Though few locals dare step foot on the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, as it is widely considered to be Hollywood’s answer to New York’s Times Square, the corner is often among the first stops for the nearly 25 million tourists that pass through the city annually. For nearly 20 years, they were greeted by an open-air shopping mall of enormous proportions, appropriately named Hollywood & Highland, that bore the aesthetics of a dramatized Temple of Babylon. Passing through a towering gateway festooned with vaguely Mesopotamian iconography, visitors were greeted by oversized elephants on five-story-tall pedestals that sat on either side of the 7.6-acre shopping center’s grand central promenade.
That design was a near recreation of the iconic film set of Intolerance, a silent film often said to have helped cement Hollywood as the global movie capital. The film was directed in 1916 by D.W. Griffith as an addendum to his release of The Birth of a Nation the year prior, a blockbuster that has been roundly condemned for its empowerment of the Ku Klux Klan during the early 20th century. Griffith’s openly racist views have soured the design of the Hollywood mall among critics, who have argued that the Hollywood & Highland appears to be an unabashed celebration of the director’s legacy. Its connection to the film industry was made doubly secure by the fact that the Academy Awards have been held annually within the on-site Dolby Theatre since the mall’s completion in 2001.
Gaw Capital USA, a Hong Kong and Los Angeles-based real estate private equity firm, and DJM, a San Jose and Los Angeles-based private equity real estate developer, purchased the mall for $325 million from Los Angeles developer CIM Group in 2019 to update its image, with the assistance of international architecture firm Gensler. Following the $100 million makeover, the mall will also receive a new name: Ovation Hollywood. For its developers, the title signifies Los Angeles’ contribution to the world within and beyond its venerated film industry.
“An ovation is a sign of appreciation for someone’s work, talent, or effort,” Chief Retail Officer at DJMParton Stenn Parton explained last August. “At Ovation Hollywood we applaud the creators, doers, teachers, doctors, entertainers and small business owners that make this community sing. During this tough time for the world at large, we want to create a place of recognition, celebration and coming together in search of what it means to experience one of the most iconic places in the world.”
Among the first steps of the transformation was to remove the enormous fiberglass elephants starting late last week, which are currently being dismantled at a slow enough pace to allow the mall to remain open to visitors, and work is therefore expected to take several days. Following their removal will be the faux Mesopotamian archway, which will be replaced by a simplified facade that nods to the upward-facing skylights that accompany many a Hollywood premiere.
Along with the problematic pachyderms and every other allusion to a false Babylon, a large installation by artist Erika Rothenberg will be removed from the mall’s balcony overlooking Highland Avenue for its own troublesome associations. Titled The Road to Hollywood, the artwork consists of a marble mosaic snaking across the grounds of the mall with stories of various actors’ paths to stardom that terminates at a fiberglass sculpture of what appears to be a casting couch, the now-infamous symbol of sexual abuse within the film industry.
While the mall’s transformation, expected to be completed by summer 2022, has come to symbolize a response from the film industry to popular criticisms of its lack of inclusivity, the desire is to shed the mall of its troubled past in more ways than one. Gaw Capital USA and DJM have expressed that the redesign hopes to draw locals back to a site that was once almost exclusively for the benefit of tourists by introducing more landscaping and outdoor spaces that will host live jazz, art shows, and a food and wine festival.