mid-century department store building

In L.A., a Shopping Center Is Reborn as a Workplace

The May Company department store and Westside Pavilion have been transformed into the Westside’s newest workplace hub.

It’s easy to imagine customers walking out of the West Los Angeles May Company department store in its heyday with handsomely wrapped boxes that, upon unwrapping, revealed something lovely. Maybe a dress, a suit, or a pair of go-go boots.

Those moments would have taken place decades ago. Having opened in 1964, the May Company on Pico and Westwood Boulevards turned into a Macy’s in 2005 and, like rest of the Macy’s chain, went into decline soon thereafter. Today, the building envelope itself is the packaging, and the gift is the dramatic redesign that awaits new tenants.

Designed by HLW and developed by Los Angeles-based GPI Companies, West End is the most prominent retail-to-office conversion to gain its certificate of occupancy in Los Angeles. The roughly 240,000-square-foot structure has two aboveground stories plus a basement level. Though leases have not yet been announced, the design accommodates up to 12 tenants.

The project is aimed at creative and digital firms that could probably subsist remotely but are likely to be enticed by vast interior spaces and a central location near the Westside’s prominent commercial centers of Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, and Santa Monica.

stair case winding up through the building's central courtyard
Though LA’s housing shortage is arguably more acute than its office shortage, and the project is located in a largely residential neighborhood, conversion to housing would likely have required full demolition and a zoning change.)

The original building was designed by Victor Gruen & Associates, the pioneering firm that partially invented the indoor shopping center. Though the building has not been designated a Historic-Cultural Landmark by the City of Los Angeles, the exterior is considered potentially significant. GPI and HLW opted to preserve key elements of the original exterior, which is characterized by classically inspired white concrete pilasters at 25-foot intervals that flare outward to support a mansard-style roof. On a far smaller scale, the redesign retained some of the May Company’s original terrazzo flooring.

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“I’m very glad we were given that restriction,” said Sejal Sonani, AIA, Managing Director of HLW’s Los Angeles office. “It tells a better story: This is what was there before and this is the new insertion into it. There’s something about keeping the urban fabric of Los Angeles as it goes through all the changes.”

man walking down the stairs in the building's central courtyard
Whichever tenants move in, they will be treated to vast interior design options. The 16-foot ceilings of the first floor and only slightly lower ceilings of the second and basement levels are high enough to enable the construction of mezzanines and multi-story interior pods.

The adaptation eliminates the masonry walls that made Macy’s a sunless box and replaces them with ground-to-roof windows that treat the office spaces to expansive views. HLW’s signature alteration was to carve out a 52-foot-wide courtyard, removing the roof and exterior walls to separate the building into two halves. The courtyard slopes downward to the basement level, bringing in enough natural light to make it feel like it’s at grade. A handsome wood-paneled staircase connects the three floors.

As large as the project is, it required relatively minimal approvals from the city. GPI opted not to alter the envelope of the building, and the change from retail to office did not trigger significant city or environmental review.  

Those details, though, are little match for the enormity next door.

The original May Co. was a standalone box adjacent to a bowling alley, a single-screen movie theater, and a strip retail. Most of that was razed in the early 1980s to make way for the Westside Pavilion mall, a postmodern retail extravaganza designed by The Jerde Partnership, which is itself undergoing a conversion to office space under developer Hudson Pacific and architecture firm Gensler. The two projects are legally distinct but are functionally and stylistically kindred. Longer and taller than West End, the Westside Pavilion’s mass—more than double the square footage of West End—resembles that of a container ship. Both projects rely on clean lines and on black glass and cladding in a sort of inviting corporate modernism. (Google, which has leased the converted Westside Pavilion, has not made building tours or photographs available to the press).

The store on Pico Boulevard was one of three nearly identical May Company stores in the Los Angeles region, developed at the height of the Southern California suburban boom.
Exterior of the mid century department store, now an office complex

The buildings are no longer connected, but they will share a newly built parking structure and, as with the old mall complex, are likely to be construed as a single complex by casual observers.

West End’s greatest disappointment takes place at street level. Though the courtyard and new entryway on Pico Boulevard make the building more inviting than Macy’s was, the pandemic dampened ambitions to activate the sidewalk. A set of rust-hued metal gates were added to control entry from the street, and planned sidewalk-facing retail and restaurant spaces are likely to be absorbed into the offices.

The result is a major urban intersection that has not changed in decades. Across Pico is an austere 1960s bank that looks like a miniature version of the May Co. building, and across Overland is a weathered four-story office Modernist office building. Diagonally across the intersection: a gas station.

As ever, the streetscape in auto-oriented Los Angeles is anything but a gift.

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