Long Vacant Merced Theater Gets New Life

Christopher Espinosa, general manager of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, in front of the 1870 Merced Theatre. The building near Olvera Street will become the headquarters of the city’s Channel 35 TV studio. 

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - When it opened in 1870, the Merced Theatre was Los Angeles’ first theater. It soon became an entertainment destination for the wealthy socialites staying in the adjacent Pico House hotel.  

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The building quickly lost its luster as the city’s theatrical scene shifted to Broadway. For much of the next century, the theater at 430 N. Main St. housed retail and commercial businesses. 

The Merced, along with several buildings around it, was eventually acquired by the city, and a 25-year lease was awarded in 1984 to a developer, Old Los Angeles Company, to revitalize what the city calls the Pico-Garnier block.

That never happened. Instead, the venue has sat empty and in disrepair for three decades. Today, only Nativity decorations, creaking wood floors and a healthy dose of dust grace the venue. 

Now, finally, a brighter future is coming into focus. With the recent settlement of a long-running lawsuit from Old L.A., the city plans to embark on an approximately $23 million renovation. 

The Merced will become the home of city TV station Channel 35, which broadcasts City Council and other governmental meetings and events. The second floor, which historically served as the main theater, will be the live studio. The studio will also be available to city-sponsored users, such as nonprofits or schools, that want to create educational, governmental or cultural programming. 

“Space for a live audience of about 70 people will allow us to engage the public with debates, town halls and other events that we weren’t able to do,” said Mark Wolf, executive officer at the city Information Technology Agency, which oversees Channel 35. “The venue also gives us a full upgrade to digital technology, as we’ve been operating in an analog environment.” 

The city is currently paying more than $300,000 annually to rent a facility in Little Tokyo for Channel 35, and stands to save money over the long run by having its own building, said Christopher Espinosa, general manager of city department El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

In addition, the renovation will create a small first-floor performance venue that will host shows or meetings from local schools, arts groups and more. The city has approached L.A. Opera to provide cultural programming, though no specific plans have been established. 

The third floor will house office space for El Pueblo and Channel 35 staff. The refurbishment of the adjacent Masonic Lodge, meanwhile, will create space for additional offices as well as for studio equipment. An exterior elevator shaft will be constructed on the southern end of the building to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements (currently, the building only has stairs). 

The project is currently in the design phase, which is expected to last about a year, Espinosa said. The actual construction could take up to two years, and Espinosa said he hopes to see the revitalized building open in 2017. 

Cable Providers Pay

While the purpose of the changes is simple enough, the long neglect of the building means that the costliest improvements lie under the skin. Major upgrades must be made in seismic retrofitting, plumbing, security systems, electrical infrastructure and more, Espinosa said. That’s not to mention the technological infusion the building needs to support the Channel 35 studio. 

“The city is investing a lot of money to make this a state-of-the-art facility that will serve the public for a long time,” Espinosa said. 

Plans for the renovation of the Merced Theatre and the Masonic Lodge started rolling in early 2013. Later that year, Roto Architects was selected to handle the designs. The city Bureau of Engineering recommended spending $2 million on the design and engineering phase, according to city documents.

The price tag of up to $23 million will be covered by fees collected from cable providers for the support of public-access programming. No impact on the city’s general fund is expected, according to Bureau of Engineering documents. 

The city did consider buying other venues, as well as a plan to build a property from scratch — both options would likely have been cheaper, Espinosa noted. The Merced’s proximity to the Civic Center and the fact that the city already owns the property, however, were justifications for taking on the hefty renovation. 

The move has also drawn the praise of Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for preservationist organization the Los Angeles Conservancy.

“The city has a vast collection of historic resources, so we’re supportive of [officials] being good stewards and reinvesting into what they already have,” said Fine. “The Merced, in particular, is an important building that can serve as a catalyst for the neighborhood in terms of foot traffic and visibility.”

While El Pueblo officials had hoped to see the building take on artistic and cultural uses, Espinosa noted that the current plan is a “compromise” that will reactivate the stagnant venue at the city’s birthplace. 

eddie@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014