Art Meets Commerce: The Bullocks Wilshire Building at 90

Nicholas Beyelia, Librarian, History and Genealogy Department,
photo of Wilshire Boulevard looking towards Bullock's Wilshire
Looking southeast across Wilshire Boulevard towards Bullock's Wilshire, [1936]. Blackstock Negative Collection

In a city where no structure is guaranteed permanence, the iconic Bullocks Wilshire building turns an astounding 90 years old this week. The building has superseded its retail beginnings and is seen not only as a masterpiece of art-deco craftsmanship but a true star in the constellation of Los Angeles’ architectural heritage. When it opened for business on September 26, 1929, the store was viewed as an investment in the future of the still burgeoning metropolis; as the Los Angeles Times put it, the building was “a noble monument to its faith in this, our city.” Truly, the Bullocks Wilshire building was a prophetic entity in the narrative of Los Angeles history, as it signaled the rise of L.A.’s automobile culture and anticipated the growth of the city itself. Here’s a look back at the history of one of L.A.’s most magnificent architectural marvels, the Bullocks Wilshire building and how it shaped the future of Los Angeles.

 1929 newspaper announcement
September 25, 1929 newspaper announcement appearing in the Times, the Herald and the Examiner trumpeting the opening of the store the following day; the announcement states that the store was established “In recognition of the growing needs of a great city” and highlights the motor court entrance as a ‘service feature’

Bullocks Department Store originated in Downtown Los Angeles in 1907. The company’s flagship store, located on Broadway and 7th, was the brainchild of Canadian transplant John Gillespie Bullock and Broadway Department Store owner Arthur Letts. The Downtown location thrived and became one of the most successful department stores within Los Angeles. In May 1923, Letts died allowing Bullock and his new business partner P.G. Winnett to buy out Letts' interest in the store. The popularity of the original location encouraged Bullock and Winnett to expand. Taking a cue from other successful “specialty stores” like Neiman Marcus in Dallas and Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Bullock & Winnett sought to open a store that would focus on luxury goods staffed by experts on the products and services being offered. But before any of that could happen they needed to create an appropriate home for their high-end retail vision.

1929 image looking west from the corner of Wilshire Blvd and Commonwealth Avenue with the Bullocks Wilshire Building
1929 image looking west from the corner of Wilshire Blvd and Commonwealth Avenue with the Bullocks Wilshire Building (shortly after completion) seen in the distance. The area is still largely residential with new developments like the Town House Apartment Hotel, also built in 1929, in the foreground at the right. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

In the 1920s L.A.’s retail hub was concentrated in Downtown Los Angeles, so choosing a location west of MacArthur Park was more than a bit of a gamble as the area, with the exception of the Ambassador Hotel, was overwhelmingly residential. Choosing this particular site, however, would prove to be both prescient and fortuitous as it would anticipate LA’s burgeoning love affair with the automobile. L.A.’s fledgling car culture was indeed a major consideration in the development process of Bullocks Wilshire and its design would both compliment and celebrate it. The Times implied that the ‘remote’ location chosen for the store was indicative of the faith that commercial business owners had in Los Angeles and its inevitable rise as a metropolis on the world stage.

Top down view of Bullocks Wilshire
Looking southwest towards the Bullocks Wilshire Building likely taken from the Town House Apartment Hotel. The area is beginning to shift towards from residential towards commercial, [ca. 1932]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Bringing the Bullocks Wilshire building to life was architect John Parkinson and his son Donald. The Parkinsons were responsible for many of L.A.’s landmark buildings, notably City Hall, the Memorial Coliseum and Union Station. In her book about the history of the store, Margaret Leslie Davis describes the original concept as a more traditional style indicating that the initial plans for the Wilshire building bore no resemblance to the building we know today. Winnett had become infatuated with Art Deco, Bauhaus and Modernist design following a visit to Europe in 1925; a trip in which Donald Parkinson and his wife had accompanied Winnett. Donald was equally taken with the Art Deco style after attending the Exposition of Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris and, upon his return, the initial plans for the Wilshire building were scrapped in favor of a new design that was more emblematic of the jazz age. The individual credited as the principal designer of the first three interior floors was German-born draftsman Jock Peters while Eleanor LeMarie was credited with decorating the interior of the store. Peters worked as an art director at Famous Players/Lasky (later Paramount) while LeMarie had been responsible for redecorating Bullock’s flagship store in 1926.

Showing Bullocks Wilshire patrons under the porte cochere. ca. 1937
Showing Bullocks Wilshire patrons under the porte cochere, [ca. 1937]. Herman J Schultheis Collection
Showing a car leaving the porte-cochere and rear entrance of Bullocks Wilshire
Showing a car leaving the porte-cochere and rear ‘main’ entrance of the store, [ca. 1937]. Herman J Schultheis Collection
spirit of transportation muralShowing Herman Sachs’ The Spirit of Transportation mural above the porte cochere. Image courtesy of Southwestern Law School. [used with permission]  

When construction was finished in mid-1929, the end product was a stately art deco confection of stone, terra cotta, copper and steel. In keeping with the building’s reverence for the automobile, the ‘main’ entrance was not necessarily the street entrance on Wilshire but, rather, the porte-cochere at the rear of the building that allowed drivers to pull up to the valet. Stepping out of the car, shoppers could glimpse overhead Herman Sach’s stunning mural “The Spirit of Transportation” that pays reverence to the transportation age almost as if it were L.A.’s answer to the Sistine Chapel. The interior space housed five sumptuous floors of quality goods and services - each room in the building was a design experience unto itself, intended to evoke an atmosphere that complimented the merchandise, a classic design was on display in what became known as the Louis XVI room while a more sleek, modern feel dominated the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design in the menswear department. The fifth floor housed the legendary tea room that would play host to countless numbers of influential personalities, celebrities from Hollywood’s golden age, as well as everyday Angelenos looking for a chic respite from a long day of shopping.

Deans dining room, Bullocks Wilshire interiorBullocks Wilshire interior dining room5th floor candy counters inside Bullocks WilshireLa Directoire room inside Bullocks WilshireBullocks Wilshire interior room
A glimpse of the exquisite interior decor illustrates how each room and floor shifts tone and style from classic to modern. The Southwestern Law School has maintained the property since 1994, keeping the historical integrity of the building intact while adapting it for modern use as a law library. Image courtesy of Southwestern Law School. [used with permission]

The Los Angeles Examiner reported that writers and architectural critics were allowed to preview the building shortly before it was open to the public. Although reports were published at different intervals, praise was unanimous. Architect Harris Allen A.I.A., reviewing the building for the January 1930 edition of California Arts & Architecture noted the aesthetic harmony that flowed from room to room and from floor to floor: “...the departments are on the best of terms; there is a friendly politeness, a harmony in their relations with one another, while each maintains its own personality...” Architect and Engineer profiled the building in its December 1929 issue stating that “throughout the beautiful craftsmanship is evident, reflecting in the assembly of materials an appreciation of modern form and principal of design.” Los Angeles Examiner art critic George Douglas called the building “an architectural triumph” writing: “It is not only a beautiful store... but an exhibition of art. It is, in fact, an art gallery or series of art galleries. The exhibits for sale will change from season to season but the building itself will always be an artistic exhibition.” Writer Edith Bristol of the Los Angeles Evening Herald devoted nearly two full pages of the newspaper to describe the store’s themes and the corresponding decor of each room within the building. The fact is that every floor within the building housed some design marvel and invited shoppers to bask in the beauty of its interior. With critical validation, it was now time to open the building to the public.

When Bullocks Wilshire opened on September 26, 1929, the turnout exceeded everyone’s expectations. The Los Angeles Times was in love. Reporter Olive Gray wrote the following: “This superb structure has a message far beyond commercialism...for this new store is the supreme expression of modern art in architecture...Entering from either Wilshire or motor court the marble foyer impresses upon the visitor the feeling of the entire establishment one of super-elegance, illuminated by daring originality informed by ultra-modern creativeness...” The scene inside the building was hectic, to say the least. The Times estimated (exaggerated?) that 300,000 people had passed through Bullock’s doors throughout opening day but the occasion wasn’t the madhouse one would expect: “The atmosphere of the great store and the manner of its visitors was that of a social function.” People were stationed outside the store to peer in at the window displays and it was reported that that automobiles were lined up around the block looking to make a fashionable arrival through the porte-cochere and into the main entrance of the store. In keeping with the grandiosity of the event, shoppers arrived attired in their Sunday best: “...every woman came arrayed in her newest hat and gown. No more fashionably appareled woman ever has been seen at a public social function than were to be found strolling through the many sections of this great new shop.” The Times also reported that men were in attendance but, thanks to the sleek masculine men’s store inside the building, were not conspicuously relegated to uncomfortable chairs outside women’s dressing rooms. The staff, fully prepared for an onslaught of visitors looking to marvel at the Art Deco details of the store, were reportedly unprepared for the throngs of customers looking to make an actual purchase. Architecture and Engineer explained that the success of the store is “clearly shown in the crowds surging around the building at night and through it during the day and that all California is talking about.”

6 pictures of the exterior of Bullocks Wilshire
Showing exterior details of the building. Images courtesy of Southwestern Law School. [used with permission]

It cannot be overstated that the Bullocks Wilshire building was an integral component in L.A’s growth in terms of both civic and commercial development. Only two days after the opening, the Times continued to gush about the store and what it symbolized for the city’s future: “the magnificent new merchandise emporium he [John G. Bullock] has just opened to the public on Wilshire Blvd is another striking demonstration of how and why Los Angeles continues to grow. Not so many years ago the site of Bullock’s new store was a subdivision on the outside fringe of suburban Los Angeles. Faith in our business pioneers drove the great artery of Wilshire Boulevard from Westlake Park to the oceanfront at Santa Monica...So long as our leading businessmen are thus ready to stake their faith and their capital on the continued growth of Los Angeles we need never waver in our confidence that Southern California is destined to fill a leading place in the new era of world development.” Indeed, despite the stock market crash nearly one month later, the success of Bullocks Wilshire would encourage business growth along the Wilshire Blvd corridor beyond the Downtown area moving towards Santa Monica.

3 newspaper ads for Bullocks Wilshire
Newspaper announcements appearing in the local papers from the Wilshire Blvd Association and (surprisingly) Bullock’s competition, Walker’s Department Store and The May Company. The May Company, encouraged by the success of Bullocks Wilshire, would open their own Wilshire Blvd location in 1939 at the corner of Fairfax

The Building operated as a retail establishment for nearly 60 years. In the late 1980s, the store came under the ownership of R.H. Macy & Co. (Macy’s Department store) who operated within the space as an I. Magnin retail store. In 1993, I. Magnin closed its doors and removed many of the custom-built fixtures within the building, transferring most of them to its other store locations and putting the rest in storage. After a protracted battle led by the Los Angeles Conservancy the fixtures were returned. In 1994 the building was purchased by the Southwestern Law School; the school has restored much of the interior to its original art deco glory (some unfortunate changes were made to modernize the space throughout the years) and they maintain the historical integrity of the property. The building which has given so much to Los Angeles now serves a new generation of Angelenos as a shrine to education. The Southwestern Law School uses the building for classes, faculty offices, a practice courtroom, and a library while the famed tearoom serves as a cafeteria for law students. The Bullocks Wilshire Building is not open to the public on a day-to-day basis, but tours are offered through the Friends of the Bullocks Wilshire during the summer, allowing Angelenos to continue our admiration for this palace of art and architecture.

newspaper ad for Bullocks Wilshire
A few days after the opening, the Bullocks Company bought ad space in local papers to thank Los Angeles for the tremendous welcome it received: “...Los Angeles sensed the purpose which commanded this undertaking, realized the desire of the founders to do something more than erect a store…toward ever-widening purpose, Bullocks Wilshire pledges its fidelity.”

The Bullocks Wilshire building is the perfect melding of art, commerce, and Los Angeles history; it is both a symbolic and artistic monument that has weathered everything from earthquakes to riots and much like Los Angeles, itself, remains standing tall. The building, so emblematic of our growth as a city, also illuminates the importance of art and architecture in shaping our cultural heritage. Happy Birthday to one of the most stunning structures in Los Angeles!

Southwestern Law School in sunset
Southwestern Law School at sunset. Image courtesy of Southwestern Law School. [used with permission]

—Sincere thanks to the Southwestern Law School for use of their images and for their adaptive reuse of this Los Angeles treasure.

Further Reading

Book cover for Bullocks Wilshire
Bullocks Wilshire
Davis, Margaret L.

Book cover for Bullock's Department Store
Bullock's Department Store
Frick, Devin T.

Book cover for Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles
Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles
Gee, Stephen