Monuments in Time: Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Building

By Robert Moskowitz

The Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Building,

523 West 6th Street, adjacent to the Biltmore Hotel and defining the southwest edge of Pershing Square, at Olive Street, is reborn.

Purchased in April, 2012, by Rising Realty Partners (RRP) for an undisclosed sum rumored to be $60 million, the iconic trio of internally-connected Beaux Arts-style buildings has been enjoying an eight-figure makeover intended to transform it into what RRP calls a “marquee lifestyle commercial office space for Class A local, regional and national tenants.” RRP principals include Nelson and Christopher Rising, formerly with MGP Office Trust, Los Angeles’ largest commercial landlord

Under its new owners, occupancy has risen from 60% at the time of purchase to nearly 90% now, with a decidedly “creative office space” flavor that combines a light and airy feeling with plenty of  authentic materials. The property, among the largest historic buildings in Los Angeles, had last changed hands in 2007.

The PacMutual complex’s attractions include its premium location and historic origins, as well as its street-level retail, extensive parking, and — perhaps most important — its potential for larger office layouts.

Modern amenities include fiber optics, Zip cars, a small roof patio with Wifi, and a dog friendly attitude.

Previous efforts to restore the PacMutual complex tended to bury its origins and its historic architectural importance. For example, the main building was designed with 11 to 16 foot-high ceilings and real brick walls, extensive white marble, and more. All this was inexplicably hidden by subsequent facelifts, even to the point of painting over exterior windows to hide the original architectural elements from outside observers.

The first of the complex’s three buildings, a six story “skyscraper,” was originally completed in 1908 to replace a building destroyed after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. It housed the headquarters of the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., founded in 1868 by Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins, and the first life insurance company based west of the Mississippi. Designated as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #398, the complex’s original Corinthian structure was designed by John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom.

Over the years, the complex saw significant changes, including an addition to the north side in 1916, and the construction of a 12-story office tower in 1921, designed by Willliam Dodd and William Richards, popular L.A. architects who also designed the Boyle Heights Library and an Art Deco automobile garage near 14th and Figueroa. The building reportedly cost $4 million and featured acres of imported Tavernello marble, heavy use of bronze and hardwoods, and more terra cotta than had ever before been used on a single project, west of the Mississippi.

In 1920 the entire complex was air conditioned, at a reported cost of $1,250,000 — at the time the largest retrofit for air-conditioning west of the Mississippi.

An all-new four-story office building along with one of the city’s first underground garages were added in 1926.

The site also incorporates several important pieces of art. Most prominent is a sculpture above the entrance entitled “Heroic Figures,” carved by Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora (1876–1947), an Uruguayan-born American artist often called the “Renaissance Man of the West”.

The whole PacMutual complex was “remodeled” in 1936, “restored” in 1974 by Wendell Mounce and Associates, and “renovated” by Westgroup, Inc. in 1985. The three buildings, linked by interior passageways into a single complex, now house some 457,000 square feet.

Current tenants at the PacMutual include American Business Bank, Camp Dresser & McKee (environmental consultant), CuySteinberg Architects, Nasty Gal Inc. (online retail), and NBBJ (architecture). A non-original retail store (Verizon) constructed between the original building and the office tower will soon be demolished. The space will be refashioned into a courtyard opening onto 6th Street, featuring a Tender Greens and an Earth Bar. Another courtyard is in the planning stages for the Olive Street side of the complex.

To help guide the PacMutual complex’s transformation, RRP has relied on Industry LTD, a Santa Monica-based real estate services firm that specializes in uncovering exceptional creative spaces. Carle Pierose of Industry Partners, an affiliate of Industry LTD, manages leasing there and at other sites.

Due to the growing inventory of loft-style housing and the expanding infrastructure of entertainment and services, an increasing number of office tenants are choosing Downtown Los Angeles. During the last two years, for example, the city’s center has reportedly drawn tenants (occupying more than 500,000 square feet of prime space) away from the Westside and elsewhere. Experts expect to see more of the same as access, housing, and other amenities continue to become more available downtown.

As a result of all these changes, the PacMutual complex has become a major draw within Downtown Los Angeles for creative users needing 10,000 square feet or more.