Profiles of Success
Brenda Levin, Levin & Associates Architects
Renovator of Los Angeles Historic Buildings
When Brenda Levin received the American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles chapter’s highest award, the Gold Medal, in 2010, AIA|LA President Paul Danna introduced her as one who “pioneered the preservation and revitalization movement in Los Angeles, a city that not too long ago had little appreciation of its past.” In 2006, The Planning Report named her an “Unsung SoCal Leader,” the person who “has done more to protect and celebrate L.A.’s built environment than anyone else.”
There is a certain irony in these accolades because when Levin first arrived from the East Coast in 1976, she didn’t even like it here.
In the three decades she has had her own firm, Levin & Associates, Levin has restored and renovated many of L.A.’s most iconic and revered landmarks: the Wiltern Theater, City Hall, the Bradbury Building and Griffith Observatory, to name but a few. Without setting out to do so, she has become the city’s most notable revitalizer of historically significant buildings. This specialty evolved not through planned intent, but simply from her being given opportunities to work with visionary developers who allowed her to show what she could do.
When young, Levin self-identified as an artist, and as a teenager she commuted from her New Jersey home to take art classes in New York City. She then studied graphic design at the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University. She became intrigued by architecture when she first saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s house “Falling Water” outside of Pittsburgh, but she did not immediately pursue that field. At that time, in the mid-60s, the glass ceiling was firmly in place for women aspiring to be architects, so she graduated from New York University with a degree in graphic design and worked in that field for a few years. But she still had the urge to study architecture, so she entered Harvard’s graduate program in the ‘70s. By this time, almost half of her class was women, a much more encouraging ratio.
At Harvard, Levin also met her future husband, attorney David Abel, who became a public affairs consultant and took a job in Los Angeles. She dutifully followed, even though she had all of the usual East Coast stereotypical ideas about Southern California: She “hated it” and thought the architecture was “boring.” Levin says it took her a couple of years to begin to appreciate L.A.’s uniqueness, the openness of the landscape and the possibilities for her as an architect here. She found that in Los Angeles “it was much more ‘What can you do?’ than where you were educated or who you knew.
Her first job was with contemporary architect John Lautner, at the “lofty sum” of $5.00 an hour. She then went to a firm called Group Arcon and was made project architect on a renovation of the 1928 Art Deco Oviatt Building. The building’s owner/developer, Wayne Ratkovich, wanted to reconceptualize the former retail store, currently one of downtown’s more elegant spaces. With Levin’s help, he turned the ground floor into a high-end restaurant, The Rex (now home to Cicada), which was the project that launched Levin & Associates in 1980.
Levin continued to work on this and other projects for Ratkovich, including the Wiltern Theater, the Chapman Market and the Fine Arts Building. She was able to “hitch [her] wagon to his star” and says they become “experts in preservation solely by doing it.”
More opportunities to reclaim old buildings and modify them in useful ways were created in 1999 by the new Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, bringing about a resurgence in downtown areas that had been underutilized or decaying. Levin worked with prominent Los Angeles developer Ira Yellin on the Grand Central Market Square and the Bradbury Building, another partnership that allowed her to hone her skills in the specialized areas of renovation and restoration.
In the early 2000s, Levin served as the historic preservation architect on the $93 million expansion of Griffith Observatory, which Curbed L.A. named one of the “Best Buildings of the Decade.” Current and future projects include designing a master plan for improving the Ford Amphitheater in the Hollywood Hills and the restoration/expansion of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, home of the largest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles.
Levin & Associates is also part of a team planning a modernization of Paramount Studios, an iconic facility that requires room to grow but is also very conscious of the need to respect the studio’s important place in the city’s history.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said it well: “Levin & Associates’ projects represent not just urban renewal, but psychic renewal, and they offer Angelenos the kind of common ownership and civic pride in their architectural institutions that residents of a great city deserve.”