Thursday, August 8, 2019

Out and About - Taking a Tour of Historic Bullocks Willshire


In 1994, the Southwestern Law School purchased the landmark Bullocks Wilshire department store. Instead of tearing down the building or gutting its interior - which is far too often the case with developers in Los Angeles - Dean Leigh H. Taylor worked with preservationists to painstakingly restore the building and repurpose the space for the school. It took $29 million and ten years, but they achieved the dream and what a dream it is. One weekend each year, Southwestern opens its doors to the Friends of Bullocks Wilshire for tours. This year I was lucky enough to be invited by Bullocks historian Eric Evavold to take a journey back in time.

Designed in 1929 by architects John and Donald Parkinson - who were also responsible for other iconic LA architecture such as Union Station, the Coliseum, and City Hall - Bullocks Wilshire was known as the luxury department store for 60 years. Every star under the sun shopped there. Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Dolores del Rio, Irene Dunne, and many many more. Some of the reason was that Irene Lentz Gibbons, who would soon be better known to the world simply as Irene, had a couturier at Bullocks from 1933 to 1942 when she then took over as head of costume design at MGM. 

The store was designed for its visitors to spend the day there. Women could shop for their entire wardrobes - not hung on racks as they are today, but shown to them in luxurious surroundings on live models. They could also visit the Beauty Shop so they could be taken care of from head to toe. The men were taken care of as well with a full Men's Department and even a Saddle Shop in case they needed equipment for their stables. The clientele included actors like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. William Holden was another client both on and offscreen. The scene in Sunset Boulevard (1950) where Joe Gillis gets his new wardrobe from Norma Desmond, including a vicuna coat, was filmed in the Men's Shop at Bullocks. And if men were not in the mood to shop, Mr. Bullock had his own apartment in the building and shared a room with gentlemen who would rather sit and smoke cigars. They could drink, too - even during Prohibition, there were hidden compartments on either side of the fireplace that hid the liquor.

Each floor, each department, each space in Bullocks Wilshire has its own feel and its own set of near infinite details. The amount of work that went into the exterior and interior seems impossible to achieve today, even more so considering it only took workers one year from the moment of it being designed to opening day. It then took a decade to bring it back, which included restoring original pieces in some cases or finding ones that closely approximated the originals in others.

Dean Taylor and the other leaders of Southwestern Law School - past and present - deserve every award and accolade they receive for this achievement. In contrast to how badly most behave in Los Angeles today, they deserve sainthood for the dedication, strength, and perseverance it took to restore and repurpose this legendary building.

The building still needs our support to survive, so to learn more, donate, and become part of its history, please visit the Friends of Bullocks Wilshire. You can also find out how to join next year's tours. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy some of the photos from my recent visit.


(Above) The mighty Bullocks Wilshire today
courtesy of the Southwestern Law School


Dressed for the occasion in a 1950s white silk shirtdress,
1940s brown croc purse (shown later), and brown croc pumps


Construction on Bullocks Wilshire only lasted one year


Bullocks Wilshire was a giant in many ways,
including along Wilshire Boulevard in 1929


The beauty of the building today


The Entry Hall of Bullocks, which was once the Perfumery



The Perfumery back in the heyday of Bullocks




The Louis XVI Salon on the second floor is where
wealthy women chose their wardrobes from live models




La Directoire is off of the Louis XVI Salon
and originally where evening gowns were sold, then changed to furs




Jean Harlow modeled for George Hurrell's lens in several places at Bullocks,
including in front of the fireplace in La Directoire





Looking inside the changing room



The Chanel Salon, where the designer's clothes were sold,
was also where visiting royalty and dignitaries held court in private



Irene's Salon on the second floor


Irene Lentz Gibbons (above, right) was given her own couturier at Bullocks in 1933
where she designed for every star in Hollywood until she became
head of costume design for MGM in 1942 when Adrian retired


Marlene Dietrich in one of her Irene gowns 
for her USO tours during World War II






Standing in the entry of Irene's Salon where others like
Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, and Dolores del Rio once shopped



A label from a vintage woman's suit designed by Irene


Continuing through Irene's Salon



The Tea Room on the fifth floor


April and I enjoying the details, view, and lovely light filtering into the Tea Room



Mr. Bullock had an apartment at the department store that had space to entertain 
the husbands of the ladies who spent a day of beauty at Bullocks,
which included hidden liquor cabinets on either side of the fireplace during Prohibition



The restoration involved removing dirt - some from all the cigar smoke -
from the wood in the office ceiling to floor



Mr. Bullock's office also had an outdoor patio 
complete with working water fountain



April (also in vintage) and I enjoying the view of 
both the building and the city from the patio



The view from Mr. Bullock's office




The Cactus Lounge on the 5th floor, which leads to the Ladies Lounge


Look at all the detail that went into just one drinking fountain



April and I taking a moment to rest in the dimly lit Women's Lounge


The Men's Department back on the first floor




This is the exact location where William Holden gets a whole new wardrobe -
including a vicuna coat - from Gloria Swanson in 1950's Sunset Boulevard




Bullocks Wilshire even had a Saddle Shop








The front doors of Bullocks Wilshire
and Southwestern Law School


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