The Theme Building is an iconic landmark structure at the Los Angeles International Airport within the Westchester neighborhood of the city of Los Angeles. Construction began in April 1960 and was completed in August 1961 at a cost of $50 million.
The distinctive white building resembles a flying saucer that has landed on its four legs. It was designed by a team of architects and engineers headed by William Pereira and Charles Luckman, that also included Paul Williams and Welton Becket. The initial design of the building was created by James Langenheim, of Pereira & Luckman.
The appearance of the building as a single homogeneous structure is a constructed illusion. The building's two crossed arches actually consist of four steel-reinforced concrete legs that extend approximately 15 feet above the ground, and a hollow, stucco-covered steel truss constituting the remaining lower arches and entire upper arches. To avoid changing the appearance of the structure with overt reinforcement, the Theme Building was retrofitted with a tuned mass damper to counteract earthquake movements.
The original design for the airport created by Pereira & Luckman in 1959 had all the terminal buildings and parking structures connected to a huge glass dome, which would serve as a central hub for traffic circulation. The plan was eventually scaled down considerably, and the terminals were constructed elsewhere on the property. The Theme Building was subsequently built to mark the spot intended for the dome structure, as a reminder of the original plan. Initially, the restaurant on top rotated slowly, giving the visitors a 360-degree dining experience. However, it was later made stationary.
The Renovation of the Monument
In 1980, Norma Merrick Sklarek moved to Welton Becket as project director for a $50-million domestic passenger terminal at LAX. Terminal 1 was completed in January 1984, well ahead of the millions of tourists expected for that summer's Olympics. This was one of Sklarek's larger projects. "At first, the architects working on the airport were skeptical because a female was in charge of the project," Sklarek recalled. "But a number of projects were going on there at the time and mine was the only one on schedule."
"You didn't joke around with Norma," Roland Wiley, who was hired by Sklarek, told the Los Angeles Times. Norma said "It's tough for women to get the projects, and clients are used to working with men."
The Los Angeles City Council designated the building a historic-cultural monument (no. 570) in 1993. A $4 million renovation, with retro-futuristic interior and electric lighting designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, was completed before the Encounter Restaurant opened there in 1997. Visitors are able to take an elevator up to the Observation Level to get a 360-degree view of arriving and departing planes. After the September 11 attacks, the Observation Level was closed for security reasons. Following a $12.3 million restoration of the building completed in 2010, the observation level re-opened. Additionally, on September 9, 2003, a permanent memorial honoring those who perished in the attacks of September 11 was opened on the grounds of the Theme Building. The Encounter Restaurant closed for business in December 2013 with no future plans to reopen, although the building's observation level is still open on weekends.