clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Secret Cowboy/Cleopatra/Tinfoil Origins of Century City

New, 13 comments

Fifty years ago yesterday, the ribbon was cut on the first tower in the brand new neighborhood of Century City, and today it still feels like it was beamed in from some retrofuture, rising up glittering out of nowhere between suburban Beverly Hills and typically low-rise West LA. Its history, as The Hollywood Reporter tells it today, is so very Los Angeles: there's a cowboy, a film studio, a modernist architect, a big-budget flop, and a very bad land deal.

In the 1920s, the Century City land belonged to cowboy actor Tom Mix; when he bought it, it "was little more than 176 acres of low rolling grasslands, with three ancient oil derricks dating before 1911, located between two country roads" (now Pico and Santa Monica), according to a history at the CC Chamber of Commerce (pdf, and a fun read). While he sounds like simple country folk, Mix apparently had an "extravagant lifestyle," and in 1925 he sold the land to his bosses at the Fox Studio Corporation to raise some cash ($1.5 million). By the 1950s, Fox had merged with 20th Century Pictures to become 20th Century Fox, and the CC land had become an enormous studio and backlot, and it was all in big trouble.

TV was on the rise, the studio system was dead, and Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Universal were all selling off land. Fox head Spyros Skouras wanted to sell some of his studio's land too, but he thought he'd sweeten the deal first by developing the backlot. He hired his nephew-in-law and former head of the Mayfair Market chain Edmond Herrscher (The title for his never-finished memoir was Intrepid Angler, which should tell you about what you need to know there.). Herrscher told Skouras he oughta think big and brought in prolific LA civic architect Welton Becket (he designed the Beverly Hilton, the Capitol Records building, Cinerama Dome, the Music Center, etc. etc. etc.). Becket put together a $35,000 model of his Century City, "producing a mix of office towers, hotel rooms, skyscraping apartments and elevated public plazas," according to THR, with a "Brasilia-by-way-of-Stuyvesant Town aesthetic." Highlights included an Arabian Nights-themed hotel with gondolas (??) and a wide street called Avenue of the Stars "studded with statues of such indigenous Fox lot mainstays as Will Rogers and Shirley Temple."

Meanwhile, Skouras was fixated on finding money to cover the ever-increasing budget on the Elizabeth Taylor film Cleopatra (another whole story). And so he decided to just sell the naked Century City land off to a developer instead (having been burned in the 1929 crash, he didn't want to borrow money), and eventually made a deal with Manhattan developer William Zeckendorf. Then the negotiations began. Naturally the local press was starting to get skeptical about the whole endeavor, so in May 1959 the studio put on a fake groundbreaking (a popular method to this day!)--they built a wooden shack on their Old West street, brought in a crowd, and had Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson drive a bulldozer through it ("almost hitting Mary Pickford in the process").

Finally, in the early '60s, Zeckendorf partnered with the aluminum peddlers at Alcoa and put together the cash to buy the land for $43 million. Gateway West, the neighborhood's very first building, opened on September 25, 1963. Becket's plan didn't quite work out--the Arabian Nights hotel became the probably-way-more-tasteful Century Plaza and Alcoa ditched the celebrity angle for a space theme (e.g. Constellation Boulevard). They also put aluminum panels on everything, which we guess is why it's so glittery.
· Why Century City Ranks Among the Worst Real Estate Deals in Hollywood History [THR]