were the spaces along the north side. You can see a floor plan at The Primrose Design building's website.

The wrought iron railings of the stairs were clearly old, but it had been extended higher by the remodelers, in compliance with current code. The railings and the cornices were the only decorative touches visible.
Beautiful, yes - but there was no sense that this had once been a gracious dining room for the powerful elite or a tawdry dancehall.
Or so I thought.
From the upper balcony, I could see something on the ceiling - a basket-weave pattern. What could it be? First I thought it was soot deposit from an ancient, long-gone air vent, but when I got closer I realized it was actually painted onto the concrete.

One of the workers saw me taking photos of this, and took me to the rooms at the front of the fifth floor, where there were other paintings. Part of a wall had a painted border and graceful floral designs, while ceiling beams were patterned with some sort of Art Deco crescents and ziggurats.

The souvenir bulletin issued in 1924 for the City Club's opening noted the use of new technology of chemically tinting concrete for its decor. "The rough concrete finish is retained as the base of antique decorations in green gold effect on the walls and ceiling." These designs could be part of that original decor.

They only appear on small portions of the walls and ceiling - were the decorations sandblasted off elsewhere? Why did these survive - were they hidden behind panels or drop ceilings?

This painted ceiling medallion is in another space on the fifth floor, where the City Club maintained ladies' reception rooms and game rooms.

Also accessed from the fifth floor are the small exterior balconies, like this one, just above the neon sign.

The last place I looked was the first floor retail space. In 1924 it had been the home of a savings and loan type of institution. Today its high ceilings, its beams and columns, still show the brackets decorated with classic motifs.

The building is clean, new, and awaits new tenants. The ground floor is perfect for a slick new restaurant catering to the fashion district businesses expected to thrive in the upper floors. The infrastructure has been completely updated, ready for the next chapter in its history.

I wonder what will happen to the neon sign?


Tristan Robin said...

What a fabulous building!

And the sign should be kept - I think "Dancing Girls Cafe" would be a big hit!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Great pics, g.

To my surprise, he invited me to walk around on my own, anywhere I liked. "Go everywhere," he said. " The first floor, the garage. Go to the fourth floor, you'll love it."

I rarely get that response, except in our National Parks!

Of course, I'm an underwriter, and my site inspections are part of the loan process.

Unknown said...

I love that you were able to tour alone. The ceiling artwork is amazing. What a wonderful series you did. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and writing about it so beautifully!