The Hollywood Plaza – Hollywood’s Forgotten Luxury Hotel

When Jacob Stern rented half of his barn to Cecil B. De Mille in December of 1913 so the enterprising young easterner could make a movie, he could not possibly have known that it was a decision that was to change the fortunes of Hollywood, as well as his own, forever. The barn, located at the southeastern corner of Selma and Vine Streets, was across from Stern’s home place, a beautiful tract planted in date palms, oranges and lemons that was considered one of the most sightly residences of early Hollywood.

Less than ten years later, the effects of Stern’s decision were evident in ways that could scarcely have been more dramatic. Hollywood, which had a population of 5,000 in 1910, had exploded to more than 100,000, and Stern’s former barn was now a part of the Famous Players-Lasky Studios, the most important motion picture studio in the world. Having made a fortune in the real estate boom that ensued, Stern’s attention turned to his former home and on September 16, 1924 he began construction on what was to be Hollywood’s second “skyscraper” hotel, the Hollywood-Plaza. The new hotel was an integral part of an ultimately successful plan by Stern and others to turn the intersection of Hollywood and Vine into the area’s premier business center.

Herbert M. Baruch, the hotel’s contractor, managed to complete the ten-story reinforced concrete structure in a record thirteen months in spite of encountering major difficulties related to the sediment underlying the hotel’s foundation.  Walker & Eisen designed the hotel in a vaguely Italianate/Spanish style with a rather austere façade relieved at intervals by artificial stonework. The most notable exterior aspect of the new hotel was, in fact, its landscaping, which had been overseen by one of Los Angeles’ foremost landscape architects, A.E. Hanson. Careful consideration had been given to the lush and mature grounds of the former Stern estate and incorporated into the new hotel’s design were two enclosed patios, or plazas, for which the hotel derived its name. One of the plazas, christened Patio de Los Palmas, included a dense grove of date palms and other rare specimen plants arranged around a large stone fountain.

An early view of the Plaza lobby.

In notable contrast to its somewhat plain exterior, the Hollywood-Plaza’s interior spaces were considered quite elegant and, at times, elaborate. Entered through a classically designed stone entrance portal, the hotel’s graceful double-height lobby featured a carved and painted beamed ceiling, “aged” for effect, from which hung several intricately-designed wrought iron chandeliers. The lobby, like the rest of the hotel, was decorated by George G. Benedict, a fashionable designer of the day, in what the Los Angeles Times called, “the charm of Latin artistry.” Red and gold silk damask draperies covered the lobby’s picture windows while hand-woven carpets blanketed the marble floors with a pile so thick it caused one overzealous press agent to declare “one sinks to a two-inch depth.” The adjacent smoking room, also in the Spanish mode was a decidedly masculine affair that was described in overheated prose as, “an ideal place to woo My Lady Nicotine.”  For the Ladies’ Reception Room, located on the mezzanine level, Benedict veered from the Spanish and produced a space “Frenchy and dainty” that was held to be (inaccurately) as “almost a replica of the famous boudoir of Marie Antoinette.” Further to the guests’ convenience were a barbershop, beauty parlor and a cigar counter, all located on the lobby level, as was the hotel’s restaurant, Klemtner’s Blue Plate Café, the first of a long series of eating establishments to occupy the space.

The Plaza’s 198 guestrooms and suites, each with its own tiled bath and dressing room with built-in vanity, were decorated by Benedict in variations of three different color schemes: Biltmore green, Biltmore blue and French gray. Each room was equipped with writing desks, Morris chairs, settees and custom magazine stands. Sixty percent of the Plaza’s rooms were furnished with hide-away beds, allowing each room to be a “parlor” during the day.

With its October 15, 1925 opening, the Hollywood-Plaza bid fair to become the film capital’s most cosmopolitan and sophisticated hostelry, hosting a monthly “Salon,” which featured a wide-ranging assemblage of noted speakers, musical performers, dancers and artists. Some of the programs included talks by composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, stage and screen star Ruth Chatterton, Chief Little Bison, who spoke on “The Arts and Crafts of the Vanishing Race,” dancer Ruth St. Denis, and Hollywood pioneer Don Eugenio Plummer who exhibited a rare shawl that had been worn by his mother at the historic ball celebrating the admission of California to the Union in 1850. Musical programs were usually followed with an evening of dancing, to which all were invited. The Plaza also sponsored a revolving art exhibition and, at times, the works of such famed California painters as Hanson Puthoff, F.W. Cuprien, Edgar Payne, and Paul Lauritz graced the hotel’s walls. One noted artist who took up residence at the hotel was Swedish sculptor David Edstrom, who regularly displayed his works there, including his striking bust of Abraham Lincoln, unveiled in the lobby on May 29, 1927. The Plaza was also home, for a period, to legendary cartoonist John Held, Jr., whose exuberant drawings came to define the very image of the “Roaring Twenties.”

Ernest Hemingway in Hollywood with Marlene Dietrich.

The Plaza’s creative atmosphere also attracted a segment of the literary crowd and two of silent Hollywood’s best known scenario writers, Clara Beranger and Ralph Spence were early Plaza residents, the latter reported to be the highest-paid title writer in the world at a munificent $5.00 a word. Playwright John Wexley, author of The Last Mile and Richard Macaulay, who would become one of Warner Bros.’ top screenwriting talents of the 1930’s, were also counted as Plaza guests. Siblings Garrett and Carroll Graham whose infamous roman à clef, Queer People, was the scandal of Hollywood upon its publication, with many famous names easily, and unflatteringly, discernable between the lines, also lived at the hotel. The most vaunted literary figure to take up quarters at the Plaza was Ernest Hemingway who stayed at the hotel on his first and only visit to Hollywood in 1937. Hemingway had come west to screen his documentary, The Spanish Earth (1937), in an effort to raise money for the loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War.

Some of the Plaza’s notable early guests included (L-R) Polar explorer Roald Amundsen, baseball legend Babe Ruth, dancer Gilda Gray, beloved charlatan Death Valley Scotty and boxer Max Baer

The Hollywood-Plaza had not been in business for long before it was dubbed “The Adventurers Club,” because, as columnist Lee Shippey explained, “so many rare birds of passage make it their temporary home.” Indeed, the hotel compiled a guest list of such exceptional diversity it was considered striking even by Hollywood standards, a list that included Enrico Caruso, Jr., Death Valley Scotty, Prince Heinrich of Schaumburg-Lippe, Dr. H.A. Barrett, inventor of the racetrack starting gate, novelist and conservative MP Sir Gilbert Parker, Babe Ruth, who ripped through the safety netting of the hotel’s golf practice range with a particularly strong drive, Polar explorer Roald Amundsen, William Dolivet, a founder of the French resistance in World War II, the 1937 Green Bay Packers, actor and future Connecticut Governor John Davis Lodge, racing legend Barney Oldfield, Gilda Gray, the inventor of the “Shimmy,” English opera star Lady Armstrong, Joe Di Maggio, pianist Menahem Pressler and boxers Max Baer and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom. The latter would be one of the Plaza’s most enduring residents, remaining until the hotel’s 1973 closure. Furthering the cosmopolitan air of the Plaza were the many aviators and aviation executives, including such legendary figures as Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmie Doolittle, Roscoe Turner and Howard Hughes, who came to the Plaza at the behest of the Hollywood Aero Club, whose headquarters were located for a number of years on the hotel’s mezzanine level.

Bette Davis and her mother Ruthie pose at the Plaza upon their arrival in Hollywood, December 13, 1930

The majority of the Plaza’s guests during its heyday were, naturally, associated with the movies. By the dawn of the 1930’s the corner of Hollywood and Vine had become the symbolic center of the motion picture industry and the Plaza could truthfully advertise itself as “Hollywood’s most convenient hotel,” but a short drive from most of the major studios. Columnist Tipp Poff in his “That Certain Party” column in the Los Angeles Times quipped, “If you’ve still got a yen to see stars, watch the auto park just south of the Hollywood Plaza Hotel.” Fox film star William Russell and his wife actress Helen Ferguson, character actors Burr McIntosh, Charles Ogle and Edward Everett Horton, were all counted as residents of the Plaza in the 1920’s as was Barry Norton, Mary Nolan, Ivan Lebedeff, Montagu Love and stage star Jason Robards Sr. Another stage star, Bette Davis, made the Plaza her first Hollywood home upon her arrival in the film capital in 1930. Although Davis departed after she found a suitable home to purchase in nearby Whitley Heights, she would return to the Plaza many times including one unhappy occasion when she was greatly embarrassed by the failure of her guest of honor, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to make an appearance at the party Davis threw in her honor at the hotel’s It Café in 1938.

Ronald Reagan (center) made Hollywood Hotel (1938) for Warner Bros. while living at the Plaza.

Davis’ co-star in Dark Victory (1939), Ronald Reagan, also made the Plaza his first stop in the film capital. The future president would make some of his earliest films while living at the hotel, driving over the hill to Warner Bros. in what he called “the pride of my life, my first convertible.” Some twenty years later, another future president, Richard M. Nixon, made a stop at the Plaza to give a speech during his unsuccessful run for California Governor in 1962. Perhaps not coincidentally, Nixon’s longtime political operative, Murray Chotiner had an intimate association with the hotel. His company having done the contracting work on the Plaza during its major remodeling in 1952.

George Burns and Gracie Allen had a long association with the Plaza.

Some of the other notable movie people stopping in at the Plaza included six-time Academy Award nominee Thelma Ritter, Fox studio chief Winfield Sheehan, future The King and I (1956) director Walter Lang, Jackie Coogan, silent screen heartthrob Herbert Rawlinson, character actors Porter Hall, Charley Grapewin, Josef Swickard and Frank McGlynn along with George Burns and Gracie Allen.  Burns & Allen had a long association with the Plaza beginning with their first arrival in Hollywood. Starting in the mid-1930’s and continuing for some twenty years, Burns maintained a suite in the hotel that the pair used as an office and rest stop while doing their popular radio and later television show at nearby studios.  In his charming memoir Gracie: A Love Story, Burns recalled a night when Marilyn Monroe visited him at the Hollywood-Plaza. Monroe, at the time an unknown starlet, had been recommended to Burns as “the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen” by her agent. When the door opened to his office, Burns was to recall, “I took one look at her and knew an historic event had taken place: for the first time in history an agent had been telling the truth.” Burns & Allen were among a number of famed radio personalities associated with the Plaza, which was conveniently located in the center of Hollywood’s “Radio City,” and but a short walk to the studios of ABC, NBC and CBS. It was a common practice for a number of performers, including Al Jolson, to stroll up the street to the Plaza to eat or have a drink after a radio appearance.

Both Doris Day and Frank Sinatra had memorable stays at the Plaza.

The Plaza was also convenient to several important live venues such as the Vine Street Theater, Earl Carroll’s, the Florentine Gardens and the Hollywood Palladium. It was during an engagement at the latter that Tommy Dorsey and his band took up quarters at the hotel in 1940, a group that included a young Frank Sinatra. Both Dorsey and Sinatra would return to the hotel again on several occasions and it was the Plaza where Sinatra was staying at the time he recorded his first solo record in 1942. Six years later, another young singer, Doris Day, was living at the hotel, but at what was at first a miserable time in her life. She had come to Hollywood in the hopes of reconciling with her estranged husband, musician George Weidler. When her efforts proved to be in vain, Day, recalling in her autobiography, spent days in her “dreary” Plaza room and “stared out the window, hours at a time, feeling nothing, seeing nothing…” It was her sympathetic agent who managed to talk her into attending a party at composer Jules Styne’s house in Beverly Hills, an event that was to change her life forever. The party directly resulted in her being cast in Romance on the High Seas (1948), a film that made her an instant star. From that point on, the Hollywood-Plaza no longer seemed so “dreary” to Day and she remained at the hotel for the next several years until moving to a home of her own in Burbank at 131 South Valley Street.

One of the great appeals of the Plaza was in its restaurant facilities. The first, Klemtner’s Blue Plate Café, had a short life, lasting only three years before it was replaced by the Pig “N Whistle Café in 1928. Part of a popular chain, the Plaza Pig ‘N Whistle was frequented by a number of stars including Lois Wilson, Karl Dane, Ben Turpin, John Barrymore, Aileen Pringle, Franklin Pangborn, Lloyd Hamilton, and Wallace & Noah Beery. At the rear of the hotel was a large and dense date palm grove, which had been, in the earliest days of silent films used many times by filmmakers seeking an exotic locale on a budget and in a hurry.  In 1931, this grove became the setting for the elegant al fresco Russian Eagle Garden Café. With its secluded and romantic setting amidst the tall palms enhanced by flickering candlelight and a strolling gypsy trio, the Russian Eagle was patronized by some of Hollywood’s biggest names, most notably the reclusive Greta Garbo who was a frequent visitor, always taking the same private table just to the right of the entrance. Some of the other diners spotted regularly amidst the palms included Charles Chaplin, Janet Gaynor, Richard Dix, Adolphe Menjou, Oliver Hardy, Virginia Bruce, Edmund Lowe, H. B. Warner, Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Gloria Swanson, Lew Cody, Ernst Lubitsch, and Fay Wray.

The Plaza’s Russian Eagle Garden Café was a favorite with many stars including Greta Garbo.

The elegant Cinnabar was a masterpiece of art deco styling.

In 1936, the Plaza became part of the Hull chain of hotels, a group that included the Hollywood Roosevelt, the Mayfair and Sacramento’s Senator. Seeking to recreate the success of the Roosevelt’s Cine-Grill, Thomas Hull expended an estimated $100,000 on reworking the former Pig ‘N Whistle into Hollywood’s swankiest nightspot, the Cinnabar. A masterpiece of art deco styling, the Cinnabar was the work of G. Albert Landsburgh, a world-renowned designer of theater interiors who included as part of his design a series of murals that were said to “depict typical people and events in motion-picture life,” created by the noted A.E. Heinsbergen Studios of Los Angeles. Counted as casualties of Hull’s ambitious project were the hotel’s Russian Eagle Café and the lush Patio de Los Palmas, although Hull announced plans to rework the palm grove into “a replica of a street in Old Mexico,” complete with dancing senoritas and singing caballeros as an adjunct to the Cinnabar. This colorful idea did not, however, ultimately come to fruition.  Inaugurated with a gala opening on December 17, 1936, the posh Cinnabar drew a stellar clientele that proved to be an autograph seekers delight with such names as Victor McLaglen, Tom Brown, Ida Lupino, Charles Boyer, Errol Flynn, Lily Damita, Jack Benny, Jean Harlow,  and Tom Mix stopping in for dinner or cocktails. In a poignant piece in the gossip columns it was reported that Edna Purviance, Charles Chaplin’s most beloved leading lady, was seen to be dining at the Cinnabar, alone and unrecognized among the crowd of current celebrity diners.

Clara Bow’s “It Cafe” was a popular watering spot for stars in the late 1930’s.

As beautiful as it was, the Cinnabar existed for less than nine months before it was redone, this time as the It Café. Fiery redhead Clara Bow had been one of the silent screen’s brightest stars and in September 1937, she opened the It Café. Her husband, actor Rex Bell had hoped a return to public life might take Clara’s mind off a recent miscarriage that had been devastating to the former star. Immediately after its September 1937 opening, the It Café became one of Hollywood’s premiere nightspots patronized not only by many of Clara’s friends from the silent days but heavyweights from new Hollywood as well. Regular guests at the “It” included Alice Faye, Tony Martin, Anthony Quinn, Lily Pons, William Wyler, Richard Arlen, Boris Karloff, Andy Devine, Melvyn and Helen Gahagan Douglas, Wendy Barrie, Brian Aherne, Miriam Hopkins, Joe E. Brown, Jane Wyman, Jack Oakie, Anne Baxter, and Leo Carrillo, among many others. Ironically, the star most missing from the It Café was the proprietress herself. Bow had insisted that she would spend a great deal of time at the café and would personally supervise the kitchen (even though her culinary skills were known to be greatly wanting), but less than two weeks after the star-studded opening, Bow discovered she was pregnant again. Terrified that any strenuous activity might harm the pregnancy, Bow quickly vanished from her newly opened club and within a year the It Café changed owners. In 1944, the space was remodeled into a casual dining room geared more to tourists than stars, known as Les Comiques, a situation that mirrored the slowly changing fortunes of the Hollywood-Plaza and Hollywood itself.

The Plaza’s Lobby & Front Desk after its extensive 1952 modernization.

In 1951, the Hollywood-Plaza changed management, being taken over by Lawrence H. Lee whose other hotel properties included the Beverly-Carlton in Beverly Hills. Lee saw that the Plaza’s days as a destination for stars was at an end and retooled the hotel for the less glamorous but still lucrative tourist trade. In 1952, the hotel underwent a dramatic $400,000 remodeling that wiped away much of the Plaza’s original 1920’s elegance replacing it with Fifties modernization. Veteran Los Angeles architect Harry E. Werner oversaw the structural changes while Lee’s wife, Virginia, took on the decorating. Mrs. Lee redid the hotel’s guestrooms in “restful pastel tones” highlighted by hand-decorated ceramic lamps, full-length draw drapes and Parisian water color paintings. Where the once-glamorous Cinnabar and It Café were located was now The Westerner Lounge-Grill, which presented “a sophisticated Western theme dressed in modern design.” The Westerner’s most notable feature was its horseshoe bar backed by as set of murals created local artist Adrienne Horton, which replaced the Heinsbergen art deco panels from the 1930’s. One other notable change to the hotel was the addition of a swimming pool in the rear in what remained of the palm grove. Two venerable palms were carefully moved and replanted to accommodate the large pool, which featured at its shallow end “an illuminated moonstone rock cascade.” Completing the picture was a set of cabanas, a children’s playground and an outdoor bar.

Lee’s modernization of the aging Plaza breathed a new life into the hostelry that helped carry it through the fifties and well into the sixties. By the middle of the decade, however, the modernization of the 1950’s was no longer modern and the hotel, like the area surrounding it, had grown shabby. In 1973, the Plaza, along with the Hollywood Knickerbocker and the Castle Green in Pasadena, were converted into senior housing. As part of the conversion, the hotel’s swimming pool was covered over for safety reasons, but the grand old palms, thirty three of them standing fifty to sixty feet in height, were allowed to remain after the hotel’s owner, Robert Stern, grandson of Jacob Stern, the original builder, refused to cut them down to create a new parking lot. Today, the former hotel, but a shadow of its once glorious self, yet a surviving remnant of Hollywood’s golden age, continues on as a retirement home and the rare palms, witness to more than a century of Hollywood history, may still be seen shading the rear of the Hollywood-Plaza. In something of a requiem for the Plaza, columnist Jack Smith wrote, “The big stars might be drawn to the Hollywood Hotel or the Garden of Allah, but the Plaza had the characters.”

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26 Responses to The Hollywood Plaza – Hollywood’s Forgotten Luxury Hotel

  1. Marvin Stone says:

    Welcome back, Steve . . . we’ve missed you. I’m looking forward to seeing more great stuff from you.

    Marvin

  2. Robby says:

    I enjoyed your detailed post. I would love to see the Plaza again if it could have all those garden areas around the building. Regarding the lobby, I much prefer the way it originally looked, before the 1950s modernization, although I’m sure it looked more impressive in person.

  3. Mary Mallory says:

    Love it! It’s the former location of the Robert Northam/Jacob Stern house. Northam built a little barn that became the West Coast birthplace of Paramount Pictures, and now is the lovely Hollywood Heritage Museum!

  4. Opium Museum says:

    The old lobby photo looks a bit like old The Gaylord Hotel (now apartments) lobby on Wilshire Blvd still does.

  5. TheArtist says:

    Another great article, thanks and welcome back, it got lonely here in the ether! : )

  6. YAHOO! You’re back! What a fascinating article, I didn’t know that Hanson had done the landscape originally. I looked for the 1950s landscape architect, and it looks like it was Phil Shipley. I wonder how much of that is still intact…

    • Steve says:

      Great to hear from you too. Thanks! Yeah, isn’t that cool that Hanson did this? He didn’t have a lot of space, but from the pictures of both the Patio Las Palmas and the outdoor cafes it was great. Did Paul Shipley work on the hotel at the time Lee Hotals took it over in 1952?

      Thanks Steven!!

  7. sepiastories says:

    Love it! As usual, fascinating reading! :)

  8. AitchCS says:

    Amazing detail, I am so impressed and happy I found this blog.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks so much! I really appreciate it. This hotel in particular really needed to have its story told – correctly. There’s so many false rumors about it floating around. Plus, few realize just what an amazing place it was. It does not exactly present an exciting image today, but behind those walls. What a history!

      • AitchCS says:

        Just reading a little about Hollywood Plaza in a book called “City of Nets” by Otto Freidrich. Steve- if you have never read this book–you will love it!

      • Steve says:

        I’ve had a dog-earred copy of that book for years! The dark side of L.A., but really well done. Beautifully written and researched. I consider it essential reading for LA history buiffs. Thanks SO much!

      • AitchCS says:

        Figured you had read City of Nets! The HP is still standing correct? because I can find very little info. on the internet about it. Your entry is one of the few. Would love to visit. Maybe it has a different name now?

  9. Wow Steve, as always, I’m blown away!! I love this place and always have. A few months ago, I kinda seaked in to the back courtyard. I had known about the Russian Eagle but had no idea there was outdoor seating. And here I was standing in it!!! Thank you good sir.

  10. Steven Price says:

    It is still the Plaza, and yes, it’s senior housing. I came across this wonderful photo of the “IT” Cafe today and wanted to share it. (it links to a Facebook page; hopefully it’s visible to all even if you dont have Facebook) https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=456193091114105&set=a.195149680551782.50132.195096003890483&type=1&theater

  11. peter chacona says:

    Where is this building?? I’d like to visit it…

  12. Leslie says:

    Thanks for the history!

    I just became a “resident” of the hotel in a Section 8 room. It’s a grand old place and conveniently located next to theaters, bars, markets, restaurants, marajuana dispensaries, and the Hollywood Blvd. hooker stroll.

    I think I’ll like it

    • Steve says:

      Yay! That’s great Leslie. There’s a lot of history in your building and what a great locale. Congrats. Glad you enjoyed the story!

    • AitchCS says:

      So it is like apartments now?

    • Marie Escamilla says:

      Thank you Steve-Fabolous article-so glad you wrote and that I found it;)

      -i went there today to add some detailed photos to my Hollywood History collection;))

  13. Fascinating article that mentions my grandfather Jacob Stern, who died in 1934, a year before I was born, and my brother Bob (Robert Stern), who turned the Plaza into senior housing! I remember visiting my great aunts Florence and Becky, who lived there in the 1940’s. My wife Martha and I were married in 1976 under the palm trees behind the Plaza that my grandmother Sarah (Mrs. Jacob) had planted shortly after they acquired the property in 1904. I knew the Plaza had been an important part of Hollywood’s history, but your article revealed details I had never known. Thank you! — David H. Stern (translator of the Jewish New Testament)

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