IRONWORKS – The Fruits of Labor in Orange County

Posted on 18. Apr, 2009 by in Lifestyle

words by Jason Dean

Once upon a time – back in the early 1900’s – a sturdy brick building was erected in the sleepy town of Riverside, CA. [Cue lonely harmonica music as a wind-blown tumbleweed bounces lazily past.] It housed the California Iron Works, and CIW manufactured citrus washing, drying, sorting, and packing equipment. Exciting stuff.
Although not quite the epicenter of Dullsville, the town of Riverside – situated 60 miles east of Los Angeles – never cultivated a reputation for cutting-edge chic. Best known as the birthplace of the California citrus industry, Riverside grew to become the hub of the Inland Empire – a stretch of urban sprawl trailing the City of Angels like dust from a comet.
Flash forward to 2009, and the 106-year-old Ironworks Building (as it is now known) is anything but run-down and stodgy. In fact, it’s been called the most unique office setting in the city. What brought about this transition from eyesore to eye candy?
Credit Los Angeles developer Alan Mruvka, who saw the restoration potential of the two-story structure, which had been sitting dormant since World War II. He paid $350,000 for the 35,000 square-foot property and promptly invested seven times that into the project. “You could actually move some of the exterior bricks by hand,” recalls Mruvka on the condition of the building when he bought it. “There was graffiti on every wall and standing water on the first floor.”
Mruvka met with the City Planning Commission, City Council, and the Cultural Heritage Board to secure approval for his plans to reconfigure the site into creative office space. “The Cultural Heritage Board looks at the visual impact of what you want to do,” he says. “They wanted to make sure we retained the four-panel window mullions, and they insisted on wood window frames. There are also State Standards that say if you do anything new, you have to make it distinct. You can’t fake anything. You either repair it or make it look new. With a historic building, you really don’t know what you have until you completely gut it,” Mruvka says. Every element was stripped away, leaving just the shell of the structure intact. “I kept the shell and the interiors all contemporary and sandblasted the exposed wood.”
The most costly and time-consuming aspect of the restoration was the earthquake retrofitting. The floors were strengthened with thicker layers of plywood. All the brick was reinforced with steel columns. The original grout between each brick was painstakingly chipped away and replaced with a stronger grout that added integrity to the lateral bracing.
Mruvka studied architecture at University of Miami and the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The New York native’s interest in converting older buildings to new, hip workspaces is due in part to the city’s abundance of interesting architecture. “New York City is the greatest place in the world for renovation,” he declares emphatically. The influence of his Big Apple roots lives on: Mruvka duplicated the staircase of the Soho Grand Hotel for Ironworks.
When Mruvka first came to Los Angeles, architecture wasn’t the only thing on his mind. A lifelong film buff, Mruvka wanted to start an entertainment channel with a format similar to that of MTV, which catered to youth culture and short attention spans. The channel would feature movie trailers, celebrity news, and behind-the-scenes footage geared toward an increasingly Hollywood-starved public. It took a few years to raise the capital – Mruvka estimates he weathered about 400 rejections – but in 1987, E! Entertainment Television made its debut.
The channel was an immediate success; three months after E! launched, a conglomerate of cable companies came together and offered to buy a stake in the network for $50 million. After running the channel for nearly ten years, Mruvka sold all his interest in the company. Today, E! has an estimated worth of more than $10 billion.
Mruvka went on to produce several TV and film projects. In 2001, he decided to reinvest his energy in real estate and architecture. One day, his assistant mentioned the Ironworks Building as an interesting candidate for renovation. “I was thinking, I don’t know anything about Riverside. I’ve never been to Riverside. I don’t want to go to Riverside,” he recalls.
Now that he’s been to Riverside, Mruvka doesn’t want to leave. In spite of the sorry state of the current business climate, he’s eternally optimistic about the Inland Empire, which collectively boasts a population of about four million people. “It’s the most overlooked real estate in Southern California,” he claims.
Today, if you stroll through downtown Riverside, you won’t hear that lonely harmonica soundtrack echoing from abandoned buildings anymore. But if you keep your ears pealed, you will hear the sound of opportunity knocking.

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One Response to “IRONWORKS – The Fruits of Labor in Orange County”

  1. Ralph

    18. Apr, 2009

    Nice article, but Riverside is in Riverside County and not Orange County.

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