Like the condemned prisoner it is, the old Statler Center/Statler Hilton/Omni/Wilshire Grand Hotel at the corner of Wilshire and Figueroa @ 930 Wilshire Boulevard, at this hour stoically sits awaiting its fate. Unlike any human counterparts, however, there’s no chance for a last-minute reprieve from the governor or even a last meal for that matter. Its fate is sealed and it’s only a short matter of time before the executioner arrives to make it official. (They’re saying “summer.”) Having lived in Los Angeles as long as I have, I am never surprised whenever a building is torn down, historic or not. What does surprise me, however, is how few are mourning the old hotel’s passing because it was once a such really big deal. I mean a really big deal. The largest hotel to be built in the United States since the Waldorf Astoria in 1931 it hosted movie stars, presidents (Eisenhower to Reagan) and kings as well as Pope John II; it was the venue for the 1952 Emmy Awards; it welcomed the Brooklyn Dodgers to their new home in Los Angeles; sequestered the jurors in the Rodney King Jr. trial; as well as delegates to the 1960 and 2000 Democratic National Conventions and it was once one of the “Crown Jewels” of Conrad Hilton’s mighty empire.
It had hot pink elevator doors, Googie curved glass mosaic tile-covered walls; automated luggage conveyors, an innovative “Drive In” registration feature. It had a pool resembling a “lopsided teardrop;” a wavy porte cochere declared to be “tipping its hat” to the city. It had Nixon wandering the halls (Yes, he lived there for a while); a swanky supper club called the Terrace Room where movie stars like Robert Taylor danced the night away to the tunes of Xavier Cugat; 15 ballroom/banquet/meeting rooms. Its laundry facilities could handle the equivalent of a town of 20,000; its restaurants could feed 15,000 It had air-conditioning and television sets in each of its 1,300 guest rooms, at a time when that was BIG deal; 13 stories of office space; three levels of shops; an ice skating rink; a jungle of palm trees and philodendrons indoors and out; a “cocktail garden” and 34 miles of dizzying lime, pink, eggplant, grey and mauve carpeting.
Fabulous Fifties-era hotels are such a rarity in the Los Angeles area (Just this and Welton Becket’s Beverly Hilton, I think) I thought for sure that when the death sentence was pronounced on what was now known as the Wilshire Grand Hotel there would be a hue and cry from all quarters to save this beloved Los Angeles landmark. The problem is though, was it a beloved Los Angeles landmark? In spite of its unique place in Los Angeles history, the Statler never seems to have caught the imagination of the city it served for nearly sixty years. Once the last word in jet age modernism, it’s now a forgotten relic about to be hauled off to the rubble heap with nary a peep of protest over its ignoble end. Now please don’t think this is in any way intended as a criticism of the preservation community or lovers of MCM architecture. It’s not. After all, look at me. I think it’s fair to say I love historic and interesting buildings, but do you know how many times I passed through the portals of that hotel? Zero. Why not? No reason in particular. I just never thought about it. And therein may lay the problem. People may have liked the Statler but they don’t seem to have ever loved it. Sure it was nice, but as the late, great Dom DeLuise said in History of the World Part I, “Nice…not thrilling, but nice.”
Built in an age of newer, faster, better, perhaps the Statler was never intended as a hotel for the ages. Like a fancy new car, it was a showstopper until inevitably eclipsed by a fancier, newer model. It served its purpose and now it’s time for a trade in. And it is certainly getting “traded in” for something fancier and newer. Korean Air, the owner of the property, has announced plans for a mammoth new Wilshire Grand Hotel, 70 stories high, “swathed in photovoltaic lights.” The plans, by the venerable firm of A.C. Martin Partners, Inc. are still evolving, but at present they include putting the lobby on the 70th floor. (No “Drive in” lobby anymore I guess). At present, it looks to become the second tallest building in Los Angeles with a target completion date of 2017. Gee whiz. No wonder no one’s mourning the loss of the dowdy old Statler. It sounds like Mamie Eisenhower (a frequent guest BTW) in a swimsuit competition with Angelina Jolie. (There’s a visual.) Personally, I’d bet the surprising Mamie would acquit herself as well as the old Statler would if anyone had given it a good look. But nobody did (including me) and it’s all academic now.
In a way, the site at Wilshire and Figueroa makes an almost perfect metaphor for the progress Los Angeles has made over the last century and continues to make as the buildings of the previous era give way for the next. For one thing, it was originally known as Grasshopper before it became Figueroa if that tells you anything! The first structure on the site had been the gracious Italianate Victorian residence of Samuel Calvert Foy, whose daughter Mary, became the City’s first librarian. The 1872 Foy house represented the Los Angeles of the 19th Century when the City’s well-to-do had their homes lining Figueroa. Then progress pushed it aside and replaced it with a mammoth new automobile headquarters, the showroom and garage of Paul G. Hoffman Inc. and the fabulous Studebaker. Then progress kicked that to the curb and up went the Statler. Now comes the new Wilshire Grand. The mind reels as to what will replace it!
Like the underappreciated friend or lover taken for granted until they leave you, the Statler has suddenly gripped me with guilt and a newfound appreciation for what it was. And I feel sad it’s going away without at least a proper sendoff. It was, as it turns out, a pretty cool place and it deserves to be remembered. So won’t you join me in raising a glass, or two, or three, in a little celebration of the short, but eventful life of the soon to be late, great Statler Center cum Statler Hilton cum Los Angeles Hilton cum Omni cum Wilshire Grand cum pile of twisted rubble. Farewell Statler! We hardly knew ye!
Designed by the venerable Chicago firm of Holabird, Root & Burgee with A.A. Nickman as associate architect. The super modern Statler, which was to be the newest and brightest link in the growing Statler Hotel chain, had been in the planning stages for more than three years before ground was officially broken in 1950. The mammoth project was originally estimated at $15,000,000-$18,000,000 and would contain 1,275 hotel rooms, three floors of shops, a three-story garage and 150,000 square feet in office space in its own thirteen story tower attached. The hotel was also providentially sited adjacent to the as-of-yet uncompleted 101 Freeway being built through downtown. For years, the Statler would advertise itself as the hotel “At the hub of the freeways.”
And aaaway we go! July 5, 1950, the ground is broken on the $25,000,000 Statler Center with a gold-plated shovel. That’s glamorous film star Celeste Holm on the left and in the center is none other than Mary E. Foy, Los Angeles’ very first librarian, whose family’s home stood on the site from 1872 to 1921. She’s letting her nieces, Mary & Martha Fowler, get into the act as well as Arthur F. Douglas, president of Hotels Statler Corporation. California Governor and future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Earl Warren personally operated the steam shovel. Now that’s hands on leadership! Governor Warren was later given the honor of being the first guest in the hotel’s luxurious “State Suite.”
And up we go! For the record, the Statler Center required 7,500 tons of structural steel and 50,000 yards of concrete spread out over a floor space of 25 acres. It took more than two years to complete the mammoth project from Summer 1950 to Fall 1952.
And we’re almost there! The wavy entrance portico was a bit of pizzazz for an otherwise rather severe exterior.
And we’re not quite ready, but, what the heck, close enough! Projected for a June 1952 opening, the Statler project was running way behind schedule. The hotel had to open by Labor Day weekend as conventions had already been booked. As crews continued to work furiously to complete the mammoth structure, Statler management decided to throw a Hail Mary pass and unlock the doors even though the place was far from finished. At exactly 12:00 on August 6, 1952, the hotel doors were quietly unlocked with no announcements, no publicity. Almost instantly, curious crowds, hearing the news spread by word of mouth, began swarming to the hotel to see the new wonder. Within a half hour, the Statler’s only up and running restaurant, the Cafe Rouge, was filled to capacity with a line snaking out the door. Only the first three hotel floors were furnished, but as nightfall fell over the Statler, lights began popping on in an almost continuous band on those lower levels. The mighty Statler was open for business!
The Statler gets its first guest! Statler manager J.C. Meacham shakes the hand of William H. Thomas, a Cleveland/Washington D.C. attorney and the lucky first person to check in at the spanking new Statler, August 6, 1952. Clerk R.E. Pierce holds the registration card. Bellman Robert Bevans holds the well-worn satchel of Mr. Thomas, who travels an average of 100,000 miles a year on business. For the record, Bevans was a Bellman not a Bellhop. The term was banished at Statler hotels.
After being whisked up to his room by one of the Statler’s hot pink elevators, Attorney Thomas would have likely been escorted to a room similar to this one, a Statler “Studio Room.” The studio room was a Statler feature with a daybed that was converted in early evening into a bed “unless guests plan on entertaining.” The Statler offered a variety of rooms from the studio type to conventional bedrooms to the luxurious State Suite with its own private terrace. The overreaching theme appears to have been efficiency over charm when it came to decorating. Even color shots don’t improve the situation.
But who notices the exceedingly bland decor when you have television? No one may understand this today, but having a television in your hotel room in 1952 was a very special amenity. Attorney Thomas could watch Playhouse 90 or Uncle Miltie till his heart’s content until sign off.
After freshening up, Attorney Thomas would be ready for a night out on the town without ever having to leave the hotel complex. Thomas could start by shopping till he dropped in the Statler’s three-floor shopping arcade before wetting his whistle poolside in the hotel’s charming “Cocktail Garden” then a saunter off to one of the four Statler fine restaurants and finally, a night of hot rumba action in the swinging Terrace Room to the strains of Xavier Cugat before returning to his Studio Room. Well, that is if he had arrived two month’s later. Being the first guest was an honor to be sure, but it did have some drawbacks. None of those options were up and running yet and Attorney Thomas would had to satisfy himself at the one open Statler restaurant, the moderately priced Cafe Rouge The Statler’s official grand opening would take place several months later with events over a two-day period of October 26-27, 1952.
Although the “gala” grand opening was actually a rather dull series of banquets, real excitement attended the inauguration of the swanky Terrace Room nightclub with a near riot breaking out that ultimately resulted in the tragic death of a security guard. While Xavier Cugat and his singing-dancing wife Abbe Lane were in mid set before the well-heeled, well-dressed, sell-out crowd, a pair of brothers, Alfonso and Victor de Casaus, got a little too rowdy and began flinging ice cubes, scoring a direct hit on Cugat. As house detectives descended, an argument ensued that quickly devolved into a melee. Suddenly, pandemonium broke out in the club with punches thrown, chairs overturned and screaming patrons running hither and yon as the brawl, which lasted for 20 minutes, literally rolled out the door and into the lobby. At some point, 66 year-old security guard, Thomas Patrick Tobin, was beaten so badly that he later died as a direct result of his injuries.
While there were no more reported fracases breaking out at the Terrace Room, it quickly became one of 1950′s Los Angeles’ hippest hot spots with an eclectic variety of big name entertainers including Victor Borge; Billy deWolfe; Hildegarde; Dorothy Shay “The Park Avenue Hillbilly” Nelson Eddy; George Gobel; Gracie Fields; Dorothy Lamour; Ginny Simms; Carmen Cavallaro; Gogi Grant; and George Liberace, among others. Celeste Holm, a part of the hotel from its very groundbreaking, even put on an act in the Terrace Room.
Although it was to have a nearly 60 year run, the hotel’s golden era was the 1950′s and 1960′s when it was ground zero for much action from business, politics and entertainment. Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first president of the United States to stay in the State Suite of the Statler, a hotel he was to visit a number of times both during and after his presidency. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson followed and then there was Ronald Reagan who not only was familiar with the hotel during his time as governor he had been the master of ceremonies at the “gala” 1952 Statler opening. Yet it was Richard M. Nixon, who was to become the president most closely associated with the hotel. Nixon was a frequent guest throughout the 1950′s and through his 1960 campaign for president. In 1961, after his term as vice president ended, Nixon and his family moved into the Statler while building their new home in the Trousdale Estates. And, of course, the hotel played a major role in his unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1962.
In 1954, the Statler acquired a new name and a new owner when Conrad Hilton skillfully negotiated what was considered to be the largest single transaction in hotel history, with a deal for Hilton to acquire the eight Statler hotels for a reported $76,000,000. Hilton graciously declared that the name “Statler” would continue to remain with the hotels (although with “Hilton” added) in honor of Ellsworth Statler, a former bellboy, who built a hotel empire. It would remain the Statler Hilton until 1968 when it underwent yet another name change to the Los Angeles Hilton. Although the Hilton chain sold the hotel in 1983, they continued to manage the hotel all the way up until 1995 when it became for a brief period the Omni Los Angeles. In 1999, Korean Airlines, who had owned the hotel since 1989, changed it over to the Wilshire Grand.
Throughout all this time the hotel remained a decent place to stay although by the time it changed over to the Wilshire Grand, the once ultra-modern Atomic age hotel was no longer looking or feeling so modern. Although they considered renovating the hotel, Korean Air ultimately decided to demolish and start completely over. In a fitting farewell, the hotel chose Richard Macias, a longtime guest who had been coming to the hotel since the 1960′s, to be the very last guest. Like the very first Statler guest in 1952, William H. Thomas, Macias was also an attorney. He checked out late on Friday December 21, 2011. It won’t be long now before the great old hotel checks out as well and Los Angeles loses another chunk of history.
Photographer Tom Barnes posted this fabulous image of part of the mosaic in the old Statler Center’s Petroleum Club on his Flickr stream. One hopes someone might be able to save some of these great mosaics before the hotel goes down, but…I’m not holding my breath. Check out Tom Barnes’ great Flickr page here.