Howard Hughes Headquarters
Its beautifully muted art deco exterior camouflages into the dusty side streets of Hollywood south of Santa Monica Boulevard, among warehouses and studios and parking lots and new construction sites. Despite its elegance, it’s the sort of building on a forgettable street that you might drive by countless times without a second glance. But rounding the perimeter from North Sycamore Ave, the unsuspecting visitor is all of a sudden met with a bright, lush entrance behind wrought iron deco gates. It's as if this journey moves its passenger from the world of black and white to color—an unintentional metaphor for the building’s beginnings as an early color film processing plant, and the colorful, outlandish, and at times disturbing life that 7000 Romaine Street has lived since its construction in 1930. And it is no less a metaphor for its former owner who was often inextricable from the building itself—Howard Hughes, the eccentric Texan who burst on the Hollywood scene while battling his own sickness, demons, and brilliance, overflowing from his mind like the wild ivy that overtakes the entrance to his former command center.
Everything you could possibly hope to know or read about Howard Hughes has already been written, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the weird and wonderful life of 7000 Romaine, a building whose history is indeed stranger than fiction.
Commissioned by Hughes at a reported cost of two million dollars, 7000 Romaine was built between 1930 and 1931 by LA contracting firm Myers Brothers to serve as a state of the art color film manufacturing plant for Hughes’ company, Multicolor, Ltd. In the decades after Multicolor went out of business in 1932, parts of the building housed various tenants including a brewery from 1933-1936, an ammunitions plant during World War II, and later a candy factory. Yet, from the time of its construction until Hughes’ death in 1976—with the exception of a few years during the 1950s when Hughes sold the property to Eastman Kodak before buying it back in 1957—the main building served primarily as a hub for Hughes’ business empire.
Hughes had already established himself as a burgeoning business tycoon and aerospace pioneer long before the roaring ‘20s came to a close. Yet, after producing several films, including his WWI aviation epic Hells Angels where he personally hired Jean Harlow for her first major role, Hughes had successfully added Hollywood producer to his resume when Multicolor shuttered in 1932. As a result, the Romaine building became the de facto headquarters for Hughes’ film operations. It was within these walls that “[Hughes] and his associates pored over thousands of photographs culled from newspapers and magazines,” searching for his next undiscovered star for The Outlaw. Ultimately he found his headliner in 22-year-old Jane Russell, though not without his own style of audition. As Hughes biographer John Keats writes:
A screen test for Howard Hughes was different from most. In other studios a girl would be taken to a hairdresser for an elegant coiffure; cosmeticians would paint over her blemishes and remove the dark shadows from beneath her eyes; she would be fitted into clothing best designed to enhance her charms; she would be coached in a few lines of simple dialogue. But Hughes had reason to believe that a girl at her worst appeared at her best for purposes of testing. Girls arriving for screen tests at his studio were told to come in simple street clothes with their faces freshly washed. No lipstick, no powder, no artificial hair styling. And no lines to recite. So Jane Russell sat upon a high stool and photographed from one side, from the other, from the front, the rear, above, below. The lighting was harsh and no way designed to compliment the subject. The idea was that if any woman could appear beautiful in what amounted to the kind of photograph that might be taken at a passport photographer’s studio, she must be beautiful indeed.
Hughes way of doing things carried over into post-production as well. Locked away in the basement at Romaine, he would “[a]t times get caught up in the editing process, he would work forty-eight hours straight without sleeping or eating ... his eyes squinting at the harsh reality that was squalid Hollywood.” When the first negatives for The Outlaw were complete, Hughes had a secure, airtight room built in 7000 Romaine with lead walls. He would then have women hired to come in and clean the room at certain intervals, but “first they had to vacuum their hair to be sure they brought no loose dandruff into the room with them.”
What may have seemed then like behavior that was just overly-meticulous and odd, we now know was just the first sign of Hughes’ increasingly debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder. And as Hughes’ eccentricities teetered closer and closer to madness, Romaine Street was the epicenter of it all. Just a sample of the strange stories of the happenings inside the building over the years include:
Employees of Romaine were only told as much about their jobs as they needed to know at any one time and no one knew what anyone else was doing.
The female secretaries who worked there had strict guidelines: they were not allowed to wear nail polish or perfume, and were given the direct instruction from Hughes “[y]ou may have breakfast, one drink, no phone calls during the day, and do not talk to anyone about your job.”
Because of fears of “killer bacteria” that he even thought could be transmitted by phone, employees at the Romaine building had to wear white cotton gloves when typing memos, and the memos were then sent to Hughes at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The gloves would then be burned in an incinerator in the building’s basement.
Employees used a fishing line to literally “hook” memos and check statements, and then reel them up to the office through the exterior windows.
Above all, however, the headquarters on Romaine Street served as the nerve center for Hughes’ vast business empire, where employees quite literally became switchboard operators. Personal and business associates seeking to contact Hughes would call “OL-4-2500”, a hotel switchboard used at Romaine. Employees would field these calls and take messages for Hughes, who would review when he eventually called in from wherever he was at any given time. Handling business this way also allowed Hughes to have various surveillance reports and transcripts of phone calls, which at one point reportedly “filled an entire room at the Romaine headquarters.” The sheer volume of documents, memos, and records held at Romaine Street also famously became the target of a burglary in 1976, now known to likely have been an inside job, which made public a bizarre plot between Hughes and the CIA to raise a sunken Russian submarine.
Following Hughes’ death in 1976, the building was sold to producer Knight Harris, who made some renovations to the property in the 1980s to return it to its former glory. Today, the white concrete walls of the building’s exterior are simply a futile attempt of the impeccably detailed building to blend in to the bland office buildings and former film studios in the surrounding Hollywood area. Each corner of the building is detailed with intricate art deco designs that recall Egyptian, floral, and geometric imagery.
Yet the crown jewel of Romaine’s architectural beauty is its courtyard entrance. Rounding the corner of Sycamore Avenue and Romaine Street, you are immediately hit with an explosion of color, with the building’s ivy seeming to pull in passers-by through the decorative wrought-iron gates right into the multicolored fountain and stained glass--an inadvertent nod to its original tenant. Inside, the deco wrought iron carries through the stairway and balcony railings, while the sunburst tile floor, now with a beautifully faded patina, continues the burst of color from the exterior tile.
Overall, the former Hughes headquarters at 7000 Romaine is truly a sight to behold that holds a special place in LA’s architectural and film history. Perhaps Joan Didion explained it best in her writings about 7000 Romaine in her multi-part essays Slouching Toward Bethlehem:
Seven thousand Romaine Street is in that part of Los Angeles familiar to admirers of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett: the underside of Hollywood, south of Sunset Boulevard, a middle-class slum of ‘model-studios’ and warehouses and two-family bungalows… 7000 Romaine looks itself like a faded movie exterior, a pastel building with chipped art moderne detailing . . .That the Hughes ‘communication center’ should lie here in the dull sunlight of Hammett-Chandler country is one of those circumstances that satisfy one’s suspicion that life is indeed a scenario, for the Hughes empire has been in our time the only industrial complex in the world--involving, over the years, machinery manufacture, foreign oil-tool subsidiaries, a brewery, two airlines, immense real-estate holdings, a major motion-picture studio, and an electronics and missile operation--run by a man whose modus operandi most closely resembles that of a character in The Big Sleep.
It’s clear that 7000 Romaine’s past, forever tied to the mythical, complicated figure of Howard Hughes, is truly stranger than anything that could be concocted in any Hollywood film studio or work of fiction.
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Los Angeles Department of City Planning Recommendation Report, Historic Cultural Monument Application for Howard Hughes Headquarters, http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/InitialRpts/CHC-2018-3614-HCM-1.pdf