Yesterday a demolition crew pretty had much wiped out all that remained of the decrepit old Old Spaghetti Factory Building at 5939 Sunset Boulevard at the corner of Gordon Street. For years the building had been shuttered pending plans to build in its place a new 22-story mixed use project of 305 residential units and 40,000 square feet of commercial space. The owners of this project originally promised to retain at least the facade of the historic old building and incorporate it into their new design, but the big pile of bricks where the building was seems to indicate that these plans have changed. But fear not preservationists! Curbed LA reports the developers are preserving historic elements of the building – the existing trusses, fireplace and mantel. And these we are told, will be incorporated into the new building. UPDATE ON THE PRESERVATION OF THE BUILDING. SEE BELOW!
I don’t know how many will mourn the loss of this run down old building, but I think it deserves a proper send off anyway. I, for one, will miss it for at least the reason that now I have to drive all the way into the Inland Empire to get my brown butter and Mizithra cheese spaghetti fix. But I will also miss it because it was yet another part of “Old Hollywood,” gone forever. Over its nearly ninety-year history the building at 5939 Sunset lived many lives. It began life not as a low-priced Spaghetti house, but rather a high-end automobile showroom.
The Cleveland-built Peerless was one of the major luxury cars of its day and such a popular one with Hollywood stars there was good cause to bring a dealership directly into the film colony. In 1923, Stanley W. Smith, president of the local Peerless concern took out a ninety-nine year lease on the vacant lot at the northeast corner of Sunset and Gordon and commissioned prominent Los Angeles architect McNeal Swasey to design what would be the “last word” in automobile showrooms. A competent craftsman in the Spanish mode of design, Swasey was known for his fine residences such as the Lionel Barrymore house on Roxbury and the Hotel Constance in Pasadena. Swasey brought his sense of residential design to the $100,000 project creating an automobile showroom/garage that had “home-like” elements, albeit more mansion-like than home-like, but decidedly different from the typical car dealership. Visitors to the Spanish-style Peerless Showroom would arrive by way of a patio entrance framed by six massive columns. Passing through the heavily carved Spanish doors visitors would then enter a soaring two-story space anchored by a handsome fireplace. Heavy beamed ceilings soared overhead while the shiny Peerless cars reflected in the gleaming tile floors. Swasey ingeniously broke up the showroom space into four separate rooms, each with their own look and feel intended, of course, to give each Peerless car on display the “star treatment.” Additional space was provided for a garage with company offices upstairs.
When the grand new Peerless Showroom opened with a gala event on the evening of Wednesday, June 25th, 1924, the Los Angeles Times gushed the showroom was “one of the most unique and distinctive to be found anywhere in the country.” As to be expected, the opening had all the trappings of a film premiere with many notables in attendance including Constance Talmadge; Marie Prevost; Edna Purviance; Charles Ray; Patsy Ruth Miller; producers E.M. Asher and John McCormick, all Peerless owners by coincidence. Only screenwriter June Mathis had to send her regrets as she was already en route to Italy for the start of filming on Ben Hur. The highlight of the event was not only the wonderous new building but the unveiling of the new Peerless 6 roadster, earning many “oohs and aahs” no doubt from the famous crowd.
As fine a car as the Peerless was, it did not survive the Depression and in the early 1930′s the company that produced them switched their factory completely over from producing cars to brewing beer, Carling Black Label Beer to be exact. With Peerless becoming beer, a new use was needed for 5939 Sunset Boulevard. For a short time it became the site of a “Tango Game” parlor, but was shut down by the authorities. Then it was reworked into a public events venue known as the Hollywood Auditorium hosting Hollywood’s first (and maybe last) annual food show with another stellar lineup that included Carole Lombard; Cesar Romero; and Pat O’Brien as invited guests.
By the end of 1934, 5939 Sunset had been revamped by noted Los Angeles architect Earl Heitschmidt into studios and offices for pioneer West Coast radio station KNX. Heitschmidt’s modernization was so well received it was given a spread in Architectural Digest in 1935. KNX (which had been purchased by CBS in 1936) remained on the site until 1938 when it relocated down the street to the newly completed CBS Columbia Square at 6121 Sunset Boulevard designed by modernist master William Lescaze.
After KNX’s departure, the building got an exciting new use when legendary theatrical Impresario Max Reinhardt took over the space and turned it into his Max Reinhardt Studio Workshop, which provided space to workshop his upcoming productions as well as operating a school with a full range of classes taught by some pretty impressive teachers including acting by Paul Muni; Edward G. Robinson; Constance Collier and Basil Rathbone; music scoring by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; directing by William Dieterle and camera work by Karl Freund!
In 1944, 5939 Sunset returned to use as a radio station when KMPC relocated there from its longtime Wilshire Boulevard base. In 1952, KMPC was purchased by famed singing cowboy/entrepreneur Gene Autry for a reported $800,000 and it became part of his burgeoning Golden West Broadcasting. KMPC remained on the site as a studio until 1968 when Autry moved it across the street to 5858 Sunset Boulevard. After a fire in 1970 nearly destroyed it, the old building at 5939 Sunset found yet another new life as a restaurant with the 1976 opening of the Old Spaghetti Factory and for the next quarter century lived a happily cheesy existence satisfying countless tourists, families, and families of tourists not to mention untold birthday parties with festively presented plates of steaming spaghetti served and consumed in spaces where the likes of Max Reinhardt. Marie Prevost, Gene Autry, Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni once held sway.
So while the march of progress may be unstoppable, it’s still a little sad for me at least to see some of what falls in its wake.
R.I.P. old Old Spaghetti Factory. My arteries will never forget you!
UPDATE: I received today (Friday) the following communication from my friend Richard Adkins, president of Hollywood Heritage regarding the story behind efforts to preserve the building or at least as much of the historic elements as possible. Thanks Richard!!!