(This is a modified version of a section of my (Lara’s) and Cori Linder’s book, FROM THE CORNER OF HOLLYWOOD AND DIVINE: YOUR GUIDE TO 30 OLD HOLLYWOOD-INSPIRED SPOTS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. Buy the book here!)
With its black and gold exterior, The Deco Building stands out on a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that boasts many impressive structures, such as Desmond’s (a former department store), Southwestern School of Law (the former Bullocks Wilshire department store), the Los Altos Apartments, and the Wiltern Theatre. Sweeping through the doors of this historic structure is quite an experience, and I encourage you to pause at the front of the building and take in the fabulous Deco details (which I’ll get into below) that were used to convey a sense of strength, prosperity, and security when the it first opened as a bank and remain today.
The story of Wilshire Boulevard began in the late 1800s, when Gaylord Wilshire cut a narrow lane 120 feet wide from Downtown Los Angeles to the Westside. In the 1920s, real estate developer A.W. Ross bought up acres of land on Wilshire between La Brea and Fairfax Avenue, with the idea of attracting shoppers away from Downtown Los Angeles by making Wilshire car-friendly He had such a great vision for the area that a friend said something like, “From the way you talk, you would think this is really a miracle mile.” And hence, this certain stretch of Wilshire got its nickname.
In 1929, nearing the end of the Art Deco ZigZag Moderne years, Security First National Bank (as the Deco Building was originally known) opened at 5209 Wilshire Boulevard with a black and gold terra cotta finish and all kinds of lavish details on display. The bank was built for $45,000, and designed by architects Morgan, Walls, and Clements, a firm responsible for local Deco landmarks like the El Capitan Theatre, the Wiltern Theatre, and the now-demolished Richfield Tower in Downtown Los Angeles, which also had a black and gold façade.
The building underwent a renovation in the early 2000s, and they did a great job preserving the details of a place that most people take one look at and exclaim, “What IS it?” The Deco Building has the kind of WOW factor that can make people fall in love with Art Deco with one look. I went into the building a few years ago and saw it as an office modeled on the boutique hotel concept: There was a concierge just inside the front door, and then small enclosed offices all around the ground floor. There were conference rooms, and even offices inside the former bank vaults! When I drove by recently, I saw a sign advertising the building for filming and hosting special events.
Other things to notice at The Deco Building are the symmetry of the pillars on each end outside, and the setbacks, a major ZigZag Moderne feature that began with skyscrapers in New York City; buildings were required to “fall back” on themselves (think of the layers of a wedding cake that get progressively smaller toward the top) so that sunshine would reach all the way down to the street level. It started off with a functional purpose, but quickly became decorative, too.
Inside, there are leaping gazelles, which tended to represent the leap away from the Art Nouveau style to the new modern style, cast aluminum grillwork, and repeating patterns of flora and fauna. There are also images that give the effect of cascading water, which symbolized energy and new beginnings and life, along with chevrons and zigzags—the classic signature of Art Deco. All of these were unconscious cues to represent growth and safety, two things that are very important to any institution that is trying to convince you to give them your money!
The Deco Building
5209 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036