If "ornament is a crime," as the great 19th century Austrian architect Adolf Loos proclaimed, then the 12-story Fine Arts Building designed by Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen, is the architectural equivalent of murder. Clad in terra cotta from the Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company kilns of Gladding, McBean & Company,(1) the richly embellished Romanesque facade is accented with architectural sculpture that Burt Johnson executed under a commission from Edwards & Wildey, the building's general contractor. Two giant figures representing "Architecture" on the viewer's left and "Sculpture" on the viewer's right, lean against ledges on the third story. An Ionic capital at the foot of "Architecture" and a partially carved torso at the foot of "Sculpture" symbolize their respective crafts. Two nude figures are perched on ledges at the 9th story and two 12' high panels titled "Inspiration" mark the 12th story.
The stunning lobby, with its 17 display cases and Batchelder tile on the arches, pool, columns and ceiling, also contain Johnson's work. He designed the ensemble of three bronze children cast by the renowned Gorham Company(2) placed inside the shallow pool. A nude boy playing a flute at the center of the pool is flanked by two identical kneeling girls modeled on Johnson's daughter, Cynthia Mae, holding a wiggling fish between their fingers. Also designed by Johnson, the kneeling figures at the top of the columns symbolizing the various fine and decorative arts were modeled by Kathleen B. Ingels under the supervision of Ernest Batchelder.(3)
While working on the artwork for the Fine Arts Building, Johnson had a heart attack. Confined to a wheelchair, he directed his assistants--Merrill Gage (who later executed a number of bas reliefs in downtown buildings, including the Edison Building (now One Bunker Hill) and the Los Angeles Times Building), his wife Annetta St. Gaudens, Hall St. Gaudens, and Gilbert Morgan. The Los Angeles Times celebrated the opening of the Fine Arts Building in late 1926, as a "tribute to the awakening interest in art among Southern California residents and organizations."(4) Three months later, while modeling the girls that are kneeling inside the lobby pool, Johnson died at age 37.(5)
Originally constructed for artist studios, artisan workshops and dealer showrooms,(6) the building later became a regular office building and was renamed the Signal Oil Building, then the Havenstrite Building, followed by the Global Marine House. In 1982, Wayne Ratkovich and Don E. Bowers bought and restored the building and renamed it the Fine Arts Building.(7) In 1974 the City of Los Angeles declared the building Historic Cultural Monument No. 125.
Though the Fine Arts Building was not demolished for transgressing Loos' architectural dictum, it nevertheless marks the end of an era. It was constructed in an age when sculpture was integrated into the architecture as a way of expressing the meaning and purpose of the building. After World War II, the primary mode of integrating art with architecture was with title or mosaic murals on the front facade of buildings designed in the International style. Sculpture was no longer incorporated on buildings but was largely relegated to stand alone pieces in outdoor plazas. Over time, architectural murals increasingly became decorative rather than expressive of the building's underlining purpose. Perhaps nowhere in Los Angeles is the contrast between pre-war and post-war art and architecture in sharper focus than with the juxtaposition of the Fine Arts Building with the former Home Savings Tower. Joyce Kozloff's mosaic murals and Patsy Norvell's glass panels in the Home Savings Tower respond to the architectural elements, style and theme but are silent about the purposes of the occupants of the building. In contrast, Johnson's work not only enriches the architecture, but it gives voice to the activities of the building's original tenants.
Footnotes:1 "A Study of Terra-Cotta Contrasts," Shapes of Clay, December 1926, Vol. II, No. 2, p. 1.
2 "An Interpretation in Stone and Concrete: 'The Fine Arts Building,'" by A.R. Walker, The Skyscraper, December 1926, Vol. II, No. 10, p. 10.
3 "Superb Craftsmanship," in The Skyscraper, December 1926, Vol. II, no. 10, page 4.
4 "Sculptor Wins in Life Fight," Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1926, pt. 2, p. 9.
5 "Burt W. Johnson," by Francis D. Duncan, Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1927, pt. 2, page 4.
6 "A Study in Terra-Cotta Contrasts," in "Shapes of Clay, Vol. II, No. 11, December 1926, p. 2.
7 "Landmark Renovated," by Evelyn De Wolfe, Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1983.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, November 1999.
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