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Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain 

The legacy of the Los Altos

Thursday, Apr 28 2005
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I grew up in Orange County, which, in my opinion, is like coming from Mars. So the minute I graduated from brand-X Orange County college, I moved to Los Angeles. My first stop was a storefront loft at the corner of Pico and Redondo — a neighborhood I found terrifying. A few months later, to my enormous relief, a friend offered to share an apartment with me in the most fabulous building in town, the Los Altos Apartments. Located next door to Perino’s restaurant, which was designed by legendary architect Paul Williams, the Los Altos struck me as glamorous beyond words — five floors of slightly decayed and crumbling Spanish grandeur that reeked of Nathanael West. A pink adobe building with blue trim and a blue neon sign on the roof, the Los Altos had a tennis court behind the building and an open field of flowering birds of paradise across the street, signaling I’d officially arrived in my own mythic version of Los Angeles.

Built in 1925, as a co-op whose tenants shared the cost of the building’s mortgage, the Los Altos went bankrupt as a co-op during the Depession. But the building didn’t lose its sparkle. William Randolph Hearst, Clara Bow, Bette Davis and Mae West lived there at various points during the ’30s and ’40s, and the building once housed its very own beauty parlor and hosted balls in the vast lobby.

The Los Altos was situated on the fringes of Hancock Park, a bastion of old L.A. money. But money has a funny way of moving around, and it was in the process of leaving the area when I arrived in the late ’70s. Perino’s, long considered one of L.A.’s premier restaurants, had fallen on hard times; crime had become an increasingly pressing problem in the neighborhood; and the furniture in the Los Altos lobby had grown threadbare and shabby. One heard talk of something called “the Wilshire Corridor,” a term referring not just to the stretch of Wishire from downtown to Westwood but also to the phenomenon of poor people from the eastern stretch of Wilshire Boulevard traveling west — directly toward the Los Altos! — to vandalize cars and rob people. It was a surprisingly dodgy area, considering that Times Mirror matriarch Buffy Chandler and then-Mayor Tom Bradley lived just one block away. L.A. circa 1978 was definitely going through a period of transition, and one of the most visible manifestations of change was its newly born punk rock community. Three blocks from Buffy Chandler’s place was a rundown Victorian house at the corner of 6th and Van Ness where John Doe, Billy Zoom and Exene were living.

Things weren’t what they used to be, but the Los Altos still had personality to burn. It was managed by a series of lovably eccentric women, and it was imperative to remain on their good side if you wanted to live there in peace. It was a remarkably calm place to live, too, with a wildly bohemian list of residents. Everyone on every floor seemed to do something creative. There was Jeff Ayeroff, who went on to co-found Virgin Records America, and his lovely wife, Marty; Bonnie Raitt’s manager (and then-boyfriend) Gary George was there working with Al Bunetta’s management company, which had an office just off the lobby. Don Owens launched and operated the groundbreaking, albeit short-lived, photography publication Picture Magazine there. The Los Altos seemed to have a special allure for graphic designers, and there were many, including John Cabalka, Mike Salisbury, Lloyd Ziff and Eric Monson, the in-house designer for pioneering skateboarder Tony Alva’s company, Alva Skateboard Company.

Screenwriter Becky Johnston lived at the Los Altos while she wrote the scripts Under the Cherry Moon for Prince and The Prince of Tides for Barbra Streisand. Johnston is featured in Wim Wenders’ collaborative documentary with Nicholas Ray, Lightning Over Water, and Becky’s then-boyfriend, underground filmmaker Eric Mitchell, could occasionally be seen on the premises. Former actress Hilary Bean was a resident when she launched her second career as a designer of spectacularly beautiful jewelry, and artists Nancy Reese, Phil Garner, Eric Blum and Tom Shannon all rented living quarters that doubled as studios. You could smell the linseed oil wafting out of Reese’s basement studio whenever you were downstairs using the laundry. It was during her years at the Los Altos that Reese collaborated with Ed Ruscha on a series of stunning paintings that included one of his signature works, Brave Men Run in My Family; Reese made the gorgeous painting of a clipper ship that serves as the backdrop for Ruscha’s text. Photographer Raul Vega occupied a place on the third floor with his mysterious girlfriend, Jill, and art dealer Richard Kuhlenschmidt opened his first gallery in the basement of the building. New York hotshots Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine had their first L.A. exhibitions there. Actor Frederic Forrest was living at the Los Altos when he turned in his critically acclaimed performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 film Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and Forrest was still there the following year when he starred in the greatly loved television miniseries Lonesome Dove. Journalist Robert Lloyd and his tall, blond girlfriend, Margy, were residents, as was musician Tommy Gear, who was a founding member of revered L.A. punk group the Screamers. Painting conservator Denise Domergue and artists’ rep Deanne Delbridge had apartments there, as did art dealer Morgan Thomas. I felt like I was living in the Dakota.

As a rule, creative people just want to be left alone, and most of the residents maintained a respectful distance from one another. So the Los Altos wasn’t a real chummy place. The building had a wonderfully benign climate of tolerance, however, and it was safe to be a weirdo there. Take Mr. Greene, for instance. An aging screenwriter with a comb-over, Mr. Greene (his big hit was the Doris Day vehicle Pillow Talk) had an excess of nervous energy that prompted him to pace in circles around the building lobby for hours on end. He always wore a beige bush jacket for his pacing sessions, and he seemed desperately unhappy. Then there were the two Slavic women who looked as if they’d time-traveled to 1980s L.A. from a small farm in Poland in 1906. Tiny creatures in drab, shapeless frocks with fearful eyes and babushkas tied securely on their heads, they never uttered a word to anyone but each other, and they fell silent the minute they entered the building elevator.

Over the course of 13 years, I occupied four different units in the building, and I noticed that with each successive move the place grew increasingly decrepit. Various renovations were begun in the mid ’80s but left unfinished, and by 1988 entire floors had become uninhabitable. The place started to feel like Dresden, and you got the sense that if you went down the wrong stairway you ran the risk of seriously injuring yourself. The tennis court was closed, and the exterior of the building seemed to lose all definition — it looked like an elaborate wedding cake that had been left out in the rain. By the time I moved to Venice, in 1991, the Los Altos had become almost entirely abandoned. Rumor had it that Frederic Forrest was one of the last holdouts, and by 1993 the only person living there was longtime caretaker John Tierney, a sweet, overweight, endlessly helpful man who lived alone in a shockingly tiny nook off the lobby.

In 1993, developer Alan Gross bought the building and took on the job of restoring it to its original glory. Bless him for that. The Los Altos currently looks great and is on the National Register of Historic Places. But artists and oddballs find sanctuary where they can, and while the Los Altos provided it for years, I doubt that I, or many of my fellow residents during the ’80s, could afford to live there now.

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