Local Notes No. 4 – Civic Architecture on Sunset Blvd

I have been stymied for some months now in my attempts to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. The massive structure, inspired by pre-Columbian art and architecture, sits atop a hill named Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz.

Photos: Joshua White / JWPictures.com
Detail of the Hollyhock House with view to the west (I think).

It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 and is an irreplaceable entry in Wright’s Los Angeles oeuvre, whose other entries comprise probably the most interesting architectural body of work in the area. (The City has closed Barnsdall Park for COVID-19 reasons, but transmission of the virus is much reduced in our little slice of heaven, and at any rate it is an outdoor park, so I remain miffed.)

Luckily, LA contains multitudes, and so by piloting yourself just a smidge further west, you can come across the two buildings I’d like to write about today: the headquarters of the International Cinematographers Guild and the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

Sorry for the picture quality! Those weird columns in the foreground are palm trees.

The two buildings straddle Genesee Ave and are just about equal in size, filling up the corner quarter-acre on each block. They also do what they say on the tin, housing the offices of the union locals which represent the crews that make Tinseltown run. In today’s age of atomized labor, the idea of a powerful, rich union making studio heads quake in their boots from showy modernist offices may read like science fiction. But the history of organized labor in film is long and rich – recall that Ronald Reagan, who ushered unions out of the modern workplace when he broke the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike in 1981, first made a political name for himself as President of the Screen Actors’ Guild. As the boss of SAG, Reagan led his actors on the first strike in film history and got the studios to cave to paying residuals.

reagan moneypenny ap images 615.jpg
The Gipper in 1947 presenting a SAG card to Lois Maxwell, who would later star as Moneypenny in several James Bond films.

David Fincher’s wonderful Mank sets itself right at the intersection of Hollywood and the drive for labor organization in the 1930s, though some of that action is backgrounded in favor of the drama of Upton Sinclair’s abortive gubernatorial run. These days, tens of thousands of industry workers carry a union card, and their actions continue to shape film and TV history – as an example, Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad was set to be killed off by the end of the show’s first season, but the notorious 2007-08 strike gave Vince Gilligan time to reconsider and rewrite the character for the long haul.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/3CXmuv2l_NM?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

The Int’l Cinematographers Guild (ICG) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG) are both locals under the umbrella of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, show business’ most storied union, with origins dating back to Vaudeville theater. The ICG, housed in the westernmost of our two buildings, is Local 600 of the IATSE and represents anyone who touches a camera, including big-name DPs and cinematographers like Roger Deakins. The MPEG, meanwhile, is known as Local 700 of the same mother union, and represents both film and sound editors, as well as other editorial staff.

The battle to build these organizations was mighty, but well-rewarded in the years following the Great Depression. Membership rose as the guilds secured better wages from the studios, who were themselves navigating the new landscape being forged by the emergence of television. By the late 1950s, the ICG and MPEG were on sound enough footing to construct a new set of offices down the block from their first headquarters.

This plaza at Sunset and Las Palmas, funnily enough named the Crossroads of the World, was home to the MPEG starting in 1937.

Internet records of the construction of these buildings are sadly scarce – if I were a more dedicated reporter, I would’ve gone into the Records desk at the city Dept of Building and Safety – but my sleuthing indicates that they were likely constructed as a pair beginning in 1959, under the design of the architectural partnership of Douglas Honnold and John Rex.

Motion picture cameramen & film editors unions building, 7715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 1959 : News Photo
Still of an architectural drawing of what was to become the MPEG headquarters.

Writing on the work of Douglas Honnold often mentions that he passed up on an opportunity to design the McDonald’s Golden Arches, which I find a bit unfair. Buildings he did actually design included the William Morris Agency building, several of a coffee chain known as Coffee Dan’s, and the Valley Plaza Tower in North Hollywood, one of the first true skyscrapers in Los Angeles (a 150-foot city height limit was scrapped in 1957, and Honnold & Rex struck quick).

The Valley Plaza Tower sits just of the 110 in North Hollywood, and dominated the skyline of the San Fernando Valley for years.

Honnold was a skilled residential architect, too. He built an estate for Samuel Goldwyn, now owned by Taylor Swift, and participated in a contest run by the magazine Architectural Products to produce a set of “Research Houses”. This contest was in naked imitation of the famous “Case Study” effort launched by Arts & Architecture, many of whose designs became classics of the mid-century modern style. The Research Houses never ended up with such fame, but Honnold’s entry has endured – Meryl Streep ended up owning the place before passing it on to Alex Rodriguez, who in 2019 sold it for a cool $4.4 million.

An ad for a later Research House – Honnold built his in 1954.

Honnold & Rex together were part of an enduring clique of forward-thinking, hard-working architects who had their finger on the pulse of jetset-era Los Angeles, a city hurtled into the future we live in today via an influx of modernist thinkers and builders, eager for a postwar landscape they could leave their mark on. I admire their designs for the ICG and MPEG headquarters so much because they manage simultaneously to be pristine examples of the mid-century corporate style as well as to express their intended function with absolute clarity.

In the facade of the MPEG building, the interplay of the exposed steel beams and the glass-paned wall behind it creates a resemblance to a film reel, frames of office life perceivable through the shutters – an invocation of the very stuff the building’s inhabitants spent their careers tenderly cutting and pasting together, or else leaving on the cutting-room floor.

7715 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046 - Property Record | LoopNet.com
Another view, this time from the southwest.

Meanwhile, in the ICG building’s case, Honnold & Rex deftly carved mass atop mass to create apertures out of their walls, sculpted quadrangles conjuring an association to the camera’s own eye. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window had come out just five years prior, and its conceit resonates here – both the camera technicians indoors and we as passers-by outdoors cannot venture outside of the frame given us by the architects to view the world. To paraphrase Scorsese, the design of the ICG building is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.

A view of the building from the southwest. Credit Elliott Cowand 2017.

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