Who really saved our local, historic Los Altos Apartments?

| August 31, 2023 | 0 Comments

And what did celebrity chef Nancy Silverton and Playboy Magazine have to do with it?

LOS ALTOS APARTMENTS at the corner of Bronson Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.

On a Saturday night in the spring of 1996, through thick synthetic fog, Playboy Playmate Shauna Sand was struggling to walk in her 4-inch heels on uneven cobblestones in the courtyard at the historic Los Altos Apartments at Wilshire Boulevard and Bronson Avenue. She was at the shoot for her Playmate video. Among the few observers allowed on site was actor Lorenzo Lamas, soon to be her husband. I was there, too, invited by my friend co-producer Marsha Hunt to share her dinner break in the lavish 3,300-square-foot, two-story suite designed by San Simeon Hearst Castle’s architect Julia Morgan as the “city flat” for William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. While Marsha ate, I had fun pushing on wood panels in the regal dining room with hopes one would spin open to reveal cash in a hiding place from an era with no ATMs.

Located at 4121 Wilshire Blvd. — and, since 1999, listed on the National Register of Historic Places — the Spanish Colonial-style 1925 building with its imposing neon rooftop sign has a checkered past. At the time of the film shoot it was empty — save for a caretaker’s apartment and, it was rumored, one hold-out last tenant, actor Frederick Forrest — after nearly all of its bohemian artist, writer and actor residents were evicted when a renovation failed in the late 1980s. As the first co-op building on the West Coast, its units had been custom designed for each owner, but the Great Depression bankrupted the building so it transitioned to luxury rental apartments. According to several sources, Los Altos boasted of Hollywood royalty residents like Bette Davis, Douglas Fairbanks and Judy Garland, who could be seen dining next door in the pink booths at legendary Perino’s. Virtually deserted, Los Altos and Perino’s in the 1980s had become popular location sites for film productions seeking iconic Los Angeles settings. Perino’s was torn down in 2005 for a nondescript apartments project (that has salvaged Perino’s signage and some interiors).

Photo © Terry Guy

Credit due

The near-vacant Los Altos was also doomed to demolition given the exorbitant price for seismic retrofitting and reversing its decades of decay and disrepair. Credit for saving and restoring this elegant representation of early-20th-century architecture has gone to nonprofit Neighborhood Effort’s Allen Gross and Arax Harutunian and the M2A Milofsky Michaeli architecture firm. While they deserve their awards for historic preservation, they are not the ones who saved the building from obliteration. That person — entirely missing from the written record — was construction attorney Larry Silverton.

Larry Silverton was the same man who, in the late ’80s, renovated the decaying architectural mishmash (Moorish arches, Gothic tower and Spanish fountain) at 624 S. La Brea Ave., built in 1928 by Charlie Chaplin. Larry was on a search for a space for his daughter Nancy Silverton, today a resident of Windsor Square, and her co-chef and then husband, the late Mark Peel, for their famed restaurant Campanile and Nancy’s adjacent original, La Brea Bakery. (The space currently is home to French café République.)

An internationally renowned chef (now operating Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza, and Chi Spacca locally), Nancy Silverton is perhaps most famous for popularizing artisan breads — La Brea Bakery breads are now sold in 22 countries.

My involvement

How do I know who really saved the Los Altos? It’s like this: After a series of coincidences, I eventually got a small finder’s fee from Larry Silverton for leading him to the abandoned Los Altos Apartments. The same day I went to the Playboy shoot, my oldest friend, Pepper Schwartz, was meeting Larry Silverton in Seattle at a horse event. Pepper, now widely recognized as on-air relationship advisor on Lifetime’s show “Married at First Sight,” was coming to Los Angeles the next day, so Larry invited her to be his guest at Campanile for some of Nancy’s celebrated pastries and a glass of champagne. She said, yes, if she could bring me, her host in Larchmont Village. We met Nancy Silverton after the dinner crowd left and staff was getting ready to close. Larry explained to us his part in restoring the dramatic dining room we were in. Learning that I lived in the neighborhood, Larry asked if I knew any historic buildings that might be for sale and in need of renovation.

NANCY SILVERTON in 1991 at Campanile.  Photo by George Rose

Bingo! Larry couldn’t wait until the next day to see Los Altos Apartments, just five minutes away, and he therefore said we must go see it that late Sunday night. We wandered around in the dark outside the vacant building. All of us being short, we lifted each other to peer in the windows to see the grand lobby with its winding staircase, ornate pillars and oversized fireplace like the ones you see at Hearst Castle. Larry was smitten and said he’d immediately investigate any purchase opportunity.

Righting the record

The reason I feel the need to right the record on the salvation of the Los Altos property is not because Larry bought it first, later agreeing to sell it once he was convinced that the Neighborhood Effort team would more faithfully restore it to its original splendor. I want this story told because I firmly believe no one else would have bought and reunited that building and its next-door historic garage, whose high wooden rafters reminded me of the hangar for the Spruce Goose. (The Los Altos tower and garage properties went to separate owners after WWII.) The rub: Larry quickly learned that there was hazardous subsurface methane gas under the garage. To prevent possible explosions, an expensive mitigation plan was needed at an estimated cost from $25,000 up to millions — the engineers couldn’t determine the cost until they actually started the work.

Contrasting the enormous renovation price against any upside gain from apartment revenues, the whole deal was already iffy. Add the unknowable gas mitigation costs and daunting red tape, and most developers would run, not walk, away from the deal.

COURTYARD of Los Altos Apartments.

But Larry Silverton was not an ordinary man. This would be his 20th restoration project since 1957. Providing insight into her late father’s motives, daughter Nancy told me, “Saving some of LA’s precious architectural history had become his passion project. Besides, that man loved a challenge.” He took the gamble and bought both Los Altos and the parking garage. He was not just gutsy, but also lucky: The price to make the garage safe was close to the low end of the estimates.

I’m not sure of the circumstances of how the Neighborhood Effort team came to make Larry an offer and convince him that their nonprofit would make the better steward to bring Los Altos back to its glory days. Allen Gross is the owner today. But I know that Larry Silverton deserves recognition as the unsung hero whose brave actions were responsible for saving Los Altos from the wrecking ball, thus preserving its heritage for us all.


Written by Janet Lever, who is a writer, sex researcher and professor emerita of sociology. She has lived in Larchmont Village since 1986.

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Category: Real Estate

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