811 West 7th Street – Los Angeles
Gross surface area: sqft 108.278
Floors: 12 above ground
Year of construction: 1925
Architect: Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen
Designated use: offices – commercial
Year of purchase: 2012
Built by the Californian architects Albert Raymond Walker (1881–1958) and Percy Augustin Eisen (1885–1946) in 1927, the celebrated Fine Arts Building in Los Angeles was declared a historic cultural monument in 1974. It stands at 811 7th Street West as a compact twelve-storey block on an H-shaped plan with a facing of smooth, regular slabs of light-coloured stone. The first three storeys present an extraordinary façade with a trapezoidal profile. Ornamented above by series of small arches on spiral columns and pierced in the centre by a majestic splayed entranceway flanked by pairs of large arches, it explicitly evokes Tuscan Romanesque cathedrals like San Michele in Lucca, Santa Maria della Pieve in Arezzo, and above all the celebrated cathedral of Pisa. The singular decision to borrow the façade from the medieval religious architecture of a distant country, particularly eccentric in the case of a secular edifice, reflects the revival of historical styles that characterized 19th-century European architecture. This extremely widespread phenomenon was inspired by nostalgia of a both ethical and aesthetic nature. The revival of the vocabulary of an era distant in time (and, from California, also in space) was intended to evoke its civic virtues and beauty by bringing them symbolically back to life.
The surprises of this exceptional building are not, however, confined to the lower section. As it should, the façade rises the whole height of the building, the side of which on the street is divided into three horizontal registers that echo the classic arrangement of the Renaissance palace in distinct lower, central and upper sections. In the Fine Arts Building as in its ancient Italian models, being closest to the eye of the beholder, the bottom section is the part on which the most sumptuous decoration and precise architectural definition is lavished. The central axis is emphasized by a large entrance with a rounded arch that rises the height of two storeys. This deep, splayed passageway has an arched lintel decorated with plant motifs that introduces serried ranks of arches on either side resting alternately on small columns and pillars variously decorated with fantastic creatures and inlaid geometric patterns. The wall beneath the great arch is densely worked with volutes of acanthus leaves and concatenated circles simulating rope made entirely of terracotta. The entrance is divided in two by a column of green marble with a capital and decorated entablature on which the two smaller arches rest. The pairs of lateral arches belong to the commercial premises. The base façade is enclosed laterally by two inclined segments, like the sides of a pitched roof, symmetrically adorned with youthful reclining figures that personify Architecture, on the left, and Sculpture, on the right, recognizable by their respective attributes of an Ionic capital and a roughly hewn marble torso as well as the inscriptions. The intermediate portion of the upper façade, recessed with respect to the base, extends for six storeys of the building, where the windows are set in three mullioned frames of dizzying vertical extension. A cornice with small arches concludes this intermediate section and pairs of lateral openings orchestrate the space, crowned at the top of the ninth storey with sculptures representing Inspiration in the arts.
Echoes of the architecture of the temple and the religious edifice return majestically in the three uppermost storeys with a double order of arches on spiral columns, capitals decorated with foliage, and keystones with small animal heads. A tympanum with a curious internal colonnade crowns the façade in a riot of minute decoration and majestic sculptural groups.
Inside, an extraordinary two-storey lobby is set in great wall arches that enclose small arches on brackets at the lower level and a large balcony-type gallery above. The gallery, with spaces designed for artists’ studios, is modelled on the matroneum overlooking the nave in a church. On the walls, sumptuously decorated with ceramic panels and small sculptural inserts, seventeen showcases made of glass and finely chased bronze like precious reliquaries display the tenants’ paintings, sculptures and artworks. A shallow pool adorned with bronze sculptures gleams in the centre of the atrium.
The Fine Arts Building still asserts itself in the 21st century as a total work of art where architecture, sculpture and painting coexist splendidly in one extraordinary edifice.