The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was designated a City Landmark by the Landmarks Commission on November 12, 2001. The City Manager was directed by the Council to execute a presenting agreement with the Nederlander Organization to act as partner with the City once the Civic Auditorium improvements are completed on March 8 this year. The $46,800,000 renovation of the Civic was included in the FY2011-12 budget. This week, the City chose Morley Construction and Levin & Associates Architects to restore the Civic, which virtually insures a brilliant future for the shabby old landmark.
Brenda Levin specializes in historic building renovations, and nobody does it better. Among her triumphs are the restoration of the Wiltern theater, Griffith Observatory and Los Angeles City Hall.
According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, “Born in New Jersey, Levin lived on the East Coast until she was 30 and never expected to leave. After studying graphic design at Carnegie Mellon and earning her degree at New York University, she worked for a few years before returning to school to secure a graduate degree in architecture from Harvard.
“There she met her future husband, David Abel, who was determined to go west and convinced Levin there would be more opportunities there for women in male-dominated fields such as architecture. Her first job in California was working with prominent residential architect John Lautner on his design of a Palm Springs house for comedian Bob Hope….”
But her career took flight when she took a job with developer Wayne Ratkovich to renovate an old haberdashery and office building in downtown Los Angeles. Her stunning resurrection of the Oviatt Building, as the Times said, “brought acclaim to Ratkovich and Levin and helped launch a movement to bring the city’s best old buildings back to glory…
“ Levin calculates that she arrived on the scene at just the right time to ride atop a growing wave of interest in reviving the city’s historic structures. Levin continued to work with Ratkovich and another urban revival pioneer, Ira Yellin, as they restored such local treasures as the Bradbury Building, Grand Central Square, the Fine Arts Building and the Wiltern.
“’It was a moment in time that did afford me this extraordinary opportunity,’ Levin said.
“The concept of saving and upgrading old buildings was so new in Los Angeles that Levin and her developers set a precedent for urban redevelopment that became codified in the city’s adaptive-reuse ordinance of 1999 and the California Historical Building Code. She also credits Los Angeles developer Tom Gilmore with helping cultivate the city’s interest in its old structures.
“Restoring and sometimes expanding buildings now considered old but great has given Levin the chance to see how other generations of architects thought.
“’When you are working on a project you are, in a sense, living within someone else’s skin,’ she said. ‘You get an extraordinary appreciation for detail and how buildings go together.’
“Levin said she endeavors to bring that attention to detail to her own designs. Among them are the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery at the Huntington Library in San Marino, the Johnson Student Center at Occidental College and the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, both in Los Angeles.
“… the historic Los Angeles building Levin most wants to work on is the Spanish-Mediterranean-style former Herald-Examiner newspaper headquarters downtown that was completed in 1914. She had agreed to design renovation plans earlier this decade, but the makeover was thwarted by a lawsuit and then the recession.
“Levin is eager to closely examine the methods of architect Julia Morgan, who designed the building and Hearst Castle for publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.
“Morgan, who designed hundreds of structures, including many institutions for women, has long been an inspiration to Levin.
“’I channel Julia Morgan, I really do,’ Levin said. ‘She was an amazing woman, well before her time.’”
Morgan,, of course, also designed the Marion Davies estate on the Santa Monica beach in the late 1920s. She sold it in the 1940s, the And it was demolished in the 1950s. Today, remnants of it have been incorporated in the Annenberg Community Beach House.
I met Levin when she was working with Ratkovich on the remaking of the Wiltern theater years ago, and was dazzled by the work she had done and was doing. Her ability to resurrect old buildings that have been neglected or maltreated or simply worn out, uncover their original beauty and grace and literally give them new lives while maintaining their original architectural integrity is extraordinary, and unique.
Based on Levin’s previous accomplishments, we can look forward to a brilliant and faithful rendition of the Civic and a future as storied as its past.