February 5, 2021

One Building, Three Lives: Saving the LGBTQ Heritage of the Factory

Nestled south of Santa Monica Boulevard and west of the City of West Hollywood Central Park sits an empty lot on the former site of The Factory. The formerly two-story, 240-foot-long structure, has been dismantled by a coalition of preservationists, architects, and archivists, for the express purpose of saving its rich LGBTQ and film heritage.

Constructed by the Mitchell Camera Corporation in 1929 as a modular, prefabricated building, the Factory was originally built to produce motion picture cameras. West Hollywood, along with other neighborhoods next to the major film studios that made Los Angeles famous, became the home of large industrial complexes that served the production needs of the film studios. The Mitchell Camera Corporation was no exception; the cameras that were made in this factory went on to shoot famous films like Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Love of Light (1920). After almost two decades of service, the camera company moved to the suburbs in 1946, leaving the building to be used by various retail and industrial establishments from 1956 onward.

In 1967, the building gained new life as an invitation-only nightclub dubbed “The Factory.” The nightclub had a board filled with Hollywood stars and charged members a $1,000 fee (almost $8,000 in 2020 dollars) as well as a monthly member fee. The second floor held a restaurant, bar, and performance spaces, while the first floor housed a fashion boutique and a design-merchandising firm. By 1968, the LA Times called the club “the most successful discotheque in the world,” and by 1969, it had opened a second location in Chicago. The popularity of the club, however, was short lived; the Factory closed in 1973. Almost a year later, Studio One was born.

Exterior of the Factory Building in Los Angeles for HABS.

photo by: Photo by Stephen Schafer for the Historic American Buildings Survey

Exterior of The Factory building as part of documentation for the Historic American Building Survey.

Studio One

Following the nationwide trend of large, warehouse-style dance clubs opening by and for the LGBTQ population during the 1970s, the building became home to Studio One and the Backlot Showroom (alternatively known as the Backlot Theatre). Opened and marketed for gay men, Studio One became almost an overnight success: a safe haven for gay men to go dance among others like them and to party without the fear of the police raids the LAPD was so well known for. The club had celebrity regulars and at its peak, Studio One drew up to a thousand patrons a night.

It was not, however, a paradise for all. Through a series of rules, staff made it extremely difficult for women to enter—requiring them to show multiple forms of ID and instituting a ban on open-toed shoes, for example—resulting in a not-quite outright ban for all women, including lesbians. Its racist door policy discriminated against all but only “the most remarkably attractive [B]lacks, Latinos, and Asian” gay men. Gay activists protested, saying the club’s attendees would rather “rather dance than fight for gay rights.” Despite this, the club remained popular, closing in 1992 on the heels of the AIDS epidemic.

Undated Floor Plan of Studio One and the Backlot Theatre in Los Angeles

photo by: ONE Archives, University of Southern California

Undated Floor Plan of Studio One and the Backlot Theatre from ONE Archives.

While best known for housing Studio One, The Factory building also housed the Rose Tattoo, a cabaret club operated by the lesbian cabaret performer Linda Gerard, and a lesbian club named Girl Bar, operated by Sandy Sachs, also a lesbian. The Backlot Theatre, which featured a cabaret dinner theater program, housed live acts including those of Joan Rivers and Liza Minnelli.

Saving The Factory

After the close of Studio One, A “hip art ’n’ rock” club named Luna Park leased The Factory Building between the early‐1990s and early 2000s, and housed several businesses, including a nightclub and commercial gym. In 2015, the property was bought by the real estate development company Faring as part of their plan for a larger mixed-use hotel and retail development on the site. At over eighty-five years old, the building had major operational challenges.

“Our development team realized that with a little work and guidance from experts, the dilapidated Factory structure could become the crown jewel of our Robertson Lane project,” said Jake Stevens, community engagement director at Faring.

Interior of the Factory with chandeliers and bar tables prior to dismantling.

photo by: Photo by Stephen Schafer for the Historic American Buildings Survey

Interior of The Factory building as part of documentation for the Historic American Building Survey.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Factory building to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in June 2015. Working in partnership with the National Trust and local preservation groups, including the Los Angeles Conservancy and the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance, Faring worked to document the building and record its history as part of an environmental impact report required under California law, holding countless meetings to collect community input.

The buildings' unique prefabricated building envelope became its saving grace. “The building was made to take apart,” says Katie Horak of Architectural Resources Group, the architecture firm that is overseeing the building’s disassembly, storage, and reconstruction for The Factory building. It was determined that to save the building, and make it fit in with larger master plans designated for West Hollywood, that the building would be documented, disassembled, restored, and moved to a place “of greater prominence” on the lot.

Today, The Factory building is now completely disassembled, waiting to be restored and rebuilt. Upon reconstruction, the building will house “retail and a restaurant,” according to Faring, and will be the focal point of a mixed-use hotel, retail, and restaurant development known as Robertson Lane. Stevens said, “Fully restored and rotated to sit along Robertson Boulevard, the Factory building naturally will become a new landmark in West Hollywood’s commercial core.”

In partnership with ONE Archives, the oldest existing LGBTQ organization in the United States and one of the largest repositories of LGBTQ materials in the world, Faring and historians are developing an exhibition at The Factory, following its reconstruction. This will include oral histories taken about Studio One, restaurant menus, photographs from performances at Studio One and The Backlot, video footage of performances, bartender uniforms, hand-drawn playbills and performance schedules, in addition to the lighting and stage plans for some of the celebrity performers. The building is now listed on the California State Register of Historic Places and a documentary about the iconic gay club, Studio One Forever, began production in 2019.

As thousands of other historic warehouse clubs and former industrial buildings are demolished across the country to make way for speculative redevelopment, The Factory is a shining example of how preservation, real-estate development, and community heritage can work together to save endangered and critical important sites of marginalized American heritage.

Ty Ginter is a Queer historian and historic preservationist who has had a life-long love affair with all things old and historic. They currently work documenting historic structures and have a keen interest in urban planning, community development, and the effects of gentrification on marginalized communities and the built environment.

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By: Ty Ginter

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