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Creepy Cecil Hotel Nominated For Historic-Cultural Monument Status

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The Cecil Hotel has since been rebranded as Stay On Main. (Photo by Jim Winstead via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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The Hotel Cecil in downtown Los Angeles doesn't have a great reputation, due to a series of grisly incidents and infamous guests. Yet there's another side of the Cecil that's up for debate this Thursday: is it historically significant?

The Hotel Cecil was built in 1924 by William Banks Hanner. It was designed by architect Loy Lester Smith, who also designed the historic City Club building, which is known today as the Primrose Design building. It cost a million dollars to build, contained 700 rooms, and was considered quite nice for its time. However, that wouldn't last. The Depression would become the Cecil's tragedy. And it didn't help that the building wasn't as state-of-the-art as it claimed to be: unlike other hotels, the Cecil did not have private bathrooms in every room, making it hard to remain competitive. By the 1950s, the hotel wasn't housing people in town on business or who had come to be entertained by L.A.'s Broadway district; rather, it was home to transients. And in the 1980s it would house its first serial killer. (More on that later.)

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An advertisement for the opening of the Hotel Cecil (Photo via Historical-Cultural Monument application)
Matthew M. Baron of Simon Baron Development has submitted an application to consider the Cecil as a Historic-Cultural Monument. Simon Baron Development is working to renovate the property and turn its reputation around. The nomination cites both the hotel's Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival architecture, as well as its place in the American hotel industry and the evolution of downtown Los Angeles. The hotel's proximity to the railway made it a popular place for those doing business in the nearby Spring Street Financial District, which was known as the Wall Street of the West.

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According to the application:

The Hotel Cecil is a 14-story Beaux Arts style reinforced concrete building with a characteristic Classical tripartite division that is enhanced by terra cotta and cast stone ornamentation that includes quoins, cornices, decorative window and door surrounds, and ornate columns and pilasters.

Of particular note are a pair of blade signs, each 70 feet tall, that read Hotel Cecil. They were installed in 1924, and remain to this day, despite the hotel's efforts to rebrand itself as the Stay on Main. Another key element is the lobby.

The lobby retains its original art glass skylights, terra cotta and wrought iron decorative detailing, front desk station with original key shelving, mezzanine balustrade and original staircases. Alterations to the less significant spaces of the interior are mostly related to fixtures in the storefronts, previously used as barber shops, cafes and restaurants.

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The lobby (Photo by Juliet Bennett Rylah/LAist)
Ken Bernstein, Manager of the Office of Historic Resources and Principal City Planner at the L.A. Department of City Planning, said that Thursday's meeting is the first step of the process. If the Commission takes the application under consideration, there will be further investigation into its historical significance. The Commission will have 75 days to come to a decision and, if approved, the City Council will have 90 days to vote on it.

The status would make the hotel difficult to demolish, though not impossible. And it doesn't mean that the renovations would have to be shelved. Bernstein said that achieving Historical-Cultural Monument status does not "freeze the property in time or prevent changes."

"It does mean that future alternations would be reviewed in accordance with what is called the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation, which recommends that the most significant character-defining features of a building be retained, but changes are permitted."

Changes can include additions and remodels if they are appropriate to the building. The meeting will take place on Thursday, October 20 at 10 a.m. at City Hall.

Of course, what the Cecil has been best known for lately hasn't been its architecture. Rather, it's become known for its dark past. In 1985, serial killer Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez moved in, during which he was actively terrorizing Los Angeles. He would eventually be convicted of 13 known murders. In 1991, Austrian journalist and serial killer Jack Unterweger stayed at the Cecil. During his visit, he murdered three women. In 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old tourist from Vancouver, checked into the hotel and disappeared. Her body was found nearly three weeks later in one of the four water tanks located on the roof of the building. Other guests of the hotel reported low water pressure and a strange odor to the water, leading a maintenance man to inspect the tanks and make the horrifying discovery. Lam's death was ruled an accidental drowning, with bipolar disorder as a contributing factor. Lam's parents sued the hotel for negligence, but a judge threw out their claim in in December of 2015 because the incident happened in an area of the hotel where guests were not allowed. This, in addition to the numerous suicides and the unsolved murder of the Pershing Square Pigeon Lady in her room in 1964, have made the Cecil one of the most notorious places in L.A. In 2014, the hotel was purchased by New York hotelier Richard Born. Simon Baron Development later acquired a ground lease on the property and plans to turn the Cecil into a more hip, less hostel-style hotel that's more in line with properties like The Ace. Matthew Baron told LAist in May, "The idea is to appeal to the demographic that you see that's coming to downtown L.A., [such as] younger millennials."