Milan Ratkovich restored the Hercules Campus to set the table for the world’s next great innovator
By Shanee Edwards
On the east side of the Hercules Campus in Playa Vista, there is a wall that features portraits of history’s greatest visionaries, innovators and rebels. Nicola Tesla, Bjork, Gandhi, Amelia Earhart and, of course, Howard Hughes are just a few of the 55 faces staring out over the runway-inspired parking lot.
But look carefully and you’ll notice an empty picture frame at the bottom of the wall. This frame is reserved for a new face, the one who will be innovator No. 56 on the list.
Could the next Steve Jobs, Maya Angelou or Walt Disney actually come out of Playa Vista?
Milan Ratkovich, senior development manager of The Ratkovich Company, is planning on it.
Best known for restoring such historic buildings as the Wiltern Theatre, The Ratkovich Company was founded by Milan’s father Wayne in 1977. Since then, the company has been on a mission to hold onto history while improving the quality of urban life. The Hercules Campus does both.
“What our company likes to do is buy buildings that need love and attention and need to be restored. We like to add value to structure,” says Ratkovich.
The 28-acre, 530,000-square-foot campus was once the compound where aviation pioneer Hughes set up shop, built a runway and famously locked thousands of secret patents in a giant vault. Thanks to The Ratkovich Company, the space has been strategically redesigned and is currently home to companies like YouTube and 72andSunny. The hangar where Hughes built the H-4 Hercules, aka the Spruce Goose, will soon accommodate Google.
When the Ratkovich Company bought the property, however, it was in shambles. All the existing structures, most built by Hughes in the 1940s, had blown-out windows and were filled with piles of leaves and debris. Many of the doors were hanging off their hinges. But this is exactly the kind of project at which Ratkovich excels.
“We embarked on an extensive renovation of the exteriors and left our tenants 72andSunny, Google, YouTube and Konami to redo all the interiors,” says Ratkovich.
A risky move, but it paid off.
“We were very fortunate that they were tenants that had a great design sense and built out the space in a really beautiful way, but also got that Hughes mystique and aura,” he says.
Through blood, sweat and risk-taking by many, the Hercules Campus now rises like a phoenix from the ashes of Hughes’s former offices, cafeteria, vault and fire station. This is the Hughes legacy 2.0, and tech companies can’t move in fast enough.
It may seem odd that forward-looking companies leading the digital age are inspired by decades-old buildings, but Ratkovich claims the Hughes lore has been a big draw.
“That was a big reason 72andSunny wanted to be here — they wanted to be where Howard was and didn’t want to see anything else. They appreciated the history that was here,” he says.
Even YouTube, a brand that’s become synonymous with millennials, wanted their own signature artifact that could connect them to the legend of Howard Hughes. Considering that YouTube Space L.A. used to be a helicopter hangar, Ratkovich thinks they chose the perfect icon to greet guests: “It’s an actual Hughes helicopter that was built here that they restored themselves.”
Now, a new generation of innovators works in the same buildings where Hughes built gravity-defying flying machines. But Nick Harnsberger, development manager for The Ratkovich Company and Milan’s right-hand man, thinks it’s more than coincidence that Silicon Beach has perched itself on top of Hughes’s old stomping grounds.
Harnsberger describes it as “technological manifest destiny — that drive for innovation, coming west. This open template that happened because L.A. was the last frontier for America. It’s a very recent city. We’re still not even as mature as San Francisco. We’re still growing up in some ways, and this is a part of that legacy.”
Another draw to the location, both now and in Hughes’s time, is access to open space. There are plenty of outdoor meeting areas, walking trails and endless sunshine.
“Just being able to be outside is considered an amenity — you can’t have outdoor meetings downtown or in other cities without a lot of effort,” adds Ratkovich.
But as important as the past is to the Hercules Campus, it’s the future that really inspires Ratkovich, who thinks Playa Vista will continue to grow as a tech hub over the next decade.
“What’s unique about Playa Vista,” he says, “is all the residential that’s in close proximity to the tech portion. Hopefully, some of the people working here will be living in some of the new housing.”
With 100% of the Hercules Campus leased out, Ratkovich says his job here is done.
So whose portrait will fill the empty frame on the wall reserved for that 56th innovator?
Ratkovich says he doesn’t know, but the space is primed for one to emerge.
“We built the canvas for them, now they have to paint the picture.”
Learn more about The Ratkovich Company’s projects at ratkovich.net.