Situated in the Wilshire Center neighborhood of Los Angeles, the Bullocks Wilshire building remains one of the city’s finest examples of Art Deco architecture. Now home to the Southwestern Law School, the structure originally served as the exclusive specialty store of the Bullock’s department store chain. Opening on September 26, 1929, the new branch was operated by partners John G. Bullock and Percy Glen Winnett, who had built their careers in retail under the guidance and financial support of Arthur Letts, founder of the original Broadway store in downtown Los Angeles. Selling high-end clothing, jewelry, perfumes, small furnishings, and gifts, the new Bullocks Wilshire attracted the patronage of the city’s affluent and increasingly mobile consumers. Its location on the developing the suburban commercial strip of Wilshire Boulevard signaled the luxury department store’s role in transforming the experience and geography of shopping in Los Angeles. Dubbed a “cathedral of commerce” and a “temple to the automobile,” its tower functioned as an advertisement for drivers, suggestive of the growing car culture and the emergence of a “linear downtown” along Wilshire Boulevard.
The architects for the project were John and Donald Parkinson, a father-and-son team noted for their prominent work on the Los Angeles City Hall, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and Los Angeles Union Station. Both Donald Parkinson and Winnett, Bullock’s vice-president, attended the 1925 Paris Exhibition, the catalyst for the Art Deco movement, which served as the artistic inspiration for the new structure. The outpouring of Art Moderne expression encapsulated the optimism and affluence of the 1920s. Combining geometric abstractions of organic forms along with references to technology and the machine age, the Art Deco aesthetic wedded beauty and function. Upon the opening of the Bullocks Wilshire, commentators praised the design for showcasing both modern art and sensitivity to the region through use of color and artistic detail.
The building fronts Wilshire Boulevard between Wilshire Place and Westmoreland Avenue. The structure rises two stories at either end and then continues to rise toward the center in a set of three-, four- and five-story graduated setbacks, culminating in a central ten-story tower topped by a verdigris-coated spire. The tower once featured a beacon of brilliant neon mercury vapor tubes of blue-green hue. At the time of its construction, the 241-foot tower exceeded the 150-foot city building height limit. The Parkinsons pushed the limits of city ordinances by interpreting portions of the tower as “sign construction,” “penthouse construction,” and “roof construction,” thereby enabling the additional height. The exterior is clad in buff-toned terra-cotta panels, arranged in vertical piers and recesses alternating with copper coping at the setbacks. Vertical and horizontal zigzags and facets at the corners and cornice lines of the facade demonstrate the delicacy of the Art Deco-inspired design.
The building’s interiors echoed the exterior in artistry and craftsmanship, and were produced by exceptional local designers, sculptors, and artists. Bullock, the president and namesake, asserted that the store was an “adaptation of the style we like to call ‘classic modern’” and consisted of “an ensemble of store elements.” The consistency of the “ensemble” design can be attributed to the collaboration of designer Jock Peters, decorator Eleanor Le Maire, and the design firm Feil and Paradise. Additional artists and designers whose work appeared throughout the building included George Stanley, Gjura Stojano, Herman Sachs, Jallot, Eugene Maier Kreig, Laursat, Sonia Delaunay, George De Winter, David Collins, and John Weber. Materials such as St. Genevieve rose marble walls, rosewood display cases, bronze, and frosted glass created a sumptuous composition textures and finishes. Some of the most striking features of the interior included the marble-clad Perfume Hall, the Bauhaus-inspired elevator doors, and the Spirit of Sports mural, plaster relief, and wood veneer mural by Stojano in the Sportswear Department.
As one of the first suburban department stores in the nation, Bullocks Wilshire sought the patronage of customers who had been used to shopping downtown. As traffic congestion and a lack of parking in the central business district grew increasingly cumbersome through the 1920s, the decentralization of commercial retail along the emerging east-west axis of Wilshire Boulevard mirrored the westward momentum of residential real estate development in the city. Retailers, restaurants, and hotels soon lined the boulevard, touted as the “Fifth Street of the West.” The large display windows of Bullocks Wilshire attracted the gaze of travelers passing by car. In addition to the visual prominence of the tower, the orientation of the building’s main entrance to the rear is also evidence of the effort to cater to car traffic. A parking lot, or “motor court,” and a striking porte-cochere at the back of the building signaled a dramatic shift in the layout of commercial architecture. Here, customers could leisurely enter the structure away from the traffic of the boulevard. A fresco-secco mural titled Speed of Transportation by Herman Sachs on the ceiling of the porte-cochere depicted the evolution of transportation technology.
As with most department stores, the design of Bullocks Wilshire was geared toward women, in particular. According to historian Michael Windover, “The modern activity of shopping was closely associated with women, and certainly by the 1920s, department stores were well-established places of female public culture.” The popular Tea Room on the fifth floor made shopping excursions even more memorable, especially as it regularly attracted many Hollywood notables. The luxuriously outfitted women’s high-fashion “Period Rooms” and the Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired Menswear Department made Bullocks a favorite shopping place for Angelenos looking for wedding gowns, finely tailored suits, and evening wear.
The Bullocks Wilshire operated for over sixty years. As competition from suburban shopping malls placed a strain on the store, Bullocks experienced financial troubles and eventually the national Macy’s chain acquired the business, only to close the store in 1993 after filing bankruptcy. The neighboring Southwest Law School purchased the property in 1994 to expand its facilities and soon embarked on a process of preservation and adaptive reuse to accommodate the academic needs of the law school.
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