Information below is excerpted from text prepared by Martin Eli Weil, A. I. A., Restoration Architect, for Ratkovich, Bowers Incorporated, October 1982, for nomination of the building to the National Register of Historic Places. The James Oviatt Building (617 South Olive Street, Los Angeles) was placed on the National Register on August 11, 1983. Do not reproduce information from this site without acknowledgment of the author of the original document, or of the authors of this site.
Lalique designed doors, photographed by Michael Several, 1983
The Oviatt Building is a twelve story structure with a penthouse and mezzanine. It has steel frame and concrete floors. The Olive Street facade is veneered with cream color terra cotta.
The first floor originally had an open entry with display windows and columns veneered with marble. Along the entire width of the faŤade was a marquee constructed of metal and glass that had been fabricated by Rene Lalique. When portions of the lobby were dismantled in the 1970s the display windows and the marble veneer were removed. The marquee was left in place. The columns are veneered with black marble and the openings between the columns are filled with new Art Deco iron grilles.
The main feature [of the facade] is the tower that rises three stories above the building. One three sides of the tower are clock faces that feature moderne numerals outlined in neon.
The elements of the lobby supplied by Lalique included the illuminated glass ceilings, the glass doors to the store, the maillechort and glass elevator doors, and the maillechort mailbox, building directory, elevator panel, and the metal frames for the display windows.
The original elevators have been preserved and the mechanical works have been rehabilitated. The interior of the elevators are fitted with marble floors, carved paneling, and decorative grilles.
The clothing store is a two story space with a mezzanine. The restaurant that now occupies the premises (The Rex Il Ristorante) has incorporated all of the original details such as the cabinets and drawers that line the wall, the carved paneling attributed to Russian craftsmen, the decorative plaster ceiling, the main staircase, and the lighting fixtures that had been removed. . . . The penthouse is a ten room suite with two levels of terraces. Rene Lalique supplied the glass for the windows and the major lighting fixtures.
The Oviatt Building was the synthesis of James Oviatt's business acumen, style, and sense of design. . . . When the building opened, it was publicized for the opulent Art Deco appointments, the novelty of incorporating a penthouse, and the personal attention that Mr. Oviatt lavished on his store and residence. Although Los Angeles was used to extravagant displays, Oviatt's grand gesture of engaging the finest French avant garde designers was worthy of special notice. The penthouse provided the sophisticated and elegant image that Oviatt wished to project to his clientele, while the store furnished the proper luxurious setting for his beautiful men's and women's fashions. It was a direct link to the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Artes Decoratifs et Industriels Moderne that was profoundly affecting the world of architecture and design. James Oviatt (1888-1973) came to Los Angeles from Salt Lake City in 1906-7. He worked for Desmonds until 1911 when he went into partnership with Frank Alexander. Alexander and Oviatt were among the leading clothiers in the city. Their affluent customers were offered the finest clothes, some of which Oviatt designed. In order to stay abreast of the fashions, Oviatt spent a portion of each year buying fabrics and goods in Europe. After occupying two locations, the firm leased the present land and began to plan a new building in 1927. The building was open in 1928. The team Oviatt assembled included Walker and Eisen, architects and Engineers; Feil and Paradise, store designers; Rene Lalique, the genius of French glassmaking; Saddier et Fils, cabinetmakers; and numerous craftsmen and suppliers. Oviatt was more than a willing client with taste and the financial ability to obtain the finest quality. He was also an active participant in the design and furnishing of the building.
Walker and Eisen were primarily responsible for the shell of the building and the Olive Street faŤade. Percy Augustus Eisen (1885-1946) and Albert Raymond Walker (1881-1958) were in partnership from 1919 to 194. During the 1920s they had one of the largest offices in the city. Their early work included offices, hotels, and apartment houses executed in eclectic motifs. Their later works were mostly government buildings, theaters, and branch facilities carried out in the moderne style. Major commissions included the Fine Arts Building (1925), United Artists Building (1927), Title Insurance Building (1928), National Bank of Commerce (1929), Fruit Growers Exchange (1934), Beverly-Wilshire Hotel (1926), El Cortez Hotel (San Diego, 1927), El Mirador Hotel (Palm Springs 1927), Mar Monte Hotel (Santa Barbara 1927), Torrance City Hall, Jail, and Municipal Building (1936), and the San Luis Obispo County Court House (1940)
The interior of the building was the responsibility of Feil and Paradise, store designers and merchandising engineers. Joseph Feil (1890-1979) and Bernard Paradise had a distinguished career in Los Angeles creating commercial interiors for Bullock's Wilshire, Desmond's Wilshire, Silverwoods, the Chocolate Shoppes, Bonwit Tellers in New York, and major department stores and clothiers across the country.
The glass and metal decorative elements that Rene Lalique designed and fabricated for Oviatt were similar to many of the objects that he exhibited at the 1925 Paris Exposition. One of the main features of the Sevres Pavilion was a plafond a caisson lumineaux made by Lalique. This innovative combination of art and technology was reinterpreted by the glassmaker as the central feature of the Oviatt Building lobby. The other details in the building represented the rich vocabulary of his designs and technology.
The firm of Saddier et Fils were responsible for the built-in elements, furniture, and wallpaper in the penthouse. At the 1925 Paris Exposition, they created several room settings for the interior design section. Their work was included in the publication that was associated with the exhibition Ensembles Mobiliers - Exposition Internationale. The Oviatt Building went into decline in the 1960s along with the rest of downtown Los Angeles. With the closure of the store in 1969 and only a small portion of the office floors rented, the Oviatt Corporation relinquished their leasehold and their interest in the building to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1975. . . . The building was purchased in 1977 by Ratkovich, Bowers Incorporated with the intention of rehabilitating the structure. . . . The work of Brenda Levin, Associates and Luciano DeNardi to create the interior of the Rex Il Ristorante has been acclaimed as an exceptional example of adaptive reuse design.
Photographs of some of the decorative elements currently visible (as of 2010)at the Oviatt building.
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