Warner Theater / Blink Fitness
Huntington Park, California


The Warner Theater in Huntington Park was one of 3 art deco theaters, often referred to as sisters, built by the Warner Brothers studios in the 1930s. While the Warner Theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills was the showcase in the center of the movie industry, theaters in San Pedro and Huntington Park brought the glamour of Hollywood to the newly expanding suburbs. The Warner Beverly Hills was demolished in 1990 to make way for a shopping development. The Warner Grand in San Pedro is owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department with most of its ornamental features painted over or removed. The Huntington Park Warner is the last of the 3 remaining in private ownership. Through luck or neglect its primary ornamental features remained intact awaiting repair, restoration and eventual reuse. Pacific Boulevard is the main commercial identity of the City of Huntington Park. It was developed in the early 1900s and named after Henry Huntington to entice him to run his railway tracks to the South Bay and granted him a right-of-way to accomplish that goal. The tracks ran down the center of Pacific Boulevard reinforcing its regional and commercial importance. The Warner, designed by Max Priteca, was the centerpiece of this commercial strip running from Randolph Street south to Florence Boulevard. While it was sold off by Warner’s in 1968 it remained in operation as an entertainment venue. In the early 1980s, Robertson Properties, the real estate division of Pacific Theaters, subdivided the theater, walling off the balcony and the upper portion of the main auditorium to become a duplex. With the Warner 2 it remained in operation until the 1990s showing Spanish and Spanish subtitled movies to the growing Latino population of the city. From its closure in the mid 1990s until 2014 the building stood abandoned and neglected subject to vandalism and weather damage. In 2007, after numerous attempts by Robertson Properties to obtain approval for its reuse as a swap meet, the City of Huntington Park, after forming a Historic Preservation Commission, declared the Warner Theater its first Historic Landmark therefore protecting it from inappropriate alterations and reuse. After subsequent efforts to market the property for entertainment uses, Robertson Properties sold the structure in 2014 to its current owner. The Warner Theatre followed the 19th century practice in theatre design by providing retail storefronts along Pacific Boulevard. It encompasses the distinctive characteristics of the neighborhood movie theater, a genre which flourished in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was originally constructed as a single 1,500-seat motion picture theatre, constructed for the presentation of motion pictures, sporting events and theatrical performances. Built in 1930, the theater retains its exterior and interior form and features essentially intact from its original construction. The Warner Theatre was designed by the renowned Architect, Marcus B. Priteca. Priteca established a worldwide trend of utilizing the Moderne and Art Deco style in theatre architecture. The exterior of the Warner Theatre is designed in the Art Deco style with its stepped massing, organic relief work, strong vertical orientation, and detailed interior work. The primary facade along Pacific Boulevard is symmetrically organized into three parts; a dominant vertical tower rising approximately four stories and two single-story retail wings on either side. A vertical “Warner’s” blade sign accentuates the center tower and a marquee sign outlined in detailed neon chevron patterns extends over the theatre entrance. Substantial interior modifications were made to the interior including the separation of the balcony theater for a multiplex, concession stands in both the theater lobby and mezzanine, subdivision of the viewing screen. The subdivision also required substantial structural supports coming through the remaining auditorium as well as damage to the original wall ornamentation for structural connections. However, irrespective of the damage from conversion and neglect, major features including the ornamental deco ceiling, proscenium, lobby tiles, ornamental painted ceilings remained. Like the sister theaters, the interiors were designed by Heinsbergen studios. Unlike the Warner Grand, neglect had left the tile, ornate ceilings and walls, while water damaged, substantially intact.

 

PROJECT WORK Phase One: Shell and core.

The first phase of the work was to adapt the main floor while preserving decorative wall, proscenium and ceiling detail. The floor was leveled, and large wells created around the the four large character defining features of vertical Deco elements along the wall. The previous renovation had added a structure of beams to divide the theater horizontal which was removed along with the lower portion of the mezzanine which then provided clearance above the new floor. Custom cast cement decorative panels were recreated along this new balcony edge with the historic decorative railings of the balcony remining intact. To restore the badly water and graffiti damaged decoration a small team of decorative painting craftsman slowly cleaned and infill by matching painted damaged areas in the mezzanine ceiling, the entry lobby ceiling and along the main space walls. To restore the historic proscenium the black acoustic spray was carefully removed revealing all the decorative plaster work that had been lost by the previous renovation. Custom decorative tile was recreated to infill missing portions along the lobby and at new elevator lobby areas. Throughout the building including the marquee and main space missing and damaged cast plaster was repaired or duplicated. The scope also included carefully installing new lighting, HVAC, sprinkler and life safety systems through the multi-level space to maintain the historic detail. All new services including a new electrical vault were incorporated into the back areas. Phase Two: Tenant work The front lobby was altered by creating a series of arched wall openings to connect the outside to the inside main space better. This beautifully decorated stepped ceiling design of this space has been restored to provides an entry to the multiple floors with the addition of an elevator to the mezzanine and historic stairs up to the balcony exercise areas. The mezzanine has been repurposed as the main weight training area under the restored decorative Deco murals on the ceiling and natural light from the windows Two new platforms at the balcony level provide a dynamic use of this upper level with exercise machines that overlook the activity below in a fashion like the theater screen that has been replaced. The screen and stage area have been adapted to contain the small group training, access to the basement lockers and additional ADA accessible lockers and showers on the main floor. The decorative ceiling is maintained by adding multiple suspended cables from the side walls to support the required mechanical, life safety devices and lighting for this highly active space while up lighting this space to showcase the ceiling. Phase Three: Exterior The 25 years of unused neglect on the exterior facade also required extensive work to remove the years of haphazard storefront and signage alteration on the historic concrete facade and neon marquee and blade sign. New storefront based on the intent of the original with decorative tile bulkheads as well as repainting the facade from researched original colors to capture the historic appearance. The badly damaged neon was replaced in kind to match the interim Warner design of the 90's. The marquee and blade were repainted historic colors and sign panels replaced with tenant signage to recreate the historic look. The damaged patterns of colored terrazzo at the main entrance was replaced in kind by infilling and matching the various colors and design of the original.

 

CONDITIONS AND CHALLENGES

After nearly 25 years of neglect and the intensive remodel of the previous theater to split this into two screens, the building had intact decorative interiors that were badly damaged by water and graffiti from trespassers through the project. The process of approval from the City of Huntington Park for changes to this beloved but abandoned theatre was controversial when first presented due to the removal of seating, leveling of floors and partial removal of the front balcony. Because of this a careful presentation of what would get saved and what conditions of salvage and restoration to exterior and interior elements was required, the City finally allowed the first shell phase to proceed. Additional conditions were placed on the project during the required Conditional Use permit process. Once the owner identified a proposed tenant, the program changes from a theater use to the proposed multiple uses and types of exercise, locker, shower, support and restrooms had to be tailored to fit into the multi levels of the space while meeting current codes regarding exiting and mobility access without changing the visual impact of the original space. This was accomplished by reallocating the least accommodating program uses like lockers and elevators which were moved to lower and perimeter space. Besides leveling the floor and creating a more open and accessible spaces all construction changes were kept to a minimum beyond the initial changes to preserve the wealth or original decoration covering most of the ceiling and along the main space walls and balcony edges. All new work was limited more to new floor finishes and the tenant strong color palette was incorporated by establishing that decorative colors, tile and ironwork is preserved in the historic spaces of the lobby, mezzanine and main theater especially ceilings to establish the character defining spaces. Tenant corporate colors were integrated as a secondary accent effect on limited walls and through the archways of the main space. The preserved detail of the decorative ironwork and tile as well as cast plaster was retained throughout to further reinforce the historic nature while contrasting this with the new.

 

PUBLIC BENEFIT

The Public Benefit to the restoration of the Warner Huntington Park is multifaceted. Initially it restores the primary historic building along Pacific Avenue. The relighting of the blade sign and marquee reanimate a street that was in decline and creates a source of pride for the city. As the Latin markets on Broadway in Los Angeles depart for preservation in one city, the Warner enhances the commercial center of a city with a substantial Latin population allowing it to maintain its economic vitality in lieu of losing merchants to nearby malls and shopping centers. The Warner Theater also demonstrates the value of historic preservation to a city which in part remains skeptical of its importance. While the Preservation Commission was created in response to a failing grade on an LA Conservancy report card, there remained skepticism among many civic leaders of its worth. As City Council members changed over the years their dedication to preservation and the commission waned. The restored Warner creates a center of Civic Pride and a restored identity to Pacific Avenue and Huntington Park. The public also benefits in that the theater was reopened to the public for the first time in over 25 years. Memories that people had of first dates in the balconies were renewed, the ornate ceiling and tilework were returned to the older residents of the city and become an indication to the multitude of new residents and immigrants of the what the city once was and can once again become. And finally, through its long-term lease, the current fitness tenant, blink, insures that their flagship facility on the west coast will provide a healthier lifestyle for the residents for years to come. .