From Haberdashery to a Modern Art Deco Nightclub: A Brief History of the James Oviatt Building in Downtown Los Angeles
An Iconic Structure
When it first opened in 1928, the Oviatt Building of Downtown Los Angeles was the tallest structure in town. Today, it sits in a densely built-out city block just south of Pershing Square -- dwarfed by newer structures, and blending in, to a degree, with older adjacent buildings. But for what it lacks in modern-day size, it makes up for in Art Deco era splendor.
Street-level pedestrians may stop and stare or selfie at the ornate silver and white Lalique glass windows that beckon in dancers and diners to the Cicada Club for romantic pre-pandemic evenings.
Crane your neck and you’ll see the tower’s fanciest external features way at the top; an out of commission three-faced clock with neon-ringed numbers flanked by Italian-Romanesque cornices and other stone details. The lower floors are partially obscured by large trees sprouting from the sidewalk.
For years the building's story been the focus of history buffs, architectural digests, journalists and Hollywood production designers alike.
In 1983, the building secured a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been a stop on the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Art Deco walking tour since 1992. It’s appeared on the big screen (such as the notable restaurant scene in 1990’s Pretty Woman), and on the small screen (as the exterior location depicting the fictional Hotel Cortez in the fifth season of "American Horror Story").
In 2008, Marc Chevalier, an unofficial curator of all things Oviatt and early 20th Century menswear finery, produced a documentary on the building’s history.
Like all great Los Angeles stories, the Oviatt is a tale of determination, wealth, excess, decline, and rebirth. And like many great Los Angeles capitalists from Mulholland to Griffith, the man responsible for the structure wasn't immune to scandal--but more on that later.
Haberdasher to the Stars
James Oviatt was born to a blacksmith in Utah in 1888. He made his way to Los Angeles from Salt Lake City in the mid to late 1910s (dates vary slightly depending on the source). He took a job as a window dresser at Desmond’s Department Store and worked there until 1911. He partnered with a man named Frank Alexander, and the two opened a 12x50 foot haberdashery at 209 W Fourth St. in 1912 (Alexander and Oviatt). Seven years later, they moved to a 6,000 sq. ft. space at 609 Hill St.
The Alexander & Oviatt label was associated with quality formal wear, and both Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. were reported to be early clients. On April 27, 1927 the Los Angeles Times article published an 'Index Profession,' which listed what Oviatt believed men should wear according their career path. For instance, a city councilman could be identified by his frock coat, striped trousers, and white deerskin gloves. A doctor meanwhile would wear a black cutaway coat, conservative white and black striped tie, gray spats, boutonnière, gray gloves and Malacca walking stick with rhinoceros handle.
Oviatt’s annual buying trips to Europe, where he purchased wool and silk for his garments, were considered newsworthy events. Years after Alexander’s death in 1921, company tailors were called on to make the costumes worn by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Before the Freeways Were Built
On March 12, 1927, the Times reported on Oviatt’s plan to start construction of an office building at 617 S. Olive St. The clothing store was slated to lease the lower three floors of the building, and the rest – with the exception of a 10-room penthouse at the very top – would be rented by businesses. Building costs were estimated at $1,050,000.
The finished product remains a lasting testament to the influence of European artisans Oviatt encountered during his annual buying excursions.
The glass doors of the front lobby (as well as the elevator frames) were covered in a radiant new alloy composed of copper, zinc and nickel, known as maillechort. The etched glass of the lobby, to this day emblazoned with the Alexander and Oviatt crest and the word ‘Service’, was designed by noted French jeweler René Lalique.
The ceiling of the lobby was covered in tons of sand etched glass and metal assembled like a giant crystal jig saw puzzle (this structure was long thought to be the work of Lalique, but has since been attributed to another French artisan, Gaetin Jeanin).
The oak panels of the elevators are embellished with bas relief images of angels holding mission bells.
Oviatt’s penthouse residence was outfitted with Lalique windows and light fixtures, parquet floors infused with intersecting arcing patterns, a sunken bath tub, rooftop garden, library and a bar.
On opening day May 15, 1928, Oviatt told the Times, "Art is not a thing, but a way—a beautiful way."
Fortunately, Oviatt's keen aesthetic sense wasn't stifled by his business acumen. On the contrary, the former might have flowed from the latter. In the 2008 Oviatt Building documentary, historian Marc Chevalier likened the Oviatt's architecture to that of the grand movie palaces popping up a few blocks away on Broadway. He noted that people were drawn to these cinematic temples for more than just the movies shown within.
"Oviatt was...a showman. He wanted a grand stage for his merchandise. And he valued the publicity that a show stopping location would generate," Chevalier said in the film.
Though he had an intense eye for beauty, it’s hard to imagine that Oviatt willed his way into a rooftop skyscraper of his own design with a delicate touch.
The Self-Made Man
Oviatt had a life-long admiration for Abraham Lincoln because, as he told the Times in 1929, “Lincoln solved his problems alone.”
On more than one occasion, he blasted organized labor in London to the Times upon returning from his annual European buying trips. But such comments were quaint when compared to the the attention Oviatt brought on himself in the mid-1960s.
By this time, all of downtown Los Angeles was in decline due to a confluence of forces including new freeway systems and suburbanization. In April 1965, the California Attorney General released a report on a coalition of right-wing extremist groups known as the California Rangers. One of the sub groups, the Christian Defense League (CDL), an anti-jewish and black hate group, had taken up residence in the Oviatt Building. Though he denied it, Oviatt was said to have been a financial backer of the CDL.
From an Empty Shell, Rebirth
While such associations might or might not get a person summarily cancelled today, the simple fact was in the late 1960s, people weren't buying wool overcoats and bespoke suits like they once used to. Oviatt closed his Downtown store in 1969.
While barren showcases cases collected dust in the empty space, Oviatt and his wife (whom he met downstairs when she worked at Oviatt's) continued living in the penthouse apartment of the building. With their income drying up, they started selling off store fixtures and furniture to various buyers. This included the Lalique chandeliers and the intricate glass ceiling above the lobby.
James Oviatt died in 1974 followed by his wife a year later.
The Oviatt building could have been pulverized in order to make space for a sterile financial center. Luckily, it was purchased by the Ratkovich company, which sought to renovate the space in 1977.
In the 1980s, the former clothing store reopened as Rex Il Ristorante, a fine Italian eatery, which operated in the same location until the death of owner Mauro Vincenti in 1996.
After this, the space was reborn as the World Famous Cicada Restaurant and Club, which continues to operate in the building today. When not temporarily closed due to COVID-19, the restaurant serves up items including ‘Mr. Tin Pan Alley“ Chicken Breast and “Ciro’s” Almond Crusted Atlantic Salmon". There’s also a dance floor and bar, where revelers can enjoy big band orchestra sounds amidst Art Deco elegance.
Impresario Maxwell DeMille established the night club at Cicada in 2007. Back then the club was a once a month affair, but due to its popularity, increased to every week night. In an email to Sputnik's Vintage, DeMille described the first time he saw the space, which still has many of its original architectural flourishes.
"The moment I walked inside I realized it was the perfect venue to transform into a 1940's style nightclub," he said.
And that he did. Cicada Club is renowned amongst vintage lifestyle and history buffs as a fantastic gathering place for an evening of authentic old fashioned glamour and opulence. An evening at Cicada would be incomplete without live musical performances by talented torch-bearers like Louis Prima Jr. (son of Louis Prima) and Phil Crosby Jr. (grandson of Bing Crosby). The club also showcases modern-day musicians keeping alive and putting their own touch on vintage tunes like Lizzy and the Triggermen and Phat Cat Swinger.
DeMille added that the plan for the nightclub is to reopen when safe. Fans can still expect dance bands with a few updates to the lighting, theming and cast members.
In safer times, both the Cicada and former Oviatt penthouse residence are available to rent for group events.
It's a full circle story: this beautiful space where fine clothes were sold during Hollywood's golden age, survived the era of the wrecking ball to live on as a place where folks gather, twirl and make merry while keeping vintage fashions alive.
Haberdasher to the Future
When it comes beautiful architecture in public spaces, the fear is real that when our current crop of billionaires passes from the planet, all we simpletons will be left with are concrete fulfillment centers and high-density apartments.
While the politics of James Oviatt might have represented so much of what was wrong with many wealthy business owners of his day, he flourished in a time when architecture as art wasn’t hidden exclusively behind tall hedges and guard shacks.
In the Oviatt Building today, Los Angeles has a living relic accessible by all, that tells the story of an era when tall structures challenged people to look up, and think about the possibilities.