March 30, 1998 - From the March, 1998 issue

USC Architectural Guild’s Parkinson Award to Ira Yellin

Following are Architect Brenda Levin’s, FAIA, remarks from the March 6, 1998, USC Architectural Guild’s 1998 Parkinson Spirit of Urbanism Award event honoring Ira Yellin, Senior Vice President, So. California Development of the Catellus Development Corp.

Brenda Levin

“… Ira knows cities, and all great cities have great marketplaces.”

When I first met Ira Yellin in 1985, I had just finished the renovation of the Wiltern Theater and was deeply ensconced in the minutiae of Art Deco detail. At the urging of mutual friends, my husband, David Abel, and I were invited for dinner at the Yellin's fabulous 1931 Cedric Gibbons designed Deco home. I was initially absorbed by their home's pared down version of some of the Willem's best Deco/Moderne features, but soon became completely captivated with Ira's and Adele's energy, spirit, and intelligence. 

Ira had just left the Hapsmith Company as Executive Vice President and General Counsel to form his own real estate investment and development firm. His passion for architecture, urban streets, history, and people resounded with my own—and his recent acquisition of the Grand Central Market seemed to be the perfect embodiment of Ira's abiding love of cities. Over the course of the evening, I knew that I had met a most uncommon developer. Although trained as a lawyer, he had the aesthetic of an architect, the vision of a city builder, and the passion of an artist. He was familiar however—an archetypal Howard Roark, impassioned and principled, reincarnated as a developer! 

That evening began a ten-year collaboration focused on a half square block bounded by Hill Street, Third and Broadway, affectionately known as Grand Central Square. On one of our first visits to the market, Ira shared his belief that this project could be a bridge (long before the now popular Bill Clinton metaphor) between the new Downtown of Bunker Hill's gleaming high-rises and the Historic Core of the City. By enticing the professionals off the Hill and into the market, Ira knew that the mix of cultures and energy of Broadway would be a compelling draw—because Ira knows cities, and all great cities have great marketplaces. 

We had both spent time in Boston and had images of Fanueil Hall in our minds. But the tenants of Grand Central did not immediately ascribe to our vision. Ira has often said: "It took me about a year… after I bought the market, to learn the inner dynamic of the place. The merchants control it… It is the merchants who have evolved and responded over the years to the changes in the neighborhood. I learned that I couldn't just walk in and make changes. I could only modify the framework." 

There were many challenges: 58 individual business owners of varying ethnic backgrounds and native tongues; code enforcement for a building type which has no precedent; political hoops to jump through and years upon years of deferred maintenance. Ira's patience was constantly put to the test. 

Changes to the market were subtle and happened over a long period of time. Each tenant's stall was an individual project to be designed, negotiated, and somehow built without interruption of business or closure of the market. In addition to the stalls, the entire infrastructure of the market was re-built, skylights were reopened (which had been covered over during the war, allowing natural light to flood once again the hall), and fluorescent signs removed and replaced with new black box neon signs prevalent in the 1930s. 

During this time, no detail was too small or mundane for Ira to consider. We were compulsive over: paint colors, signage, countertops, floor tile, wall tile, fixtures, hardware, skylight louvers, ceiling fans, light fixtures, etc. Mies Van der Rohe had met his match—God and Ira are in the details!


If the market reflected Ira's energy and spirit—undauntable, persistent, lively, and eternally optimistic—then the elegance of the Bradbury was a manifestation of his incredibly refined sense of aesthetic. Designed by George Wyman and built in 1893, the five-story sandstone and terracotta skinned, skylit covered building had fallen into disrepair. Mostly vacant in 1989, when Ira added this jewel to the Grand Central/ Million Dollar Building project, the skylight had become encrusted with dirt, the light oak ceilings and marble floor stook on a dark patina, glaze brick walls were dulled by grime, and terra cotta decorative elements were missing or broken. The cast iron railings and open caged elevators remained as a compelling image of the climactic scene of director Ridley Scott's sci-fi cult film, Blade Runner. 

Each interior surface was carefully cleaned and restored, building systems, seismic and code upgrades were accomplished with little impact on the historic fabric. We were even able to convince the Building and Fire Departments that the atrium should not be enclosed and that upgraded and strengthened fire escapes could serve as equivalent exits. Exterior street level improvements included the development of a rear portico to connect to Biddy Mason Park and the parking structure and the establishment of a ground floor storefront design which would accommodate a variety of retail tenants. 

The conversion of the Million Dollar and Homer Laughlin Buildings into apartments, as well as the addition of a 12-story garage and Tim Hawkinson-designed inverted clock tower on the corner of Third and Hill completed the complex. Ira had stitched together a patchwork quilt in which every piece of the project supported and enhanced the other. Much like Ira himself, Grand Central Square is both urban and urbane; a catalyst and a cornerstone; popular and prestigious.

Ira saw very early on that Los Angeles could be reborn and reinvented only by rediscovering and recreating the soul of its City Center—that by attracting an eclectic community of residents and businesses to our historic districts, the entire city could reawaken to its past. This is the true spirit of urbanism. It was, however, impossible to know that our collaboration on Broadway would last over ten years in pursuit of his dream, and that his persistence, charm, and budget would be put to the test over and over again. 

He has emerged as a man of distinction; possessed of wisdom, insight and understanding. We assemble here tonight to celebrate and honor you; to salute your incredible ability to inspire, empower and lead us all to collectively dream of a revitalized and enhanced heart of the City. 


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