Just Once a Year, the Public Gets a Chance to Explore This Art Deco Gem on Wilshire

The Bullocks Wilshire building rarely opens its doors, but this weekend you can get a glimpse
2053

Bullocks Wilshire was Los Angeles’ most deliriously art deco department store for generations. The store sold its last fancy gown and slice of coconut cream pie more than 25 years ago–but the building will be open again for visitors this weekend.

The docent and self-guided tours sponsored by Southwestern Law School, which operates out of the restored landmark, only take place once each year–so be sure to book tickets in advance.

To prepare you for the rare public showing, we’ve put together a quick history lesson on why this old shop is still worth swooning for.


Sketch of the new Bullock’s Wilshire store in 1928

Photo by Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

The first Bullocks department store opened at 7th and Broadway downtown in 1907, and was a cornerstone of the elegant entertainment district that thrived there for decades. In 1929, the company expanded to the far-flung suburbs of Wilshire and Vermont, with a magnificent new tower designed by architects John and Donald Parkinson, who also brought you Union Station and Los Angeles City Hall.

The store was famous for its service and amenities, with fashion shows, personal shoppers, and an elegant tearoom on the fifth floor. They wrapped gifts, they shined your silver, they had an elevator operator—it was incredible. Generations of Angelenos bought fancy gifts and special occasion clothes under the copper tower.

A woman poses during a fashion show at the newly opened Bullock’s Wilshire, c. 1935

Photo by Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Eight women pose during a fashion show at the newly opened Bullock’s Wilshire, c. 1935

Photo by Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Five women pose during a fashion show at the newly opened Bullock’s Wilshire, c. 1935

Photo by Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Shoppers at Bullocks’ downtown location would typically arrive on a streetcar, but customers at the new store–modern as it was–were expected to arrive in a private automobile, preferably chauffeur-driven. An innovative rear entrance near the parking lot featured deco ironwork and an epic ceiling mural. It was all designed to enhance the experience of this glamorous new temple of shopping–and the well-off customers of Bullocks ate it up.

“The Spirit of Transportation” by Herman Sachs is painted as a ceiling mural at the motor court entrance to Bullocks Wilshire

Photo by Marlene & Anne Laskey Wilshire Boulevard Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Customers leaving Bullocks Wilshire at the rear porte cohere circa 1937

Photo by Herman Schultheis/Los Angeles Public Library

Bullocks opened a third location in Pasadena after World War II (it’s still going strong today as a Macy’s) utilizing some of the lessons learned from the Wilshire store, and the chain expanded to the suburban malls of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Nonetheless, Bullocks Wilshire stood out as the flagship of glamour and elegance.

But by the 1980s, shoppers dwindled and a sort of stasis set in. Loyal customers grew old along with the store; shopping during those years felt like stumbling into a convention of kindly old grandmothers. In 1992, the building was damaged during the riots; while it wasn’t destroyed, the new owner, Macy’s, shut it down 10 months later, plundering the antique furniture and fixtures in the process.

Barbara Larson (modeling), Audrey Hemphill and Mrs. Ronald Thomson prepare for a National Charity League benefit in the Bullocks Wilshire tea room in 1953.

Photo by Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Bullock’s Wilshire during Christmas 1982 with lights reflecting off polished marble and display cases brimming with goods

Photo by Anne Knudsen/Los Angeles Public Library

The Los Angeles Conservancy pressured them to return the artifacts to designated Historic-Cultural Monument. The building then sat quietly until a new occupant was found. Longtime neighbor Southwestern School of Law purchased the tower the following year.

After an award-winning restoration, Southwestern moved its law library to the site, utilizing some spaces as mock courtrooms, and repurposing the tearoom as a cafeteria. Because it’s a functioning campus, unless you’re a student or teacher, the building is closed off 364 days of the year.

Donors passionate about the building’s ongoing care and restoration have formed the Friends of Bullocks Wilshire, and that group that operates this weekend’s tours.

A recent view of the tea room at the former Bullocks Wilshire (Now Southwestern Law Library)

Photo by Eric Evavold

 

Bullock’s Wilshire bas-relief in photographed 1983

Photo by Michael Haering/Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

 


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