The Variety Arts Center, a Figueroa Street landmark that has remained stubbornly underutilized even as billion-dollar projects bloom all around it, is finally moving into the future. Its new tenant will be a Christian rock-powered mega-church that plans to reactivate the ground-floor theater and take office space upstairs.
Renovations have begun at the five-story building at 940 S. Figueroa St., which is just steps from L.A. Live. The Los Angeles branch of the Australia-based church Hillsong is slated to move into the building by the end of the year.
The church currently holds four services every Sunday at the Belasco Theatre. Ben Houston, lead pastor for Hillsong L.A., said he sees the Variety Arts Center as a longtime home, and anticipates the church becoming an active participant in Downtown.
The church has signed a lease for 15 years, with two additional five-year options.
“L.A. is a transient place, so for people to know that we have a stake here for potentially 25 years is big,” Houston said. “We’re not some church blowing in and out. We want to make a difference in the city.”
The change comes thanks to the Robhana Group, a team of investors led by Downtown-based businessman Robert Hanasab. The group purchased the Variety Arts Center in 2012. Its other Downtown assets include the City National Bank Building and the Oviatt Building, both near Sixth and Olive streets.
It “took some time” for the team to decide what to do with the 1924 edifice, Hanasab said. The decision was complicated by the various elements in the building — it has a ground-floor theater with 1,100 seats, a smaller theater space on the third floor, and room for offices or other uses on the fourth and fifth floors.
“We were thinking maybe we could lease the ground floor to a restaurant or retail, or turn the upstairs into apartments. A lot of historic buildings have done that,” Hanasab said. “We worked through a lot of options.”
Busy at the Belasco
Hanasab said the group’s marketing outreach drew diverse interest, but the team ended up partnering with Hillsong, the Pentecostal mega-church that began in Australia in 1983 and has spread to London, Paris, New York City, Stockholm and beyond. In Los Angeles, Hillsong grew from monthly meetings at locations around the city (including the Hollywood nightclub 1Oak) to a weekly affair. The four weekly services at the Belasco are high-energy affairs that feature live Christian rock music. A total of approximately 3,500 people attend services each week, said Houston.
As the congregation grew over the past 18 months, Hillsong began looking for a permanent home, said Houston. Other Hillsong branches have struggled to find a headquarters, and Houston figured the L.A. congregation would face the same challenge.
Instead, the hunt led a site a few blocks from the Belasco. Houston is enthused about the Downtown Los Angeles location, and was undeterred when people tried to discourage him from staying in the community, citing crime and safety issues and a lack of easy parking, he said.
“But I thought about every NBA and hockey game and how they sell out, and the same with concerts. So people come Downtown from around L.A. if there’s something they really want to go to,” Houston said. “The freeways all converge here and there’s new infrastructure and development and restaurants. I think God guided us there.”
Houston said Hillsong hopes to move into the Variety Arts Center in late November. Historical renovation specialist Spectra Company (which is also working on Downtown’s huge Broadway Trade Center) is undertaking a full fix-up of the complex, including restoring parts of the Italian Renaissance Revival façade and the ornate interior detailing.
“We’re bringing the entire core shell up to code,” said Troy Parry, a project manager for Spectra Company. “We’re putting in a new mechanical system, electrical, plumbing, new elevators, and making the building [Americans with Disability Act]-compliant. We’re also fixing the windows to make them functional. It’s a total transformation.”
Hanasab declined to reveal the purchase price or renovation budget, but emphasized the breadth and depth of the work needed to modernize the Variety Arts Center.
“It’s a building that’s been underutilized for the past several decades,” he said. “It’s gotten some uses from time to time but we’re finally making it into a state-of-the-art building. We’re excited for this to be reactivated as a living piece of history.”
From Chaplin to Gwar
The Variety Arts Center was originally built for the Friday Morning Club, a women’s social and activism organization founded in 1891 by suffragist Caroline Severance. The group initially met in the Hollenbeck Hotel at Second Street and Broadway before moving to a two-story structure where the Variety Arts Center stands today, according to documents from the Library of Congress.
As the Friday Morning Club grew, its leaders decided to demolish the building and raise a five-story stone structure suitable for large theater performances, meetings and more. The Variety Arts Center opened in 1924 and has had guests such as Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille and Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1977, the club sold the building to the Society for the Preservation of the Variety Arts for theater and other artistic uses. It hosted occasional dance nights and concerts with bands such as the costumed, fake-blood-spewing punk act Gwar.
Anschutz Entertainment Group acquired the building in 2004 with an eye toward activating it as part of their L.A. Live complex. That plan was scratched, and developer David Houk bought it in 2007. Since then, the building has been used only sporadically, including twice by horror film producer Jason Blum as a Halloween haunted house.
Hillsong will be the first major tenant in decades. The church won’t use all of the center on a daily basis, so it is working with the ownership group to rent out additional spaces, Hanasab said.
Houston said the church is making a big commitment to Los Angeles and Downtown. He noted that in addition to services, Hillsong touts a philanthropic branch dubbed CityCare, which assists individuals and families in need of financial assistance, counseling and more.