A Diplomatic Guide
Historic Hotels of Los Angeles
Perhaps the Los Angeles area’s earliest, best known hotel was the 243 feet (74 meters) long, 50 feet (15 meters) wide, two stories high Convento wing of the San Fernando Mission, used by travelers on El Camino Real during the early 1800s.
As the city grew, so did the number of hotels. By the late 1800s and early 1900s the Los Angeles area offered visitors a diverse selection of accommodations. Among them were abodes that enticed the rich, the famous and the notorious.
The hotels I mention are only a sample of LA’s historic hotels. I write about them because they pique my interest. Perhaps they will do the same for you. Some of these hotels continue to make contemporary history. Many of them are considered luxurious – whether they are worthy of that label from a guest’s perspective, I don’t know. While I have visited each, I have not stayed at any of them.
When it opened in 1928 the Dunbar was the only luxury hotel west of the Mississippi River where African Americans could stay. It had 100 rooms on the second and third floors and a pharmacy, barbershop, beauty shop and flower shop on the first floor. It was a place of elegance for world-renowned entertainers, refused lodging by the white hotels in which they performed. It hosted such luminaries as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and Lena Horne. Joe Louis, Ray Charles, W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall all stayed here. Its nightclub was the center of the Central Avenue jazz scene – a scene that during the 1930s and 1940s was second only to Chicago in renown.
The hotel fell into disrepair. For a while it was used for low-income housing. In a 2008 article Scott Gold of the Los Angeles Times described the Dunbar as “a debutante who missed her ride at the end of the night and had to walk home in the rain. All of the elements of grace and beauty are still there, but her dress is torn and her lipstick is smeared.”
In 2012 the Dunbar and some adjoining apartments underwent a 14 million dollar renovation led by a public-private partnership. Named “Dunbar Village” the project was designed for senior housing. Many of the Dunbar’s historic interior features were preserved.
Access to the interior is limited but if one goes in the evening, parks on East 42nd Place across from the Dunbar and gazes at the building one cannot help but feel the spirit of past guests.
Located across from Pershing Square in the center of Los Angeles, The Biltmore opened in 1923. Its interior is an art deco masterpiece – a mixture of Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical and Moorish that has been the setting for numerous movies including Ghost Busters. The Biltmore Bowl, an auditorium within the hotel, hosted the Academy Awards during the 30s and 40s.
Based on two experiences, I cannot recommend the Biltmore’s dining facilities. However, a walk through the hotel is definitely recommended, or even better, a Los Angeles Conservancy guided Sunday tour.
Dating from 1912, the Beverly Hills Hotel and its ostentatious, pink exterior are known as a place where celebrities meet and stay. The hotel includes the famed Polo Lounge. Whether or not you are a guest, the hotel’s attendants are friendly and helpful. I have, a number of times, brought visitors to the hotel and told the parking attendant we just wanted to take a quick tour. I have always received a friendly welcome. Inside the hotel I have on several occasions even had staff offer to take my visitors and me on a quick tour of the facilities.
Marilyn Monroe lived here at various times. For those interested in trivia, she stayed in bungalow 21A during the 1960 filming of Let’s Make Love. John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed in Bungalow 10, the same bungalow preferred in earlier years by Marlene Dietrich.
Located on Wilshire Boulevard, on the dividing line between North and South Rodeo Drive, the luxurious Beverly Wilshire Hotel opened in 1927. Its site was a former bean field turned motor racetrack (the Beverly Hills Motor Speedway was considered the western rival to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). Past guests include President Obama, Emperor Hirohito, Prince Philip, Elton John, Nancy Reagan, Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Barbara Walters, William Buckley, Maurice Chevalier and Yul Brynner.
Although the interior shots were filmed at the Disney Studios, the Beverly Wilshire was used for the exterior and lobby shots in the movie Pretty Woman. For many years, until the cost became too high, the Beverly Wilshire was home to the Los Angeles Consular Corps’ monthly lunches and its annual Holiday Ball.
Built in 1906 as the Hotel Wentworth, five years later it was sold to the railroad magnate and avid art and book collector, Henry Huntington, founder of the nearby Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. The Huntington name has been associated with the hotel ever since.
In the 1950s the Sheraton Corporation acquired and then mutilated the property with additional construction and by covering much of the interior detailing.
After a series of ownership changes and after seismic tests showed the main building to be unsafe, the main wing of the building was demolished and in a $100 million restoration, restored with painstaking historic accuracy.
This hotel is perhaps the most interesting and historically most authentic hotel in Los Angeles combining history with elegance and fine dining. Albert Einstein, Theodore Roosevelt and Prince Philip all stayed here and would I suspect, do so again. As far as I know, in California the only hotels comparable to the Huntington are San Diego’s tourist infested Hotel del Coronado and Yosemite National Park’s Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel).
Located close to the Sunset Strip Chateau Marmont was built in 1929. It has hosted and continues to host many visiting celebrities and major Hollywood stars.
Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures, is quoted as saying, in 1939, “If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” This is where Jean Harlow purportedly had a honeymoon affair with non husband Clark Gable, Jim Morrison jumped off a bungalow roof, Lindsay Lohan made headlines over a large, unpaid hotel bill and the comic actor John Belushi died of a drug overdose in Bungalow #3.
Incidentally, a recent book that I have not yet read but has received some pretty good reviews is Aris Janigian’s Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont.
Located along Hollywood Boulevard, across from the Chinese Theater, the Roosevelt is a luxury hotel saturated with Hollywood history. Named after President Theodore Roosevelt, the hotel opened in 1927.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences located its first offices on the hotel’s mezzanine. In 1929 the first Academy Awards were held in the Roosevelt’s Blossom Room (with Errol Flynn serving bootlegged gin in the barbershop’s back room). The awards program portion of the private dinner for less than 250 people lasted just 15 minutes.
Marilyn Monroe’s first screen test was held here. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson used the stairway leading from the lobby to the mezzanine to teach Shirley Temple the famous staircase dance performed in The Little Colonel. Stars such as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard stayed here, as have more recently, Paris Hilton, Courtney Love and Bruce Willis.
David Niven reportedly told friends that “When I first arrived in California, broke and twenty-two years old, I had no training as an actor. I met Al Weingard, [who in later years would run the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara – a hideaway for the rich and famous] the reception clerk at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and he gave me a room in the servants’ quarters.”
Excluding the people who work in the adjoining coffee shop, I have found many of the staff at the Roosevelt to be snobbishly unhelpful. Even so, its ground floor lobby area and its mezzanine offer a nice respite from the madhouse across the street while providing a glimpse into Hollywood’s past glory days.
Located on the beach in Santa Monica, Casa del Mar opened in 1926 as a private beach club. Until World War II it was one of the most successful beach clubs in southern California, popular with socialites and Hollywood celebrities. In 1941 the American Navy commandeered the building and used it as a hotel and entertainment center for enlisted men throughout World War II.
Following the war the building resumed operations as a hotel but struggled financially. The building shut down in the early 60s. In 1967, amidst much local controversy the Synanon Foundation, operating a drug rehabilitation program, assumed ownership. In the late 1970s Synanon was replaced by the Pritikin Longevity Center, which used the building for its purposes until the late 90s.
Finally, in 1997 the company that owns the nearby Shutters on the Beach Hotel bought the property and undertook a major renovation. Many of the hotel’s pre World War II features were restored. The hotel has a large inside lounge area that overlooks the beach and offers a nice, near-distant view of the Santa Monica Pier. Notwithstanding occasional lackadaisical service by its lounge staff, I have found it to be a well-received stop when entertaining out-of-town visitors.
Close to Culver City’s Sony Studios, shaped like a wedge and located on a wedge shaped lot, the Culver Hotel opened in 1924. With its proximity to the MGM Studios it served as a part-time residence for many MGM stars. While the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz was being filmed 124 little people (who played the Munchkins in the film) stayed here, three people to a room. Unverified legends abound concerning the Culver. One of them is that Charlie Chaplin sold the hotel to John Wayne for $1.00 during one of their poker games.
The Culver Hotel has served as a shooting location for a number of movies including several Laurel & Hardy silent movies, a few Our Gang comedies and the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, The Last Action Hero.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at email@example.com.