Where to Explore Downtown L.A.’s Most Historic Hotels | KCET
Where to Explore Downtown L.A.’s Most Historic Hotels
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In Los Angeles, our hotels aren’t just for business travelers, tourists, or other visitors. They’re for us, too.
Because like many of our other landmark buildings, they tell the story of how the City of Angels grew up from its original pueblo beginnings – both horizontally and vertically.
They’re always open for exploring – even without a room key. And they’ll feed you while you’re there, too. They’ll even give you some of the best views of the city below.
Not all of L.A.’s hotels have survived the passage of time, of course. Some have been converted for other uses – like SROs or even event spaces. And some of our most historic hotels today occupy structures that were built for other purposes, but whose designs leant themselves toward adaptive reuse.
And while you can find much of L.A.’s historic lodging throughout the expanse of our great metropolis – from Santa Monica to Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Koreatown, and environs farther east – perhaps the greatest concentration of them can be found in L.A.’s downtown.
So here are 5 of the most intriguing hotels of yesterday and today – where you can spend all day and night soaking in all the history and culture they have to offer.
1. The NoMad Hotel, The Giannini Building
Formerly the Bank of Italy headquarters (named after its founder, Amadeo Giannini), the palatial, 12-story Giannini Building was dedicated in 1923 and opened to much fanfare – thanks in no small part to the neoclassical design by architectural firm Morgan, Walls & Clements, with Italianate cornices and terra-cotta cladding.
At the time, Bank of Italy was the largest bank in the West (and would become Bank of America in 1930). Its founder pioneered the idea that banking was for regular folk and not just the rich. So, the bank pursued potential customers whose banking potential had been heretofore underestimated – namely, women and children – to fill its 12,000 safety deposit boxes. But standing vacant at the corner of Olive and 7th Street for nearly two decades, The Giannini Building had become an eyesore – and was converted into the boutique NoMad Hotel in 2018.
The main vault door is one of the only significant features of the opulent bank building that remains. Weighing 50 tons, it now protects a small lounge area and the public restrooms on the lower level. Upstairs, the former offices had already been gutted, leaving little of historical value to be preserved when the Sydell Group took over the building (with some help from billionaire investor Ron Burkle) and renovated it.
There’s now a rooftop bar that offers sweeping views of Downtown L.A. – as well as a little bit of Italy in the form of Orcus, god of the underworld. The statue at the far end of the pool is a replica of one found in the 16th century "sacred grove," Sacro Bosco, in northern Italy.
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2. Freehand, Commercial Exchange Building
Another infamous Downtown L.A. eyesore that’s been converted into a boutique hotel is the former Commercial Exchange Building, now the Freehand Los Angeles. Built as an office building during the economic boom of 1924, it was once a significant part of L.A.’s commercial core. But it, too, had stood vacant and languishing for 20 or so years – despite having a rich history, a solid architectural pedigree, and one of the tallest neon blade signs in L.A. (installed prior to 1935 and restored in 2017). A 1966 fire dealt a nearly fatal blow to the building, whose top two floors were extensively damaged and subsequently blocked off.
Designed by Walker & Eisen (known also for their work on the Taft Building in Hollywood, Hotel Normandie in K-Town, and the Fine Arts and Oviatt buildings in Downtown), the 13-story, Beaux Arts-style building retains a lot of its original character, despite its extended vacancy, with the interior (including coffered ceilings, marble stairways, and tile) largely intact. After being boarded up over so many years, some original decorative features were revealed during restoration work – including a long-hidden relief over a doorway at the storefront level at the north façade (facing 8th Street).
Upstairs, the former offices – including one once occupied by "Tarzan" author Edgar Rice Burroughs – have been converted into either traditional hotel rooms or shared, bunk-style hostel rooms that cater to cost-conscious, international travelers. A mural painted by the art collective Cyrcle is only visible through the windows of certain guest rooms.
The Freehand offers many establishments for the public to enjoy, both in the lobby (at The Exchange restaurant) and on the roof (at Broken Shaker). And while the pool is for hotel/hostel guests only, the view is for everybody. Before you enter from the ground level, see if you can spot where the building was chopped up and part of it was moved 5 feet to accommodate the widening of Olive Street in 1935.
3. Ace Hotel, United Artists/Texaco Building
Many people recognize the L.A. outpost of Ace Hotel by its neon “JESUS SAVES” sign – a leftover from the 10-year period that Dr. Eugene Scott's University Cathedral Church had taken over the Gothic movie palace at street level, the former United Artists Theatre that now operates as the Theatre at Ace Hotel.
Its neon marquee (circa 1936) serves as a beacon for guests and visitors roaming at the southern end of the Broadway Theater and Entertainment District, which boasts one of the largest concentrations of historic theaters in the country, and the Historic Broadway Sign District, which keeps the stretch of Downtown L.A. awash in a neon glow.
The Ace, which opened on Broadway in 2014, actually occupies the former California Petroleum Corporation Building – known later as the Texaco Building (though the company eventually moved its L.A. headquarters to Wilshire Boulevard in what’s now Koreatown). Also built by Walker and Eisen, the steel-framed, 12-story office tower is clad in terra cotta and cast stone. It was the tallest privately owned building in Los Angeles until 1956.
Upon the building’s completion, the pressed metal rooftop tower actually made it exceed the height limit at the time (such that no building be taller than City Hall) – but because it housed elevator equipment, and the building permits called it "signage," it was allowed.
Up on the roof of the current hotel, there's now a tiny swimming pool and the "Upstairs" bar – plus a fabulous view of the Eastern Columbia building (and a glimpse of the "JESUS SAVES" sign). Downstairs, there's a lobby coffee bar and the restaurant Best Girl, which features some stained glass window details by Judson Studios.
And of course there’s the theatre, which has been fully rehabbed and hosts a number of concerts, talks and even the occasional movie screening.
4. Hotel Figueroa, former YWCA
When it was originally built as a YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association) “hostelry” in 1926, Hotel Figueroa was the largest commercial building funded by women for women. The women’s organization’s symbol – an inverted triangle – can still be found throughout the hotel, especially in areas excavated in its most recent renovation.
At the time, women had been allowed to vote since the passing of the 19th Amendment six years before – but at most hotels, traveling solo (many of whom were “white-collar” workers) were prohibited from checking in without a male chaperone. In what’s now known as the “South Park” neighborhood of Downtown L.A., adjacent to Staples Center and L.A. Live, the YWCA provided a safe haven for such “unattended” ladies – “by women, for women.”
Even when it opened its doors to men (for accommodations by single-sex floor only) two years later – and opened to all sexes in 1930 – its legacy of women’s empowerment and feminist roots didn’t end. For starters, the YWCA kept its headquarters there until 1951. Over the years, the hotel was a hub for such women’s organizations as Women's Law Enforcement Committee of Southern California, Women's Christian Temperance Union, California Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, California League of Women Voters, Women's International League, Pacific Women's Association, Women's Advertising Club, Business Women's Legislative Council, Southern California Women's Press Club, Women's Republican Study Club, and so on.
Starting in 2014, “The Fig” underwent a four-year renovation that took what had become a “Moroccan retreat” in 1976 and restored it to its original Spanish Colonial Revival style for its grand reopening in 2018 – with a few tips of the hat to Morocco, including Rick’s private event space and the luxury Casablanca Suite. The coffin-shaped pool that had been added in the 1940s – the only one of its kind, as far as the proprietors know – was also refurbished. And the “new” design features some original tile, original lobby skylights, and some visual tributes to the hotel’s original badass lady manager, motorcyclist and aviatrix Maude Bouldin.
5. The Biltmore Hotel (now Millennium Biltmore)
The Biltmore Hotel – part of the Millennium Hotels portfolio since 2009 – was originally built in 1923 as a "statement to the rest of the world that Los Angeles had arrived as an American metropolis." With its main entrance facing Pershing Square – the closest thing Downtown L.A. had to a “Central Park” – the new world-class hotel was both extravagant and popular for several decades.
Once known as “The Host of the Coast,” the Beaux Arts hotel was fit for presidents, celebrities, and partygoers alike – having hosted both the Democratic National Convention in 1960 and the Academy Awards ceremonies throughout the 1930s and 40s. In fact, the Academy was founded in the Biltmore’s Crystal Ballroom in 1927.
Legend has it that the Oscar statue design was sketched on a luncheon napkin there. Although it declined in the 1960s and 70s before bouncing back under new ownership and management, this architectural masterpiece today provides luxury accommodations much as it did back when it was still the largest hotel west of Chicago.
To see the architecture of Schultze & Weaver (later famed for their work on New York’s Waldorf-Astoria) and the frescoes, murals, and other decorative artistry commissioned of Italy’s own Giovanni Battista Smeraldi (known for his work on The White House and the Vatican), you’re free to wander through the public spaces on your own. The Moorish-style Rendezvous Court, formerly the hotel’s main lobby, is a sight to behold, with its vaulted ceiling and grand staircase – but to really experience it, make a reservation for Afternoon Tea service, which is offered from 2:00 - 5:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. You can also have a classic cocktail and/or a snack at the Gallery Bar and Cognac Room, which opens at 4:00 p.m. daily, or simply roam the 350-foot-long promenade known as the Galeria and peek into the former Music Room, which was repurposed as the hotel’s new registration area in 1987.
For a more complete experience, sign up for a weekly walking tour offered by Los Angeles Conservancy on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. throughout the year. The tour takes you into the Biltmore Bowl, Gold Room, Emerald Room, and more – and your guide will point out all the details you might miss on your own. (And there are a lot of them!) The Biltmore is also included on Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Holiday Highlights Tour,” which runs Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. throughout December.
Bonus: The Hoxton Hotel, Los Angeles Transit Building
The newest addition to the Downtown L.A. hotel scene is The Hoxton, just steps away from the Historic Broadway Theatre District and inside the western boundary of the Fashion District. The Hoxton now occupies the former headquarters of Henry Huntington’s Los Angeles Railway Corporation (a.k.a. the “Yellow Cars”) and its successors (Los Angeles Transit Lines, Metropolitan Transit Authority). Known colloquially as the Los Angeles Transit Building, it most recently housed a garment factory.
To experience the new restoration of the 1922 Beaux Arts building (designed by the architectural firm of Noerenberg & Johnson), you can book a room, or simply visit the all-day diner in the lobby, rooftop restaurant and bar, or basement bar (coming in 2020).
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