After so many years of planning it is really exciting to see workers buzzing all over the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures construction site in Mid-Wilshire. Many of them can be seen crafting architect Renzo Piano’s giant sphere theater, which is rising behind the former May Company building (now renamed the Saban building) at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, but it’s all about that tower on the corner. No historic elements remain inside the old department store, completed in 1939, but great pains are being taken to restore the exterior and the iconic gold mosaic.
Decades of rain, pollution, and ground movement have caused extensive cracks in all that granite and limestone, and any changes to the building have to be approved by the city, which named the streamline moderne landmark a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument in 1992. As such, the Academy brought in an acclaimed international restorer to tackle the job.
John Fidler is a British architect who has spent more than 30 years conserving historic places around the world, from Stonehenge to Angkor Wat. He started out with some simple knocks. “You can’t beat a knuckle for nondestructive diagnostics,” Fidler says. But he also went high tech, enlisting laser scanners, ground penetrating radar, magnetometers, and GigaPan photography, which produced images so detailed “you can see a fly sitting in a mortar joint.”
There are 1,200 panels of buff-colored limestone from Texas, called “Cordova Shell,” along the building’s Wilshire- and Fairfax-facing facades, and 47 percent of them needed repairs. The new blocks have the same fossilized Trigonia clams and Turritella spirals as the originals. The diamond black granite at the corner was only mined for ten years at one site in Escondido, but Fidler found it. The gold tiles on the corner were Orsoni mosaic from Venice, Italy. Each one-inch tesserae is made by hand and has a piece of 24-karat gold leaf baked inside. Fidler tracked down the original sources and, when possible, returned to them for replacements. The Italian glass studio is a mom-and-pop operation that makes stained glass for cathedrals. Fidler needed the inconsistencies of handmade tile—the “grooves, dimples, and blobs”—to maintain the tower’s original appearance. A restoration plan shows that about a quarter of the 138,500 tiles will be replaced. For the time being, the damaged ones are covered in orange stickers.
Taking apart the steel windows uncovered a bit of architectural archeology. The original depression-era workers dumped plaster, wood, and construction debris inside the walls, and the windows were made watertight with sisal rope, a technique Fidler recognized from ships and buildings of the 18th century. Corroded steel will be replaced but most will be restored originals updated with high tech glazing. “There is a logic to complete renewal,” Fidler says. “But not from my conservation perspective.”
When the museum opens next year, visitors will be wowed by the millions of photographs, posters, movie props, and costumes (Dorothy’s ruby slippers!) displayed inside, but architect A.C. Martin’s 80-year-old landmark will be the biggest artifact of all.
May Company Building, 6067 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire
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