The $1.2 billion Wilshire Grand finally set to open

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The credit of "tallest building west of the Mississippi River" goes to Wilshire Grand Center because of its spire. For years, the U.S. Bank Tower (the old Library Tower) held that title. LA City Hall, built 1928, was the tallest building in the city at 32 stories. After the cap on heights was raised in the 1950s, the U.S. Bank Tower became the tallest at 73 stories and a height of 1,018 feet.

Now Wilshire Grand Center is taking that title, at 1,099 feet, also at 73 floors. But that’s due to a spire of 295 feet that is attached to the glass sail at the top of the structure, taking the structure higher than the U.S. Bank Tower.

It turns out the design principal, David Martin, cousin of A.C. Martin CEO and project manager Chris Martin, never intended it to be the tallest. In fact he says, since 9/11 there is less enthusiasm to be the tallest.

He says the spire was part of an aesthetic concept for the design which was permissible since the city got rid of the 1974 rule that mandated all LA skyscrapers have helipads on their roofs. The Martins were part of the group of folks who pressed the city to drop that rule.

Chris and David Martin are grandsons of Albert C. Martin Sr., who founded the firm of A.C. Martin over a century ago. That firm, later helmed by his son Albert Jr., designed some of this city’s signature buildings, such as the Department of Water and Power Building, the May Company Building, and together with John Parkinson and John Austin, the firm also built the structure that for 36 years was the tallest in LA: City Hall.

On a tour of Wilshire Grand in late 2016, Chris Martin told DnA the building is a tribute to its home.

"Quite frankly the building theme is California itself. If you look at the exterior of this building, think about the Sierras, think about Yosemite Valley," he said.

There’s the curving glass and soaring shape of the roof that design principal David Martin describes as being inspired by Half Dome at Yosemite. That’s a huge atrium on the seventh floor with a curving glass roof that he likens to the Merced River. The pattern in the carpet is inspired by the agricultural grid of the San Joaquin Valley.

But one of the most interesting - and invisible - things about it is the way the tower functions as a tightly interconnected and self-contained system, with self-sufficient sources of water and electricity.

There's also a third staircase solely for the use of firefighters. That’s something new in tower fire protection, dating from the collapse of the World Trade Center. But Chris Martin says it was agreed to by the building department in exchange for allowing a non-flat roof.

Earthquake safety is also obviously a big factor in the design. As Chris Martin explains it, the Wilshire Grand has a steel substructure is designed to sway -- like a fishing rod -- and it will deform and move in the wind as much as 12-15 inches horizontally. As it absorbs energy it slows it down.

The luxury hotel and office tower is owned by Korean Air. But members of the public can visit the entrance plaza, ground floor and sky lobbies, as well as the restaurants, bars, and ballrooms and function spaces. There is a sky lobby on the 70th floor and a sky deck on the 73rd.

This Friday there’ll be a ribbon cutting in the afternoon, and then at night there'll be a dazzling light show beginning at 8:15 pm. The top piece of the spire is an LED beacon that can light up in varying colors. This video shows the LED screen at the top of the building in action.

Photo: The Wilshire Grand Center in downtown LA, which will open Friday after nearly five years of construction. (Gary Leonard)