Los Angeles Times
Is LAX’s Theme Building Coming Back to Life as Part of an On-airport Hotel
By Christopher Reynolds
In New York, JFK airport has found someone to transform its curvaceous but long-dead TWA terminal into a hotel. In downtown Los Angeles, Union Station has at last found a brewpub to fill its grand old Harvey House restaurant space after about 50 years.
So when will LAX resurrect its own iconic, underused, transportation-adjacent architectural wonder?
As the airport advances on a major expansion and modernization, including a new people-mover train scheduled to open in 2023, Los Angeles World Airports officials are looking for ways to bring a hotel into the core area that includes the Theme Building.
You know the Theme Building, even if you’re not sure what goes on inside. Designed by Pereira & Luckman Architects to symbolize a jet-age future, it looks like a big, white, concrete-and-steel spider. Since 1961, it has loomed over the airport as an icon of Southern California Midcentury Modernism.
Beneath its twin parabolic arches, there’s a big, round, glass-walled dining room (now idle) that generations of confused travelers have mistaken for the airport’s traffic control tower. Above the restaurant area is an observation deck (also mostly idle).
Airport officials are not suggesting the Theme Building become a hotel. But they’re wondering whether it might work as a restaurant or conference center with a hotel next door or nearby. That would be LAX’s first on-site lodging.
In a “request for information” that went out on March 8 with a Friday deadline, officials of Los Angeles World Airports asked for ideas from “teams interested in presenting viable options” for adding a hotel and conference center in the middle of LAX. No timeline is specified.
Airport officials remain mum about the feedback so far. But 29 people, including representatives from several construction, engineering and architecture companies, signed in on a May 3 site tour.
“The Theme Building is really one of L.A.’s most iconic buildings, probably in some ways the most familiar, because everyone sees it when they’re landing,” said Linda Dishman, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Conservancy.
“It’s great that the airport is talking about what to do with the building in a creative way. I think that the TWA building [in New York] has encouraged people across the country at airports to think differently about their historic resources.”
Besides the Theme Building, the central terminal area of LAX includes a 13-story retired air-traffic control tower and adjoining offices that were added later (now collectively known as the Clifton A. Moore Administration Building) and Parking Structure 7, with the nine current passenger terminals wrapped all around.
The parking structure (1,621 spaces on three levels) might be a candidate for demolition, which would open up 5.25 acres for a new hotel or something else.
A hotel in that spot or anywhere amid LAX’s terminals “could be phenomenally successful,” said Alan X. Reay, president of the hotel broker Atlas Hospitality in Irvine, who is not involved with the site.
Since completion of a 2016 preservation plan, LAWA officials have said the Theme Building might be used as a restaurant, museum or meeting space, operating with “controlled public access.” But this is the first effort to elicit ideas from the private sector since then, and airport spokesman Charles Pannunzio said this is the first time airport officials have explored the idea of a hotel.
None of this would be simple or cheap. Besides historic preservation requirements for the Theme Building and LAX’s old control tower (built in 1961, superseded by a new tower in 1996), airport officials say the revival of existing buildings would require major rehabilitation and that some open space must be maintained around the Theme Building.
Another factor: Top LAWA executives now have their offices in the Clifton A. Moore Administration Building. A new use of that space would mean finding or building a new administrative headquarters.
Also, LAWA would like to do this without worsening vehicular traffic.
Among the questions LAWA officials are inviting development teams to answer:
How could a hotel and conference center “take advantage of the Theme Building” to enhance guest experiences and raise airport income?
How many hotel rooms would the project need?
How long would the lease need to be?
Can the project bring in enough income to LAWA to pay for the replacement or retrofitting of the agency’s administration offices and board room?
In the years before 9/11, the Theme Building’s restaurant and rooftop observation deck were popular with plane-spotters and many others.
But since tightened security has made it more difficult to move around the airport, the structure’s upstairs has been sleepy.
Although LAWA spent more than $12 million on a seismic upgrade and renovation of the structure from 2007-2010, the Theme Building’s prime space — the glass-walled 8,000-square-foot top floor where the Encounter restaurant used to be — has stood idle since the start of 2014.
The Bob Hope USO has operated on the ground floor since 2018. The observation deck is closed indefinitely.
In years ahead, it seems likely that airport modernization may boost foot traffic in the area dramatically. Beginning in March, 2023, the airport’s new Automated People Mover is designed to link terminals with parking lots, a new rental car center and a regional light-rail station, putting thousands of travelers a day within a short walk of the Theme Building.
LAX’s Pannunzio estimated the distance from the Theme Building to the nearest People Mover stop at 200 feet.
Atlas Hospitality’s Reay cited three rare advantages to the LAX site as a hotel venue. To start, the LAX area’s hotels already have one of the highest occupancy rates in the state — about 85% in the first three months of this year, with an average nightly rate of $141.
Moreover, a terminal-adjacent location would be “a huge selling point” because of convenience, Reay said, and any major hotel chain would likely see big marketing benefits in associating its name with the Theme Building.
Given the film shoots, advertisements and photography that could come with the location, “That’s almost invaluable,” Reay said. “I think they’ll have tremendous interest.”
However the Theme Building is reborn, LAWA officials said in documents, they would like to bring the Flight Path Museum and its artifacts of aviation history (now at 6661 Imperial Highway) into the building.
In their request for input, LAWA officials also said they would like to see a grocery store, retail space and fitness and spa facilities on site.
Airport officials have no specific next steps scheduled yet, Pannunzio said, but “we are eager to review the submissions.”
These tentative moves come as New York celebrates the repurposing of John F. Kennedy International Airport’s similarly sleek and familiar 1962 TWA terminal, designed by Eero Saarinen. That concrete-and-glass landmark, idle for more than 15 years after the demise of TWA in 2001, reopened in May as the TWA Hotel with 512 guest rooms, eight bars and six restaurants.
Closer to home, Los Angeles Union Station, an Art Deco landmark built in 1939, finally has a going concern in the landmark restaurant space that held the station’s Harvey House through the 1940s and ’50s but has sat mostly idle since 1967. The Imperial Western Beer Co, opened in October with room for more than 400 eaters and drinkers, and is augmented by the Streamliner cocktail bar.
But the changes at Union Station are also an example of how challenging transport hubs can be for restaurants. The eatery Traxx, positioned for more than 20 years as the fanciest restaurant in Union Station’s main building, closed in May, just seven months after the opening of the brewpub nearby.