Steeped in the glamour of another era's rich and famous, the Bullocks Wilshire building is a stunning, masterly crafted Art Deco treasure that occupies a special place in Los Angeles history.
It was conceived by business partners John G. Bullock and P.G. Winnett to house the upscale Bullocks Wilshire Department Store. But while the building’s function was an ordinary one, its creators had grand ambitions for its design.
After visiting the 1925 Exposition of Decorative and Modern Arts in Paris, where the art deco, or moderne, style was introduced, Winnett and architect Donald Parkinson agreed to use this new aesthetic as the inspiration for the department store. When it opened in 1929, the building was one of the first Art Deco structures built in the United States.
Parkinson—who, along with his son John, went on to design some of Los Angeles' leading landmarks, including Union Station and City Hall—created an elegant five-story structure that, even today, stands out in the skyline. The gleaming edifice was constructed with terra cotta-clad reinforced concrete and accented with green verdigris copper. While building codes at the time sought to cap structures at 150 feet, the architects found a loophole enabling them to erect the Bullocks Wilshire building at 241 feet.
Like the German Bauhaus School of Design, Art Deco combines function and beauty, and embraces contrasts among geometric shapes, vibrant colors, and exotic materials. Abstractions from nature combine with forms common to machinery. Most of all, Art Deco celebrates the modern age. In the 1920's mass production techniques, technology, and new modes of travel were rapidly changing the way people lived, and they influenced Art Deco design. This celebration of the modern age greets visitors arriving at the Bullocks Wilshire entrance where one can admire the magnificent dry fresco, The Spirit of Transportation. Painted by Herman Sachs, the Spirit of Transportation celebrates all modes of transportation common to the era except the car: flight, rail, ocean liner, and the great dirigibles.
The Bullocks Wilshire building, and its beautifully appointed penthouse Tea Room, regularly drew Hollywood elites such as John Wayne, Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable and Mae West, as well as residents of the wealthy surrounding communities of Hancock Park, Windsor Square and Fremont Place. This gilded clientele helped the store survive the Great Depression, which began a month after its opening—a grand affair that drew 300,000 people.
For more than 60 years, the name Bullocks Wilshire was synonymous with elegance and style. However, over the years, many of the building's prized architectural features were covered or removed. In 1969, local officials recognized the structure’s unique place in architectural and civic history by naming it a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument. Nine years later, it took its place on the National Register of Historic Places.
Business Declines, Southwestern Steps In
Eventually, business at Bullocks Wilshire took a downfall, as malls moved into suburbia, shopping habits and merchandising changed, and high-end stores opened farther west. In the 1980s, after a dispute among its directors, the store was sold to Federated Department Stores. Macy's later purchased the business, but in 1993 the company filed for bankruptcy. The store was closed permanently, marking the end of an era and generating serious concern for the future of one of the city's most beautiful and beloved buildings.
That changed in 1994 when Southwestern purchased the building in bankruptcy proceedings. Founded in 1911, Southwestern had been housed in a structure across the street from the Bullocks Wilshire since the mid-1970's. While it was in great need of additional space to accommodate its burgeoning law library and other facilities, the law school had not initially intended to buy the property. Plans were in the works to construct an addition to the existing building, and finances had already been set aside. Fortunately, development had not yet begun when the Bullocks Wilshire became available, and Southwestern acquired the property.
Rebirth of a Treasure
Over the next ten years, Southwestern meticulously restored the Bullocks Wilshire building to its original luster and design. Drawing from original plans, archival photos, and other historic documents, the law school refurbished or reproduced the property's distinctive colors, decor and other details, while adapting the building to serve as a dynamic academic facility.
In October, 1997, a black-tie gala was held to celebrate the opening of Southwestern's exquisite, 83,000-square-foot law library in the Bullocks Wilshire building. Members of the California Supreme Court, federal courts and other distinguished judicial officers, elected officials, and prominent members of the legal and business communities were among those in attendance.
The next several years saw the conversion of the Tea Room into a dining and gathering area, and the construction of new conference and seminar rooms, and faculty and administrative offices. A second gala was held in October, 2004 to celebrate the opening of the Julian C. Dixon Courtroom and Advocacy Center, which marked the completion of the Bullocks Wilshire building’s $29 million renovation.
Southwestern has received numerous awards for its sensitive restoration and adaptive reuse of the structure, including the 2005 President's Award from the Los Angeles Conservancy, 2000 National Preservation Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Governor's Historic Preservation Award from the California Office of Historic Preservation.
Today, the Bullocks Wilshire is the heart of the Southwestern campus—a shining example of the school’s thoughtful and determined effort to raise the bar for legal education.