Sign of the Times: The Strange Fortune of the Hotel Californian

At the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive, cars jam into each other, drivers impatient to escape to the hills of Griffith Park or to the 5 Freeway just ahead. The Mulholland Fountain teems with teenage girls posing for pictures in brightly colored quinceañera dresses, with newly married brides and grooms running after ring bearers in tight little tuxes. But take a walk behind the fountain, through a parking lot and a patch dead grass, and the world quickly becomes quiet.

A low, squat building with a chicken wire fence greets you. It seems uninhabited, deserted. Only a small sign lets you know that you are at 3224 Riverside Drive, a warehouse for L.A. Shares, a non-profit organization which recycles donated usable goods back into the community. But you probably will not notice it -- your eyes will immediately be drawn to the large rusted steel sign located behind the low fence, spelling out "CALIFORNIAN." Behind it rests another sign, twisted and gnarled, which reads "HOTEL."

A "Class A Construction"

Four and a half miles and nine decades away, our story begins. In 1924 on the corner of Bonnie Brae and Sixth Street, developer W. Hollifield began construction on a new hotel in the booming neighborhood of Westlake. Westlake was often compared to the upper East Side of New York City, a bedroom community where many families, including a large Jewish population, lived in elegant Spanish revival and Art Deco homes. In fact, before construction of the hotel, the lot had itself been the site of a grand Victorian mansion built by early developer Willitts J. Hole.

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The jewel in the neighborhood's crown was Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park); the stunning park and its surrounding areas were considered by the town's (perhaps over-reaching) boosters to be Los Angeles' answer to the Champs-Élysées.

Westlake was once known as L.A.'s answer to the Champes-Élysées | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Perfectly situated between downtown and the expanding Westside, high-end hotels began springing up all over Westlake. The new hotel at 1907 W. Sixth Street, a $500,000 investment, was built by the Luther T. Mayo Organization in record time. Optimism and civic pride sprung out of every mention of the building in the Los Angeles Times. An ingenious arrangement of doors could section the building off into quarters to prevent the spread of fire. Ninety-five percent of the material and furnishing used were locally made or mined in Southern California. Two hundred men were continuously employed throughout the winter, and due to the "glorious" California weather, not a day was lost.

A large celebration, featuring the Ambassador Orchestra, marked its formal opening in April, 1925, according to an L.A. Times article from March of that year. Christened the "Hotel Californian," the five-floor structure boasted 200 rooms, each with their own bath, double closets and radio connections. The Spanish style outer lobby was said to be particularly lovely, with walls treated to look like old stone, and a polychromed wooden beamed ceiling that was painted with ornaments. The main lobby continued in the old mission style, featuring an abundance of antique wood, dulled off primary colors, gold leaf highlights, tapestries and ornamental iron.

And of course there was the sign -- a large neon sign hoisted on the top of the building. Neon was all the rage in '20s and '30s, so it was only fitting that this promise of Los Angeles' bright future should shine brightly over all of Westlake.

Ad from L.A. Times dated April 1, 1925

The odd case of the Duke

Image from L.A. Times article dated April 23, 1927For all its promise of civic glory nothing ever seemed to quite go the Californian's way (even its name was never settled: "Hotel Californian" and "Californian Hotel" being used interchangeably over the years).

Take the story of temporary resident Archduke Leopold of Austria. In April of 1927, according to the L.A. Times, Los Angeles was all a-twitter over the arrival of this suave and handsome nephew of the late emperor Franz Josef. The "esteemed guest" of Henry F. Stumme, manager of the Californian, the Duke was on an automobile tour of the United States, giving speeches to encourage investment in the post-war Austrian economy and buttering up gullible Hollywood, pontificating that movies would do more for world peace than diplomacy ever could.

By July the Archduke was an embarrassment to the hotel. After a trans-American telegram fight with the Austrian ambassador in Washington D.C. over the transfer of funds from friends in New York City, the hot tempered Archduke challenged the Ambassador to a duel. Cash-strapped and rebuffed by the consulate, the Archduke decided to try his hand in Hollywood, working as an extra to make enough money to get back to Europe, or perhaps to become a star. When he was finally forced to leave the hotel after escaping larceny charges over the attempted sale of a necklace said to have once belong to Empress Marie Louise, he left Los Angeles. He ended his days as a factory worker in Connecticut.

Like the Archduke, stability was not the byword of the Hotel Californian. By this authors estimate, in the first 25 years of its existence the hotel had no fewer than eight owners. One of the most interesting was Ms. Hilda Foote, owner of the Foote Hotel Corporation, who ran apartments and hotels all over the West for two decades before buying the Californian in 1930. The hotel seems to have been bought and sold many times in the frantic real estate market of boom town Los Angeles, often being purchased as a package deal with other neighborhood hotels.

But hotel life went on, regardless of ownership. In 1927 Clark Dodge, an L.A. Times reporter and his new bride, Alabaman actress Muriel Kay, announced their intention to reside at the hotel after their honeymoon. In 1932 Republican chairman Eric Fowler gave a speech to the Women's Republican Club in the same ballroom where 18 years later the National Champion Legion Male Chorus rehearsed before defending their title. The ballroom was perhaps a little shabby by then, because two years before, in 1948, new owners Parks, Lapkoff and Berman promised $100,000 worth of improvements as part of their purchase.

Legion Male Chorus at the Hotel Californian | Image from L.A. Times article dated October 8, 1950

The Westlake area, upscale as it was, was not immune to war and crime. During WWII all neon signs in Los Angles were dimmed, never to be relit. In 1943 a stick-up artist began robbing hotels in the neighborhood, including the Asbury and Barbara, and his last stop was the Californian. When the culprit Robert Ledbetter entered the Californian's lobby and demanded cash from the clerk Maurice Hass, she pretended to comply, handing him $31. As the bandit reached for the money Hass hit Ledbetter over the head twice with a small billy club, thus ending his crime spree.

Fire next time

Unfortunately, crime and destruction would slowly consume the Californian and the entire Westlake area. By the 1960s, with the discontinuation of the trolley system and the building of freeways, the fabled phenomenon of white flight struck the area. Westlake became increasingly populated by transients, gang members, and political refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, many with little means of support. Single family homes were subdivided into apartments and hotels like the Californian became low rent living spaces. A 1980 classified ad for the once "Class A construction" reads: "Furnished rooms, no line service, reasonable rates. Near bus."

In spite of its ingenious safety design, fire seemed to continually taunt the Californian in its later years. In 1961 two suspected arson fires, set minutes apart, caused $40,000 in damage as they swept through the upper floors and roof of the Californian. In 1973 a Red Cross center was set up in the faded lobby after the devastating Stratford Apartment Fires. Fireman James Bryan dramatically rescued two women and an infant from the fifth floor in 1981, after they attempted to jump while fire raged on the second floor. He led them across a three-foot wide, 40-foot long ledge as onlookers watched on in awe. Another fire in 1986 found a man racing along the second floor as flames chased after him; ten other residents were treated for smoke inhalation.

Firemen rescue a child and an elderly woman from the Hotel Californian | Image from L.A. Times article dated June 17, 1981

By 1990, gang crimes, prostitution and drug dealing had infested Westlake. It was estimated that up to 30 murders occurred in MacArthur Park alone that year. The Californian became a poster-child for the neighborhoods slum culture when in the spring of 1994, L.A. Times staff writer Lucille Renwick wrote an expose on conditions at the hotel, citing gaping holes, trash strewn hallways, roach infested rooms, and pale green carpets caked in dirt and food. She spoke to one resident whose children were taken away by social services when a rat ran across her bathroom floor -- a far cry from the Archduke and imaginary trans-Atlantic duel.

Ownership of the Californian continued to change constantly, although this time it was part of a bust cycle -- not a boom -- of escaping responsibility for the countless safety violations the building received from the city. A large arson fire in July of 1994 destroyed the fifth floor, and the city condemned the building after officials were unable to find the building's legitimate owner.

Months of investigation ensued. A paper trail led investigators all over Los Angeles, Brazil and finally Las Vegas, where resident Syed Ali was found to be the actual owner. Another one of Ali's building had been destroyed by arson in 1988. Ali was never charged with a crime, but was ordered to pay restitution to the 50 displaced residents of the Hotel Californian and $13,000 in fines for fire, health and safety violations.

Fire was not yet done with the Californian. In November 1994, before the city began its scheduled demolition, transients attempting to stay warm inside were suspected in the accidental setting of two fires in the hotel's empty rooms. The building was finally demolished in the spring of 1995 -- but not before the hotel's historic neon sign was saved and moved to its present location. In 1995 City Councilman Mark Hernandez stated his hope that when a new building was built at the site, the new owner would hoist the sign up on the roof, where it could shine once again.

Neighboring Hotel Barbizon in the 1970s, with Hotel Californian sign in the background | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Today, he is still waiting.

Barkers and small tradesmen congregate, amiably chatting, around the battered chain link fence that now surrounds the corner of Sixth Street and Bonnie Brae, in still-troubled, densely populated Westlake. They sell second hand radios, off-brand cell phone cases, and plastic backpacks covered in shiny Disney Princesses. Some put the fence to good use, hanging Mardi Gras beads and coat hangers with printed scrubs on the small metal diamonds. There are human-sized holes in the fence, though there is nothing much to escape to. Seventeen years after the Californian's demolition, 1907 Sixth Street remains an empty dirt and crab grass-covered lot. Someone has pulled a distressed couch onto the grass; it is overturned, but when you look closely you see underneath a man sleeping peacefully, his head resting on a bundled up sweatshirt.

1907 W. Sixth Street is now an empty lot surrounded by a chain linked fence - a stark contrast to the recently restored Hotel Barbizon next door | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

A lone couch occupies the land that once housed hundreds of residents and visitors | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

Newly trashed Christmas tree shares the lot with old scraps | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

Everywhere you look there are traces of the grandeur that was once Westlake. Many of the surrounding buildings are still beautiful -- chewed up and spit out architectural models of another era. Despite graffiti and an abundance of trash, the park is still lovely with grand statues and long lawns, and children playing all day and into the night. And happily there are plans underway for 1907, Sixth Street. Last month at an L.A. City council meeting a 50-unit affordable housing center was proposed for the site, and though the housing, community and economic committee waived consideration of the matter, there is a great chance that this little parcel of land will be a temporary home for the hopeful once again.
Corner of Alvarado and Seventh Street in Westlake | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

View of the Ansonia Apartments from MacArthur Park | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

A popular soccer field now occupies what was formerly the northern section of the lake | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

The lake (after which the neighborhood was named) has been drained and renovated several times since the 1970s | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. She favors the underbelly, the unexplored and the untamed. Naturally she is a regular at the Dresden, where she sings syrupy ballads as often as she can.

Top: Hotel Californian sign as seen today near the Mulholland Fountain in Los Feliz. Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa.

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, historian, and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. She is a frequent contributor to Curbed and Atlas Obscura, and leads historical tours all around Los Angeles for Obscura Society LA.
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