“The city’s different at night. The airs smells better. Its harder to see that the oil rigs outnumber the palm trees.” –Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes in The Two Jakes.
In The Two Jakes, the sequel to Chinatown, detective Jake Gittes watches a long California sunset from his streamlined Moderne office. The actual location is the former west coast headquarters of the Lane-Wells Company.
In the movie, there’s an oil rig just outside Jake’s office. This could be an inside joke because there wasn’t any oil drilling on that spot, but Lane-Wells was in the oil business.
In December 1932, Walter T. Wells and Wilfred G. Lane convinced the Union Oil Company to let them test their “gun perforator” on a dry well in Montebello, California. The gun was a device, lowered into the well, that fired .45 calibre bullets laterally into the well housing.
It was dangerous work and carried the possibility of damaging the well. But it worked. The next day, the “dry” well was pumping 32 barrels.
Rejuvenating wells was good business. By 1947, the two-man startup had nearly 100 gun perforating trucks and had completed 92,000 perforating jobs. There were offices in Houston and Oklahoma City plus 40 field branches, but none could compare with company headquarters in Los Angeles.
The work of architect William E. Mayer, Lane-Wells’ west coast headquarters was completed in 1937. Even in a city full of Streamline Moderne buildings, these two were exceptional. In addition to the horizontal banding typical of streamline style, Lane-Wells had vertical bands as well. On the main Administration Building these vertical bands cascade over the top, like a fountain.
Were the vertical bands just a design flourish? Perhaps. Maybe they were meant to create a visual balance with the horizontal bars.
I think the answer is none of the above. I think those vertical bands represent a fountain of oil. This place is an Art Deco temple to the gods of petroleum.
Lane-Wells left the building years ago, ultimately becoming a part of oil giant Baker-Hughes. The L.A. headquarters buildings have had a succession of tenants. The last time I saw the place, it needed some work. With all those windows it must be a challenge to maintain and to keep cool in summer. Hopefully, it will attract someone who can give it the treatment it deserves.