That building, at Wilshire and Catalina, was home from 1929 until the 1950s to a glamorous showroom owned by furrier Willard H. George, known as “the Chinchilla Industry’s Greatest Friend,” according to the Los Angeles Conservancy.
Now—after sitting dormant and nearly meeting the wrecking ball—the beautiful old building is about to emerge from a careful restoration.
The work is helmed Los Angeles-based architect Jingbo Lou, who intends to reopen the former showroom as a restaurant, possibly a swanky steakhouse, that, in a nod to its past, will incorporate some type of fashion element. He’ll put a bar on the second floor, and he’s almost done carving out sleek, airy apartments on the third, where the furrier used to sew garments.
“Fur is no longer a commodity in Southern California, but the history, the story is there,” Lou, whose meticulous work restoring Koreatown’s Hotel Normandie won a preservation award from the conservancy in 2016, tells Curbed.
Lou agreed to take on partial ownership of the Willard H. George building in exchange for its owners investing in Hotel Normandie. They were “just struggling with what to do with it,” he says.
In the past decade, plans for the Willard H. George building, which, after the furrier closed, was the longtime home of piano retailer Sherman Clay and Co., included demolishing the building to make way for a mixed-use tower. The city’s now defunct community redevelopment agency had also eyed it for affordable housing. Neither of those panned out, and the building has been vacant since at least 2010.
Lou says when the owners approached him about taking on shares, he looked up old photos of the building and saw its potential. The original 1920s facade was covered up by a false wall, but “I could recognize most of the openings—the doors and windows—were in the right place. I had a pretty good idea what was behind it,” he says.
When his team took that wall down, “we were shocked,” he says. They found the original handsome exterior still intact: a concrete facade punctuated by bright orange tiles and geometric and classical reliefs. Many of the tiles were missing, and he since replaced them with replicas.
He also replicated a large ornamental pyramid that originally sat above the front entry.
Inside, the building’s centerpiece is a wide sweeping staircase, once used as a runway for models draped in expensive furs. The Willard H. George showroom was devoid of racks, so customers would select from what the models wore.
The elegant showroom was once described in an ad as the “most modern and beautiful in the country.” “The interior space, the showroom, is so gorgeous,” Lou says.
False walls had also been tacked onto the interior, and Lou’s team had to tear those and a drop-ceiling out to expose the original surfaces and moldings.
Lou expects work on the interior will be done in the next few months, but the restaurant could be a ways out, as he’ll need proper permits and an operator. In the meantime, next time you’re in Koreatown, make a point of checking out the Art Deco facade—unlike furs in LA, the architecture is timeless.