The Pan Pacific Auditorium was a grand exhibition hall on Beverly Boulevard set on more than 20 acres just east of what’s now the Grove. Its four Streamline Moderne towers rose above generations of Angelenos enjoying car shows, sporting events, and concerts until it was destroyed by a fire in 1989 while awaiting restoration as the home of the American Cinematheque. The place was so beloved that its ghost lives on with replicas at Pan Pacific Park, the Cerritos Library, and it even forms the entrance to Disney’s California Adventure.
Architect Fran Offenhauser worked to save the building in the 1980s and is giving a talk on its colorful history for the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles on Sunday, May 23. We asked her for a sneak preview.
Why was the Pan Pacific Auditorium so important?
It was astronomical, out of this world important. It was the heart and soul of the city. Before there was a convention center, before there was a Sports Arena, any large event happened at the Pan. Expositions were the big attention-getters and crowd-drawers that brought thousands of people together like a form of international communication. The outside of the building was emblematic of a faith in the future, it was Buck Rogers futuristic but the inside was absolutely blank like a movie studio.
Tell me a little about the architecture.
This was the most iconic Los Angeles building period. The Pan Pacific was the last remaining building of its type and style in the world. It’s taken people a long time to understand the significance of Los Angeles architecture. Even in the 1970s it was known all over Japan, all over Europe, but L.A. has always come late to the party about its own landmarks. When I was in college the phrase “Art Deco” hadn’t even been invented yet. The whole point of my talk is to acquaint a new generation who certainly didn’t go to the Pan Pacific or even see it when it was still standing with Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles.
What were some of the big attractions there?
They presented everything from Elvis Presley to President Eisenhower to auto shows. It was big enough for airplane shows. They had the Ice Capades, basketball, anything that involved a crowd. Ten thousand people showed up for the show Queen For a Day. It was built for a national housing exposition – as a symbol to carry Los Angeles out of the Great Depression.
Why did it close?
It closed when the convention center was built in 1972. Almost overnight it had no business. It sat on an enormous piece of land that had been owned by the Gilmore family who started the Farmers Market. It also had stadium, a baseball field, and midget auto racing. That whole superblock was recreation central for Los Angeles. The last owner was E.L. Cord who owned the Cord automobile company. A lot of the 1930s was about promoting cars. TV studios were built so they could advertise cars. It’s all entwined with L.A. development which is entwined with cars.
What was your personal connection to the place?
I came here from New York in 1976 and a friend and I pretended to be a large group of people trying to save this building. This was before there were any historic organizations. The Pan Pacific and Central Library were the beginnings of the Los Angeles Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage. People found each other over the Pan Pacific. The county was trying so hard to tear it down. Some of the preservation fights back then are the same ones we’re having today.
What kind of shape was it in back then?
It looked like shit. No one was maintaining it. It had been sitting empty since 1972. It was graffitied, it had holes in it. I remember when I was a kid in New York and the buildings in Harlem had pictures painted on boarded up windows. Cats and people watering geraniums. You need to keep a building looking like people want to see it. When something sits boarded up it’s a death sentence. It’s seen as expendable.
You actually came up with a plan to bring it back, right?
I was fortunate enough to be hired as the restoration architect. We were working with a developer who had a plan to put a hotel in the building as well as a theater for the American Cinematheque. The state held up the plans by denying the hotel a liquor license. It took years to convince them the hotel couldn’t get financing without the liquor license, but by then the economics had changed.
How did the American Cinematheque become part of it?
The founders were Barbara Smith and the two Garys. Gary Essert and Gary Abrahams had been doing the Filmex festival since before I got here. I had been hired to find a location for the American Film Institute. It was serendipity that Barbara lived next door to me. We were trying to put something together and the Pan Pacific gave it a focus the way nothing else could. I believe this project gave the Cinematheque life. It gave it believability and spurred it into happening. When people can imagine you in a building it becomes real.
So all that was lost in the fire?
I could see the smoke from home when I heard the news so I immediately jumped in the car and drove down to ABC studios. I talked my way onto the lot and they put me on the air. I’m viscerally attached so it was beyond a gut punch. When it burned down, I lost a pretty big chunk of my life. There was enough there to reconstruct it, and I tried, but the county said just forget about it. I had newborn then and I was exhausted. Now there’s a whole generation that doesn’t even know about it and I hope they tune in on Sunday.
The Pan Pacific Auditorium Remembered, Sunday, May 23 at 3 p.m.; tickets for the virtual program are available at the Art Deco Society’s website.
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