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Bow Tied Original Douglas fir bowstring trusses, once concealed by the deteriorating dropped ceiling of the theater, are the muscle that reinforces the wide roof span of the main loft space. “Successful conversions are ones that work very well with the existing structure,” says architect Austin Kelly. “Use what you find.”

Second ACT Design entrepreneur Willard Ford stages a comeback for a historic vaudeville theater in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. by Leilani Marie Labong photographs by Dominique Vorillon styling by Sunday Hendrickson

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Bar None The kitchen has a 20-footlong counter that anchors the entire loft space. “This is where everything happens,” says Ford. During legendary fetes, such as Capcom video-game releases and Nike product launches, it’s ground zero for food and drink; during the workday, Ford’s employees belly up to the bar with their laptops.

Fighting Chance Theo Ehret was the inhouse photographer for LA’s Olympic Auditorium for more than 30 years. His works make up an exhibition that spans Ford’s gym, showroom and residence.


illard Ford is proof that life-altering happenstance could be waiting just around the bend. While on a training ride in 1999, the avid cyclist turned a corner in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and encountered the dilapidated Kim Sing Theatre. The historic 1926 auditorium—once a destination for lively vaudeville acts, early talkie films and eventually kung fu movies—had been shuttered for more than a decade. “I joked with a fellow cyclist about turning it into a training center,” says Ford. Now behold the magical part of the story, where an idea conceptualized in jest transforms into a full-fledged undertaking, thanks to a rare alignment of the stars: Ford, an LA native, had just relocated to his old stomping grounds after a stint in the Bay Area, where he turned a pretty profit selling his two East Bay Craftsman homes to wealthy banker types. His marriage was dissolving, adding a few bonus metaphorical layers (think

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deterioration, rebuilding, new beginnings, etc.) to this restoration tale. And thanks to an upbringing steeped in DIY ingenuity (his father is a skilled carpenter and his mother—a “wannabe Quaker”— is a former seamstress, furniture restorer and gardener), no amount of water damage, rats’ nests or caved-in ceilings could deter Ford from taking on such an ambitious project. “My talent is limited to taking things apart and putting them back together,” says Ford, 43, who worked construction on the fiveyear project to save money. “Sometimes when you deconstruct things and then reconstruct them, they work better.” The same logic could be applied to the Kim Sing’s rebirth. When an initial plan to turn the theater into condominiums fizzled due to elusive city-planning permits, Ford instead developed a mixed-use, commercial-residential blueprint with the help of architect Austin Kelly, co-principal of Culver City–based XTEN Architecture. “At the time, there was a lot of renewed energy in Chinatown—



“Successful conversions are ones that work very well with the existing structure.”


Private Matter Ford’s personal apartment is located where the old cinema screen and vaudeville stage would have been. An upstairs bedroom is accessed via ship’s ladder; below the bedroom is Ford’s favorite space, a 300-square-foot chill space–cum–guest quarters.

Sold-Out Show Created by cutting a 120-foot swath through the original structure, the courtyard—a popular place for parties­­—is distinguished by its striking color and alternating operable glass panels and solid wood doors.

“Sometimes when you deconstruct things and then reconstruct them, they work better.” 76 october 2012

creative entrepreneurs were remodeling derelict buildings into new bars, restaurants and art galleries,” says Kelly. “This project was at the forefront of that movement.” To pay homage to the building’s history and win over the locals, the theater’s flashy neon signage and vintage cinema marquee were immaculately restored. An array of empty micro-storefronts on Figueroa Street, once old-timey newspaper stands and shoeshine joints, were expanded and spiffed up to house Ford’s various entrepreneurial ventures—including Strong Sports Gymnasium, a boxing and mixed–martial arts training facility (note full-circle moment), and Ford & Ching, a marketing agency and showroom representing innovative furniture designers and brands such as Matt Gagnon, RS Barcelona and Geneva Lab. “The arrangement is similar to a traditional mom-and-pop grocery store, with the shop on the street and the living quarters upstairs,” says Kelly. “But in Southern California, everything is horizontal rather than vertical, so the shops are still on the street, but the residence is in the back, across a courtyard.” The loft’s design took its cues from the theater’s original architectural details. Although an early idea incorporated the auditorium’s sloping floor, the plan that prevailed excised but subtley celebrates the rise with a new kind of multilevel experience. The loft transitions from a one-story space encompassing the entrance, living room and kitchen to a two-story volume—imagine the old vaudeville stage and subsequent cinema screen here—containing Ford’s bi-level retreat and an office. Douglas fir bowstring trusses—a welcome surprise revealed by the removal of the theater’s crumbling dropped ceiling—lend warm character to the vast space. Keeping the 28-foot ceilings clear of partitions enhances the dwelling’s openness while the material palette of glass, concrete, steel and wood speaks to its simplicity. Indeed, this kind of architectural honesty has long been the allure of loft living. “If it’s overdesigned, it’s a distraction,” says Ford.

Light Fantastic FROM TOP: Ford and Kelly went to great lengths to find old-school neon benders to restore the Kim Sing’s original signage as well as create new pieces; the entry sequence goes from the loud street to a covered passageway (where the theater’s concession stand was located), which still sports signs of its previous life. october 2012


Second Act  
Second Act  

Willard Ford (son of Harrison) renovates an old vaudeville theater in L.A.'s Chinatown. California Home + Design Oct 2012