LAistory: The Pan Pacific Auditorium

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The Pan Pacific Auditorium in 1937 (Photo via the Los Angeles Public Library)

Imagine a structure hailed for its exterior design that took 60 days to build, was trafficked by hundreds of thousands of people for almost four decades, spent 17 years abandoned with an uncertain fate, contributed to the launch of LA's preservation movement, and took one night to burn to the ground.

One structure that once stood in Los Angeles fits precisely that bill: The Pan Pacific Auditorium.

The Pan Pacific Auditorium was a masterpiece of a branch of architecture known as Streamline Moderne done by the prominent firm of Wurdeman and Becket. The green-and-white building was west-facing, and had four towers reaching skyward that resembled aircraft fins. Behind the glorious facade, however, was a more modest wooden structure that was more of a sprawling gymnasium; there was little remarkable about the design of the interior that was 100,000 square feet and could seat up to 6,000 patrons. The fact that it was wooden (read: highly flammable) is what eventually made its fiery demise possible.

Okay, so what's "Streamline Moderne"?
What was remarkable was indeed the outside; the PPA was one book you could judge--and really recognize and hail--for its cover. Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket designed what would soon become an archetype of the Streamline Moderne style (another example of the style is Robert V. Derrah's Cross Roads of the World's main building). Streamline Moderne was America's volley back in the 30s against the European Art Deco movement of the 20s. It is a truly American style "that embodied a touching faith in technology and a profoundly New World hopefulness about an ever-brightening future." The style has some distinguishing features, as explained by Leon Whiteson in the LA Times less than a year after the Pan Pacific was destroyed:

Flat roofs with smooth white-stucco walls and rounded corners.
Strong horizontal emphasis.
Frequent use of strip, porthole and clerestory windows.
Common use of glass brick and steel-pipe balustrades.
Internal floors often covered with black lino, rubber matting or vinyl.
Extensive use of ceramic tiles in solid primary colors in bathrooms and kitchens.
"The popular mood was to lead out of the depression and into the future as fast as possible, thus streamline, a symbol of speed, became the popular propriety" (Holbrook).

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The massive structure, as seen in the 30s. (Photo by Julius Shulman via the Los Angeles Public Library)

Adds Leon Whiteson:

In its heyday, Streamline Moderne was known simply as "the smart style." Much favored by Hollywood and mirrored in imaginative movie sets designed by art directors such as William Cameron Menzies, Streamline Moderne houses sprang up from Silver Lake to Santa Monica.
With all the many Streamline Moderne houses and structures popping up in the 30s (most in Los Angeles and Miami, as well as those immortalized in film, like the 1937 Astaire-Rogers classic Shall We Dance) the Pan Pacific really was "single most famous Streamline Moderne building in Los Angeles," (Whiteson).


Open for Business: 1935-1972
The doors were thrown open to the PPA on May 18, 1935, and the first event held there was a home show aimed at hyping then-President Roosevelt's signing of the Title I legislative act "which authorized government loans" aimed at aiding homeowners with repairs and renovations (Henderson).

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EL Cord owned the Pan Pacific from 1937 until his death in 1974
Clifford W. Henderson, who along with his brother Phillip constructed the PPA, said in a letter to the LA Times in 1978: "Prior to the construction of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, Los Angeles included no convention or public facility to accommodate the annual automobile show and a wide variety of cultural, recreational and sports events."

In 1937, the Pan Pacific Auditorium was purchased by Errett Lobban Cord, a man known for his prominence in the automotive industry. He moved to Los Angeles to retire, halting production of his vehicles and shifting his focus to the PPA and other entertainment and electronics industry endeavors.

For the next 35 years, the PPA was home to a multitude of events, ranging from auto, boat and home shows to sporting events like hockey games, basketball (Harlem Globetrotters included), concerts (many remember seeing a younger Elvis Presley live onstage there in a performance that the press labeled "obscene"), and political events like a dinner for Eisenhower and Nixon, and many more.

An Uncertain Future: 1972-1980
Something happened in 1971, however, that would put a firm end to the Pan Pacific's relevance--at least in terms of its interior, and its use. The Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC) opened that year, and essentially rendered the PPA utterly useless. The early 1970s saw a local movement to publicize Los Angeles as a destination for business people and tourists alike--perhaps as a result of the dark end to the 1960s the city experienced and the growing reputation of LA as a sort of underworldly wasteland. The LACC was a way to draw people to the city, and to the perpetually struggling Downtown core, and to infuse LA with a postive rejuvenation and to restore its rep. The effectiveness of the campaign notwithstanding, the fact remains that as Los Angeles focused on wiping away the past and ushering in the new, buildings with what we now recognize as historic significance were considered blights on the cheerful landscape that ought to be just taken down.

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Inside the Pan Pacific Auditorium. The wooden structure, once home to crowds for basketball games and other events, was abandoned in 1972, and vandals often gained access via a backdoor. (Image via the LA Public Library)
In 1972, the Pan Pacific Auditorium dwindled in use, and, after some small expos in the spring, finally shut its doors for good. Cord still owned the land, however, and made no move to relinquish the property. In fact, by making no plans to unload the real estate, Cord wound up initiating what would end up being almost two decades of dispute and drama for the PPA; this is because Cord died on January 2, 1974, and his will entered into probate in Reno courts. Suddenly the possibilities for the PPA--really, the land it stood on--seemed endless to some planners and local officials, only their abilities to move forward were very, very, very finite.

LA County 3rd District Supervisor Ernest E. Debs, on the cusp of retirement, had an idea: Buy the Pan Pacific property (the whole parcel of land included not only the Auditorium, but also a bowling alley, a movie theatre, some storage facilities, all of which stretched southward from Beverly Blvd to the Farmer's Market) from the Cord estate and tear all the buildings down and develop the land. Debs wanted to turn the whole thing into a public park, and he helmed the movement that was rejoiced by many to give the residents in the area a green space they so richly needed. "The mere presence of an open area in a populous district where parks are sparse has long caused residents and park officials to hope for the possibility of [the Pan Pacific land]'s development as a park," wrote Claudia Luther in a 1974 LA Times article. Debs went on record calling the land "the last open space available for miles," (Zeman).

Debs had some local political support, in addition to the wish of area citizens to have their park. He was backed, in his waning days on the job, by two City Councilmen, John Ferraro, and Edumund D. Edelman. Incidentally, Debs had endorsed Ferraro for election to his position on the Board; Edelman, however, won the seat, and remained in it for 20 years. Debs initiated a study of the land and Auditorium purchase in March 1974.

After his election in '74, Edelman took on the cause of the Pan Pacific project, and began to do what would prove almost impossible: Get funding. That June, the LA City Council said a resounding NO. They wouldn't contribute to the pot to buy the land from the Cord estate--in fact, they said they "recommend[ed] against spending one city dime for it," (Burleigh). Edelman was looking for millions--estimates had the price tag from between $11-17 million, in fact--and it was millions the City didn't have to spare, let alone to put towards what would be a County-run project, where the City would see no return on its investment.

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Edmund D. Edelman in 2008 (Sundays Live)
Edelman turned to the state, and pushed for a motion to get the venture funded as a State Park. Things were looking optimistic, as a bill made it through the state legislature, only to be stopped cold by the veto of then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who didn't approve of the endeavors jumbled funding and unclear development plans. But 1974 was an election year, and at the start of '75 California had a new Governor, Jerry Brown, who was more open to such a plan. Once again, a bill was authored, this time SB48, passed, and approved by Brown, adding $3 million to the piggy bank ("Brown OKs").

But things weren't so smooth. Over the next few years, Edelman worked to drum up all the funding needed to secure the land, and managed to cobble bits together from various interests, including, eventually, $2.6 million from the City of Los Angeles (committed by Mayor Tom Bradley in 1976), along with $2.6 million from the County, and from the Flood Control District, whose $3 million contribution would help out and also see to it that they could use a portion of the land for their own interests (Birkinshaw). This was December 1977. The Pan Pacific Auditorium had been dormant now for 5 years, Cord dead for 3.

And still problems persisted. There was money, but then there was the issue of how to proceed with the land. Should it be a Tivoli Gardens-type public attraction? House a hotel? Host a building devoted to the arts? For sometime in the mid-70s LACMA had hopes of using the space, and patrons of the arts liked the idea of using it as a museum for Contemporary Art. Bottom line: Everyone had an idea.

But some other people had another idea altogether: Get the Pan Pacific Auditorium registered as a landmark, and keep it standing. These wingnuts got together in 1978 and picked a handful of projects to pursue around the City, starting with the Central Library, and including the Pan Pacific. These renegades called themselves The Los Angeles Conservancy.

In 1978, after years of LA selling itself as fresh, new, and alluring, people began to realize that we were destroying our own history without a second thought. The Conservancy, in its very pronounced infancy, along with other impassioned preservation committees and groups, secured the PPA on the National Register of Historic Places. Suddenly what to do with the building became an even bigger issue, because so many people were fighting to keep it standing, despite the fact that in order to be put back into use, it would take a fortune to not only restore it, but keep it running. In 1979, as LA looked for a home for a museum of contemporary art, many favored the PPA, but Edelman said it was "so broken down it would cost over $6 million to bring it up to standards" (Isenberg)

The Pan Pacific Auditorium sat, patiently, as the world moved ahead with--and without--it.

Interlude: Xanadu, 1980

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Screenshot from Xanadu. Where's that girl? Where's that place?
As the 70s came to a close, the PPA found itself in the spotlight thanks to the magic of Hollywood. The premise of the film Xanadu is that a young artist, Sonny Malone (played by Michael Beck) resents his unsatisfying work painting large-scale copies of rock n' roll album covers. He's kissed out of the blue by a mysterious blonde (played by Olivia Newton-John) on roller skates, and is surprised to see her face again when he's handed an album by the Nine Sisters with a cover depicting that same girl in front of a crumbling Auditorium (played by the Pan Pacific). He goes to the auditorium to find her, and she inspires him and his new friend, old-time big band clarinet player Danny McGuire (played by Gene Kelly), to renovate the building and open it as the ultimate old-meets-new dance, music, and roller skating nightclub they call Xanadu. (The fact that the girl's a centuries old muse who came into Sonny's life via a painting that serves as a "portal" into earth and can't stick around to be in love with him is a whole issue.)

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Danny McGuire remembers the building from its heyday

The movie was a box office flop, although it has gone on to earn a sort of cult status. The film used only the exterior of the Pan Pacific (all interiors were done on soundstages elsewhere in the city) but the few moments when the characters are on the site have left us with a more permanent way to see the majestic theatre as it continued its neglect and structural decline. There is grafitti all over the walls, and the building is rather evidently crumbling. Thanks to shoddy continuity, when Sonny first roller skates up to the front you can clearly see LA Co. Supervisor Edmund Edelman's name in all caps on the "Warning, No Tresspassing" signs (it's covered up in subsequent shots). When Sonny brings Danny to see the place, Danny is dubious: "This place? They used to have wrestling here!" (He was right, they did.)

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LA Co. Sup. Edelmen says WARNING, NO TRESSPASSING (His name was covered up in subsequent shots. Oops!)

What's probably most laughable is that in Hollywood, it takes zero capital, zero paperwork, and zero haggling for the two guys to wind up owning the building and making it over (it also takes what seems like just a few days.) This poetic license is of course a slap in the face to the legal, political, and fiscal nightmare that had, to date, kept the PPA's fate and ownership in limbo for 6 years. If the City and County of Los Angeles, combined with the State of California, couldn't come up with the millions to buy the property, negotiate a deal with Cord's estate, appease all interested parties with a plan for use, and come up with the millions more it would take to renovate in that long, it's amusing that Malone and McGuire could do that and more with considerable less effort in a Hollywood minute.

Plans? What Plans? The Uncertainty Drags On: 1980-1989
In late 1981, Edelman announced he'd take submissions for plans for what to do with the site, which he accepted until early 1982. By the end of 1982 a plan to put a hotel on the site seemed to be in the lead, but again, people wanted different things, and no one could either agree or find the money for it. But there was optimism: "Supervisor Ed Edelman plans to choose one of the proposals within two months after conferring with the [three groups whose plans were in the lead]. The developers hope to have the auditorium restored by the 1984 Olympics" (Morain, "Streamlined").

Wishful thinking. A March 1983 LA Times headline declares: "Park Tiff: Pan Pacific Proposal Draws Fire From Neighboring Firms." And then, after some fireworks went awry during a 4th of July celebration that summer...the Pan Pacific itself drew fire, and some of the northern portion of the building was damaged.

The Pan Pacific continued to be a draw for vandals and vagrants--and why not? The building had now been sitting empty for ten years. Lots of small fires happened, and lots of damage occurred to the structure at the hands of people hanging out on the lot.

The contention about what to do endured. Oh, how it endured. The 1980s closed out with no action on the property.

It all Comes Crashing Down: May 1989
And then, on the night of May 24, 1989, the Pan Pacific sealed its own fate. In what is often described as a "spectacular fire" the wooden structure burned to the ground. The four heaven-reaching spires fell in the wee hours. So much for restoration.

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The 1989 fire that destroyed the Pan Pacific could be seen all over the LA basin. (Photo via the LAFD Historical Archives)

The fire was pinned on a homeless man, who was eventually released; the charges against him were dropped because of lack of evidence.

A New Life: 1989-Present
With no structure left, there wasn't much to preserve. Eventually a plan was approved, and the space began to get a new life as a park with a Rec Center, whose shape was inspired by the old Pan Pacific Audtiorium.

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Photo by Lindsay William-Ross/LAist

The "Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center's 45-foot-high spire recalls the auditorium's fin-shaped towers," explains Liz F. Kay in a 2002 LA Times article. "The 1930s style, defined by curving shapes that hint at motion and the machine age, is also integrated into the new center's gymnasiums, stage and classroom space," (Kay). The money came from county Proposition K and city Proposition A, which "paid for the new $5.8-million center. The parks department also used funds that residential developers pay to provide recreation space near their projects," (Kay).

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The lone spire of the new building (Photo by Lindsay William-Ross/LAist)
The building, while facing the same way as the old one, "was not built on the ashes of the former," (Kay). Kay elaborates:
Debris from the demolished Pan Pacific had mixed into the soil, making it an unsuitable foundation for the new building. Construction also disturbed soil contaminated by oil, pushing back the new Pan Pacific's opening date several months.

The parks department spent almost $1 million to remove the soil, which officials said posed no danger. They hope to recoup some of the money from state and county authorities.

The parks department wasn't sure if the oil was an undiscovered "Beverly Hillbillies-style" pocket or if it spilled from an old well, said Maureen Tamuri, the agency's assistant general manager for planning and construction.

Once naturally occurring oil is disturbed, it is classified as a contaminant and must be removed. "We're under obligation only to remove what we touched and hit," Tamuri said. "And believe me, we didn't go looking for it."

Head to 7600 Beverly Boulevard today, and you can see for yourself the single tower in homage to the Wurdeman & Becket original, the tiles on the wall referencing significant local architecture, and experience the Rec Center (which is less than fifth the size of the original PPA, mind you).

A few years later came Rick Caruso's neighboring Farmer's Market development, The Grove, and for many people in Los Angeles, or our visitors, what was once right there never was.

Kind of like in the movies...

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The tiled wall inside the Rec Center has images of buildings, including the original Pan Pacific Auditorium (Photo by Lindsay William-Ross/LAist)
References (unless otherwise linked)
Birkinshaw, Jack. "Pan Pacific Pot Sweetened by $3 Million." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1977 Dec 1 ws1
"Brown OKs $3 Million for Pan-Pacific Park Project :Price of 31.4-Acre Auditorium Site Estimated at $11 Million; County Has Put Up $1 Million." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1975 Sep 18 c2
Burleigh, Irv. "Council Panel Rejects Pan Pacific Park Plan :Let the County Do It, Say Members of Recreation Committee COUNCIL." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1974 Jun 21 c1.
"City, County Urged to Consider Buying Pan Pacific Auditorium." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1974 Apr 26 b1
Curtius, Mary. "Park Tiff :Pan Pacific Proposal Draws Fire From Neighboring Firms." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File),1983, March 6 p. ws1
Daily Mirror Blog, LA Times.
Dreyfuss, John. "Pan Pacific: Beleaguered Manifestation of an Era :Park, Preservation Forces Near Struggle Over Old Auditorium PAN PACIFIC PAN PACIFIC." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1978 Apr 9 k1
Ferderber, Skip. "Hopes Brighten for Pan Pacific Park Site Purchase :PAN PACIFIC PARK." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1974 Sep 5 ws1
"New Exhibition Center to Host Home Show :SHOW." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1971 Mar 14 k1.
Harvey, Steve. "Postscript: Last of 3 Old L.A. Sporting Arenas Faces Dismemberment." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1976 Sep 15 c1
Herbert, Ray. "Group to Preserve Landmarks Formed." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1978 Jun 6 c5
Holbrook, William Summer. "Our Readers Write: Pan Pacific's Varied History." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). Jan. 29 1978. pg H7
Houston, Robert. "A Chance to Have a Tivoli Gardens in L.A." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1974 Mar 30 a4.
Isenberg, Barbara. "In Quest of L. A. Home for Modern Art." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1979 Jun 11 e1
Kay, Liz F. "Los Angeles; Memories of Old Pan Pacific Resurrected in New Center; Architecture: City park building incorporates design elements from the landmark theater." Los Angeles Times. Apr 21, 2002. pg. B.3
"LOOKING FOR A GOOD TIME?...How much can you take?" Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1971 Jul 11 t42.
Luther, Claudia. "County, Others Seek 31-Acre Pan Pacific Site for Park :Supervisor Debs Leads Move to Get Federal, State Funding; City Backs Idea but Urges Residential Zoning PAN PACIFIC SITE." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1974 Mar 15 c1.
Morain, Dan. "But More Public Space Urged :Hotel Plan Leads Pan Pacific Proposals." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1982 Oct 28 ws3
Morain, Dan. "Streamlined in Its Day, Auditorium Awaits New Role :3 Developers Covet Derelict Pan Pacific." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1982 Aug 1 ws1
"Move Pushed to Buy Pan Pacific for Park." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1974 Dec 12 ws19
OnlyOlivia.com
"Pan Pacific Park Plan Receives Boost by Mayor." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1976 Apr 11 ws4
People in Need of a Park. Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1974 Mar 7 b6
Whiteson, Leon. "The Graceful Lines of Streamline Moderne." Los Angeles Times (pre-1997 Fulltext). Los Angeles, Calif.: Feb 11, 1990. pg. 1
Wikipedia: Pan Pacific Auditorium
Zeman, Ray. "Study of Auditorium Purchase Approved." Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). 1974 Mar 6 oc_a5.

LAistory is our series that takes us on a journey to what came before to help us understand where we are today.

Check out our other entries in the series:

Val Verde; Thelma Todd's Roadside Cafe; An eclectic house in Beverly Hills; Echo Park's Bonnie Brae House; Marineland of the Pacific; Grand Central Air Terminal; LA's Own Wrigley Field; How LA got its name; The wreck of the Dominator; The 1925 "Hollywood Subway."; The Pink Lady of Malibu; Lions Drag Strip; Disneyland...when it was cheap to get in; The ugliest building in the city; Union Station; Union Station's Fred Harvey Room; A Smelly Mystery at another train station; The Egyptian Theatre; Pilgrimage Bridge; The "It" Girl, Clara Bow; Elias J. "Lucky" Baldwin; Get Involved!; Houdini's House; Spanish Kitchen; The Platinum Blonde; Chutes Park; Fatty Arbuckle; The Brown Derby; Griffith Park; The Outpost Sign; Cross Roads of the World; Sowden House; Monkey Island ; Carthay Circle Theater; The Post-War House & the Home of Tomorrow; Dan the Miner; Tropical Ice Gardens; William Desmond Taylor; Alligator Farm; Schwab's Pharmacy; Tail O' the Pup; Good Reads; Fatty Arbuckle's Plantation Cafe; The Garden of Allah; Mapping LAist's LAistory Series.