The Culver Hotel: Harry C. Culver's Flatiron of Fun | KCET
The Culver Hotel: Harry C. Culver's Flatiron of Fun
In the early afternoon Culver City feels like a sleepy company town, far away from the gridlocked streets that lace through it. Women in yoga pants buy flowers at Trader Joe's, tired fathers sip recently bought coffees as they help toddlers along on unsteady feet, and joggers run by the iconic "Mount Vernon" mansion at the Culver Studios. At the intersection of Washington and Culver Boulevards, in the midst of all this bucolic commerce, rises a brick triangle that looks like a wedge of tawny brown bread. This is the Culver Hotel. In front of the entrance is a statue of Harry Culver, the man who built this building and founded this town, sitting on a bench reading a sculpted newspaper etched with his own publicity.
Ninety years after its construction, the Culver Hotel still towers over the odd "main street" it inhabits. Inside and out, this self-styled boutique hotel has the cramped, faded glamour of a European establishment, complete with a thin couple dressed in all black sipping espressos at a table outside. A display window features a sun-worn tableau of the Wizard of Oz -- a Dorothy doll leaning against a collage of yellow brick roads and Munchkins. Inside, the famous bar and lounge is sparsely populated by modish people, the custom-designed piano crammed in the corner. The building is full of nooks and crannies and stairs that wind to who knows where. A narrow, beautifully appointed dining room is being set up for a bridal shower, though I only glimpse it through a window. For all the freshly cut flowers and white collared employees, there is a tinge of dinginess and sadness about the place.
I return that night. Night is when the Culver Hotel comes alive. The bar reverberates with the sound of jazz music emanating from the once forlorn grand piano. Glittering couples nibble food and canoodle, groups clink sparkling champagne glasses and everything feels sophisticated and slightly dangerous. I get the feeling this duality has always been present at the Culver Hotel -- that the movie stars, bookies, and bums who once called this building a temporary home were probably always at their best in the nighttime and on into the wee small hours of the morning, when the legitimate world was still fast asleep.
The Big Parade
Harry Culver was born in 1880 in Milford, Nebraska. Milford had been founded by his grandfather and from an early age Culver shared his family's enterprising spirit. By the age of eight he held down two jobs, and later he worked his way through the University of Nebraska as the ad man for the student paper. After a brief stint in the Spanish American War and success as a reporter for the Manila Times, where he befriended future president William Taft, he landed in California in 1910. Determined to found his own "dream" town, he apprenticed with the developer I.N. Van Nuys and explored the greater L.A. area, looking for his own perfect plot of land.
He found it during a Sunday drive in the summer of 1913, at the intersection of West Washington Boulevard and the inter-urban railway tracks -- 93 acres of undeveloped barley fields in the vast La Ballona Valley, at the perfect midpoint between downtown Los Angeles and the sea. Inspired, Harry dashed to a telephone at a nearby grocery story to pitch wealthy investors. Soon this master salesman was acquiring the land with other people's money and wooing Midwestern investors to live in the newly named "Culver City."
Harry employed similarly enthusiastic young men to ride the rails from New York to L.A. They would then befriend tourists and lure them to the La Ballona Valley, where they gave high pressure talks in sweaty sales tents. Observing that "what seems to attract people is something moving,"
The gimmicks paid off. Culver City was officially incorporated in 1917 and soon became a hub of another fly-by-the-seat-of-its pants industry -- the movies. The Thomas Ince Studios were the first to move in, and MGM followed, both bringing a large number of young residents and lots of cash with them.
Harry was riding high. On September 4, 1924, his crowning achievement, a six-story multi-use "skyscraper" on the Main Street of Culver City, was opened with typical Harry Culver aplomb. A half holiday was declared, as businesses, merchants and schools let out. Over 8,000 residents and guests joined the "carnival and street celebration" to mark the grand opening of the Harry H. Culver Building. Designed in the site-specific flatiron style by the firm of Culett and Beelman, the L.A. Times described it thusly:
A dance was held in the lobby of the new building that night for one and all. Culver quickly set about using the structure as his headquarters in his never-ending marketing dance. According to a co-worker: "The lobby was small and Culver's office was on the second floor. You had to walk about 50 feet from the entrance to his desk. It was very impressive." 4 Harry would put potential buyers up in the hotel and then seal the deal by bringing them to the top of the building to see the view of his rapidly expanding town.
It was quite a sight. On any given day a prospective buyer could have seen a silent film company shooting the building's exterior for a scene, or a movie star slipping over to a nearby illegal saloon for a quick nip, or one of the numerous festivities that occurred with great regularity under Harry Culver's rule. "It was a common occurrence," remembered one resident, "for the streets of Culver City to be blocked for some event or another." 5
Soon nearby studios were utilizing the hotel to house visiting employees. MGM housed the Charleston-crazed Joan Crawford and other young starlets there when they were first contracted to the studio. Stars with a reputation for hell raising, including Buster Keaton and Lupe Velez, kept apartments at the centrally located hotel, as did Clark Gable, Rod La Roque, and Greta Garbo. When Pathe had a special screening of Cecil B. DeMille's "The Godless Girl," the whole cast gathered at the Culver Building before making their way to the theater. And in 1928, a precursor to the legendary Munchkin invasion of 1938 occurred when the hotel hosted 40 little people. They had been brought to Hollywood for the filming of MGM's "Mysterious Isle." Even Harry and his wife lived at the hotel for a bit while their palatial new home was built near the California Country Club.
The Seedier Side of the Rainbow
It has been said that the returning Munchkins were awoken the morning after their first night to music and festivities that took the form of a parade outside their window. Ecstatic that the city would honor them in this way, they were crestfallen to learn that the festivities were actually in honor of the Armistice Day Parade.
In 1932, an actress and dancer named Mamita Coleman Hayes, who had recently made headlines trying to marry a man while he was in county jail, made the papers again. This time, the L.A. Times announced that she was "quietly" paying off her debt in manageable installments to the Culver City Hotel, as the Hunt Hotel was now called. In 1934, it was announced that a new county relief office would be opened in a business suite in the Culver Building to try and help "meet the heaviest charity burden in the history of the country." 6
The depression had come to Culver City. Its effervescent founder was reduced to bankruptcy. In 1933, Harry lost the building that bore his name. Thus began a bewildering succession of owners for the flatiron building, which found its star-power fading. Better roads led to a nightly exodus of high class studio clientele to mansions in Beverly Hills and Malibu. Actors still lived there, but they were the seedier sort, like Douglas Hanks, who drunkenly killed a woman in his car. The studios still used the hotel to house visiting employees, like Robert Taylor, an official at Selznick International. In 1937, his young family stayed in the hotel after moving from Dallas. Their toddler Monya was playing on a divan when she slipped from a fourth story window and fell to the lawn below. She died minutes later.
The next year the hotel welcomed its most famous, and infamous, guests. One hundred twenty four little people, brought from all over the country to appear as Munchkins in MGM's " The Wizard of Oz," took up residence in the hotel. Some miniature furniture was brought in to accommodate their size, although Jerry Marin, who played "the lollipop kid," mischievously quipped that the huge beds had plenty of room for three. It was alleged that they "ransacked" the hotel, took over the bar, and were ferried back and forth to the studio by a secret underground tunnel. There is reason to doubt these rumors -- the "tunnel" was actually a well traveled underground footpath for pedestrians to bypass the busy streets, and according to one of the actors:
The Duke and the Bookies
There are three different versions of how the Culver Hotel came to have its most famous owner. One is that Charlie Chaplin sold it to John Wayne for $1 in a poker game. Another is that Red Skelton lost it to ... John Wayne, in a poker game. And then there is the version of record. In 1945, John Wayne and his business manager, Bo Roos, bought the faded building as an investment property.
The stories of gamblers, prostitutes, and other illegal activities at the hotel seemed to be confirmed during the partner's renovation of the property. According to Roos, he and Wayne "noticed that the measurements of one suite did not coincide with the specifications in the hotel plans." 8 They knocked down a wall, and found a room 5 feet wide by 40 feet long, with from 40 to 50 telephone lines and benches, ideal for an extensive bookmaking operation." The bookies had split when they heard the Duke was coming.
The duo created swanky new business suites on the first two floors and renovated the hotel rooms. The building enjoyed a brief renaissance. Comedian Red Skelton maintained a suite of rooms at the hotel while working for MGM, which is what probably led to the generally held belief that he had owned it. But Wayne and Roos soon discovered that maintaining the old structure cost more money than it was worth. "They tried to refurbish it," remembered Don Lacava, Wayne's agent, "but they had to keep refurbishing it. Boilers were bursting and pipes had to be replaced." 9
During the '50s and '60s it became a lower level apartment building, with studio technicians and factory workers occupying bachelor apartments. Eccentrics abounded, like longtime resident Perkins Harley, who had paintings hanging in the National Gallery, but chose to work as a food handler in a local cafeteria. Then there was the Reverend Dollie Phillips, who founded her Unity Church in a room in the building in the 1950s. In 1967, Wayne finally donated the money pit to the YMCA, and they in turn sold it a few years later.
In 1972, a fire forced the evacuation of 80 tenants, critically injuring one. It was a bad time for Culver City. The big studios were folding and downsizing, one by one. The area around the Culver became a depressed area, filled with dive bars and flop houses. In a 1973 profile in the L.A. Times, the building's manager, Mrs. Junita Coyer, bragged about the drunks and dopes she had kicked out of the hotel, only to see them reappear outside hotels across the street. Plans for renovation of the building, and efforts to turn it into respectable housing for seniors and handicapped people, came to naught. It seemed the building's extinction was "inevitable."
But Harry Culver's dream was not yet dead. The 1990s and 2000s saw the rebirth of Culver City, as new studios moved in and the Culver City Redevelopment Agency's decades of work began to pay off. The building, now known as The Culver Hotel, had for years been bought and sold as a tax shelter, but in 1997 new owners renovated it and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Culver Hotel is now owned by the Mallick family, who completed another renovation of the property in 2011. According to the L.A. Times:
The old flatiron has finally found someone who loves it as much as Harry did. There are of course many tales of ghosts in a building such as this, including the story that Harry often walks the halls attempting to retrieve money stored in his office safe. It seems a safer bet that if it is indeed Harry, he is simply admiring the Mallick's handiwork, glad that his "skyscraper's" history has kept on moving into the future.
Additional Photos By: Hadley Meares
1 "Real estate developer Harry Culvers dream bears his name" Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1982
3 "Culver City skyscraper fete scene" Los Angeles Times, Aug 28, 1924,
4 "Glories of the past gone, old hotel fights to survive" Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1973
6 "Relief cost faces slash" Los Angeles Times, Nov 30, 1934
7 "Voices of the century: The golden age: 1939-1963" Anonymous. Newsweek, Jun 28, 1999: 46-57.
8 "Colorful memories of early days haunt Culver City Hotel" Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1966: )
9 "Glories of the past gone, old hotel fights to survive" Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1973
10Culver City News