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Old Los Angeles landmark repurposed for the preservation and study of cinema


Among the many criticisms directed at Los Angeles is that it is a city that doesn’t value its history, perhaps logical for a town that generations have swarmed to for the chance to discard the past and embrace the possibility of reinvention.

With this in mind, the city of angels tears down buildings at an alarming rate, even those aesthetically remarkable or otherwise culturally significant. Among those that have suffered the wrath of the wrecking ball are the Ambassador Hotel, the Googie’s Coffee Shop on Sunset Blvd. and the Fairfax District’s Pan-Pacific Auditorium.

Other cities have taken an innovative approach to preserve old and cherished structures by repurposing them for contemporary use. Of special notice is Apple Computers, which transformed several New York City locales into retail stores for their high tech products.

More recently, the 1939 May Company Building, a premier example of the Streamline Moderne style of architecture (and a destination for generations of Los Angeles shoppers), has been gutted and repurposed by architect Renzo Piano as the home of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Situated on the northeast corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. in the Miracle Mile’s fabled Museum Row, the seven-story, 300,000-square-foot facility utilizes a familiar pre-World War II landmark as a shrine to the technology of the moving image.

The media and press got a preview of the facility (which officially opens its doors Sept. 30) last week. The ground floor features the Academy Museum Store, a 2,600-square-foot retail space offering movie memorabilia, which contains individual niches including and “Spike’s Joint,” a section dedicated to items about and inspired by the seminal film director, Spike Lee. A catalogue covering Lee’s career, titled “Spike Lee: Director’s Inspiration” is being prepared by the Academy for release in April of 2022. Not to be missed are the one-of-a-kind line, “Black Panther” inspired jewelry line conceived by Academy award winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter.

The upper levels contain galleries on myriad aspects of movie production, individual displays curated by an ever changing assortment of global film auteurs, and temporary exhibitions starting off with a tribute to legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki. Following up on this in early 2022 is “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1900-1970,” an exploration of the overlooked contributions of African Americans to the history of filmmaking.

In keeping with the Academy’s stated goal of inclusion and acknowledgment of marginalized groups, a series of programs directed at this issue starts in October. These include screenings by Ethiopian expatriate Haile Gerima, best known as part of the “L.A. Rebellion,” a group of upstart Black filmmakers enrolled at UCLA from the late 1960s into the 1980s. Dubbed “Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and His Comrades,” it focuses on a group who abandoned the stylistic tropes of Hollywood. Instead, they emulated the authenticity of foreign “art” films popular in the post war era.

Perhaps the most striking edifice of this new venue is a still under construction, spherical structure (dubbed appropriately enough the “Sphere Building”) containing a 1,000 seat movie theater and an open air terrace featuring panoramic views of the city, from the Hollywood Sign to the Getty Museum. Extending north via two sky bridges from the original structure, the steel and concrete ball is capped by 1,500 glass shingles reminiscent of a “bubble.” which Piano claims as an inspiration.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is located at 6067 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles. It still retains the gold-tiled cylindrical section familiar to L.A. natives. General admission tickets are $25 for adults, $19 for seniors (age 62+), $15 for students and free for aspiring cinephiles 17 and younger.