Like the jewel-box that it is, the Oviatt Building husbands its treasures within its walls... yet even casual passerby can get a hint of the gorgeousness inside, from just a glimpse of the nymph-crowned gates, of the overhead marquee in deeply hued frosted glass.
James Oviatt had set out to build a top-line haberdashery, not a temple to Art Deco. Yet his 1925 visit to the Art Deco wonders of the Paris Exposition forever altered his tastes - and, too, his vision for the building that would house Alexander & Oviatt, the most elegant men's shop in Los Angeles.
Art Glass and Couture Class
The building itself is by Walker and Eisen, two stalwarts of Los Angeles architecture, and is steel reinforced far ahead of the requirements of its day. But virtually all of its fittings are French. Indeed, the building was the first and the vastest commercial work that fabled French art glass designer Rene Lalique ever undertook. More than 30 tons of art glass custom designed for the Oviatt were shipped here from Paris through the Panama Canal in 1928 - lamps, panels, windows, display cases, and a vast interior ceiling, more Lalique glass in one building than anywhere in the world.
Just as novel was the lavish use of a new, silvery metal, an alloy of nickel, zinc and copper called maillechort, the combined names of its two inventors. It was used to make the custom mailbox, the elevator doors and throughout the showrooms. Two floors and the mezzanine of the 12-story building as tall as a building could then legally be here - were given over to luxury goods against a backdrop of marble, burled wood and art glass. On the first floor were sweaters, shirts, and hats and on the second were Oviatt's custom clothes, suits of superb European fabric and cut, as well as shoes, riding clothes and leather goods - along with what the opening day announcement called the "Outdoor California Palm Grove," which "enhances the charm of the shop and permits the inspection of clothing in natural daylight." The mezzanine was a "feminine paradise" of goods and gifts of "decorative art for the home."
(The store closed its doors in 1969 and the building was declared a cultural historic monument nine years later.)
Art Deco Penthouse with a Rooftop Beach
The penthouse was even more luxurious; Oviatt lived above his shop in a way no shop owner may ever have before. The appointments, likewise by Lalique and by French cabinetmaker George Sadier, turned the dozen rooms into a gem of Art Deco, from the spider-web marquetry of the drawing room floor to the cut velvet rose upholstery on furniture of Oviatt's own design.
The Lalique-lighted corridor is Oviatt's literal Hall of Fame, hung with photographs of his friends and clients - the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, John Barrymore, and Adolphe Menjou.
The quirkiest room in the penthouse - which is open only for private parties - has to be the replica of a Pellman-car stateroom, but even that is outdone by the two-story rooftop resort. Its three-faced neon clock was the first of its kind in the city; over the holidays, chimes played Christmas carols.
But the split level rooftop was Oviatt's private playground. On one level was a swimming "basin," a tennis court and gardens; the second was devoted to Oviatt's private beach." At a time when the ocean could still be seen from this lofty downtown altitude, Oviatt imported French sand so he could bask in the California sunlight with his wife. (Oviatt chose his wife as he did his building style - on sight. He spotted her selling clothes in his store, summoned her to the penthouse, and proposed marriage).
Two chic restaurants have, consecutively, occupied the old salesrooms; occasionally the gaiety from the nearby Academy Awards ceremony has continued on their premises. It is fitting that it should be so, for the first dramatic film ever made entirely in Los Angeles was shot not in Hollywood but downtown - only two blocks south of the future site of the Oviatt, in a vacant lot next to a Chinese laundry at Seventh and Olive, in 1907.
"The Sultan's Power" starred stage actor turned silent film performer Hobart Bosworth, who replaced another actor who had left the Chicago-based Selig Company. Bosworth found the climate so salubrious after his recent tuberculosis attach that he persuaded Selig to move his entire operation here, thus helping to lay the groundwork for the flourishing of the industry whose future stars would patronize the clothing store that so elegantly adorned them.