In Los Angeles, Hotel Hipness Makes a Grand Return
In Los Angeles, Hotel Hipness Makes a Grand Return:-“It must have been marvelous when the century was young,” Eve Babitz wrote of the Garden of Allah hotel in 1977. By the time Ms. Babitz — whose frothy, witty, cutting books about Los Angeles have gained a new cult following since being recently reissued — was writing about the famed Hollywood hotel, it had already been demolished, bulldozed in 1959 to make way for the Lytton Savings bank. Then the bank was demolished to make way for a shopping center on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Laurel Avenue.
It, too, may soon be taken down so that Frank Gehry can lay the foundations for a sprawling glass-and-metal mini-village, the plans of which include two residential towers, a shopping center and communal green space. Mr. Gehry has said that he kept the spirit of the original Garden of Allah in mind when designing the project. As he told Architectural Digest: “I wanted to capture the feeling of that place, which was vibrant and memorable.”
Los Angeles often has a short memory when it comes to preserving historical sites, but there is a persistent sense of romance that swirls around its hotels, even those that no longer exist. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Los Angeles began as a transient industry town — actors, writers and filmmakers would pass through and do long stints at hotels while on seasonal studio contracts. Those temporary lodgings often became roiling social clubs, and the Garden of Allah was a prime example.
The stories about the hotel — which was first acquired as a private home for the celebrated Crimean actress Alla Nazimova in 1919 and then converted into artists’ bungalows where the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker toiled on screenplays in the 1930s — have become almost mythological. The oval pool, which Nazimova had made in the shape of the Black Sea, became a watering hole for Los Angeles’ bohemian intelligentsia. On a given day you might spot Eartha Kitt sunbathing, or Errol Flynn splashing someone for sport, or Marlene Dietrich sidling up to the bar in a suit — all mingling alongside the city’s striving young creative class. As the gossip columnist — and Garden regular — Sheilah Graham wrote in 1970, the hotel, “for one brief moment, was Camelot.”
While many of the classic hotel boîtes of Hollywood from the Garden’s era have remained intact — the Hollywood Roosevelt, the Chateau Marmont, the Beverly Hills Hotel — they have calcified over time, becoming ivy-covered institutions where industry types meet to do deals over $34 steak frites and celebrities hide away in dark corners.
But elements of the once-lost glittering age are re-emerging, thanks to a new breed of hotels, complete with public pools, pillowed banquettes, outdoor movie nights and gaggles of fashionable locals who have turned these transitory spaces into permanent hot spots. (The newfound ease of transit — and therefore imbibing — offered by ride-share apps has helped.) Here are three that I visited during a whirlwind trip in late spring — when the weather is always 75 degrees and the air smells of night-blooming jasmine, carnitas and salt — and what they offer both stalwart locals and itinerant West Coast explorers.
Mama Shelter, Hollywood
When the French hotelier Benjamin Trigano — whose father, Serge, founded Club Med — decided to open an American outpost of his casual-chic boutique chain Mama Shelter, which has been a hit in Paris, Marseilles and Rio de Janeiro, he knew right away that he wanted to open one in Los Angeles. “L.A. obviously has a great history of hotel culture,” he said. “But the Chateau Marmont and Sunset Tower are more formal, and you don’t really get a mixed crowd, which to us is very sexy. We love a motley crew, where you don’t have to be a celebrity or have a lot of money to mingle.”
Mr. Trigano wanted the L.A. branch of Mama’s (as the staff calls it) to feel like a kitschy, but upscale rec room, complete with a colorful chalkboard ceiling covered in saturated, surreal art from the local painters Alex Becerra, Alex Ruthner and Pearl Hsiung. The lobby also features a lending library stocked with trashy — but essential — Los Angeles reads, like tell-all biographies of Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock. A row of coin-operated gumball machines line one white brick wall.
When I visited Mama’s on a sweltering spring night, the high-low social mix Mr. Trigano aimed for was in full effect. On the rooftop, which sits six stories above gritty Selma Avenue, blocks away from Graumann’s Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I found a group of young actresses playing foosball and drinking vodka and sodas — one had just gotten her big break as a lead on the now-cancelled MTV comedy “Sweet & Vicious” — next to a cluster of bespectacled friends settling into a mountain of cushy beanbags to watch “The Hangover Part II” projected onto a floating screen.
Rainbow-colored tables circle a large, rustic wooden bar, which specializes in Moscow Mules and features a 360-degree view of the Hollywood Hills. At the bar, I met Joey Zimara, 53, who until recently ran a business supplying Los Angeles restaurants with Jamaican spices. He told me that he visits hotel rooftops at least twice a week, rotating between Mama Shelter, the glitzy W, and the rooftop Highlight Room bar at the brand new Hollywood Dream Hotel, where celebrities like Jessica Alba and Alessandra Ambrosio can often be seen lounging in the private pool cabanas. “I like being on top of the world,” he said, gesturing out over the glowing sea of slow traffic snaking down Hollywood Boulevard. “I always sit at the bar, and you can meet people from everywhere. You never meet the same person twice.”
Because the roof features free Wi-Fi and is open to nonguests, many Angelenos come to the hotel during the day to write or take meetings en plein-air. Alissa Latow, a 21-year-old actress and Hollywood resident, said that she prefers to haul her laptop to the roof of Mama’s over neighborhood coffee shops. “I feel like I have a clear head up here,” she said. “Most people in L.A. don’t have jobs,” she said, sipping from a copper mule mug in a neon crop top. “Well, not in the 9 to 5 sense. They’re acting or writing or freelancing.” Ms. Latow added that she bounces between Mama Shelter and the Dream: “Mama’s is more laid back, though it gets busy around sunset. The Dream is where you go if you want to start partying at brunch and move into a pool party with a D.J. in the afternoon.”
Mr. Trigano said that attracting a steady stream of working locals like Ms. Latow to Mama Shelter was his goal for the space, which opened in 2015 in building that once housed the Hotel Wilcox in the 1920s and later became a satellite Scientology Center. Like the Garden of Allah, he hopes that his hotel will feel as attractive for neighborhood denizens as it does for travelers just passing through. “When we picked Hollywood, it felt a little like Times Square in the 1980s,” he said. “We didn’t anticipate it to be so crazy popular that we have people coming in all day long. They work, they do yoga on the roof, they transition into a small dinner. A hotel is successful when locals make it their own place. We’ve hit that vibe now.”
6500 Selma Avenue; (323) 785-6666; mamashelter.com
The Line, Koreatown
Rising above busy Wilshire Boulevard, the Line feels like a midcentury oasis. Opened in up-and-coming Koreatown in 2014 by the Sydell Group, who run the NoMad hotel in New York and the Ned in London, the Line has since attracted a steady stream of locals, who drink cold brew and eat sticky pastries in the spacious lobby, which takes up half a city block. On the second floor, the Commissary restaurant serves cold-pressed green juice and kimchi and carnitas tacos in an open-air greenhouse that leads out to the pool deck.
The day I visited, the restaurant was crowded with dewy young people who had stopped in for a working lunch, scheming future plans over $19 Wagyu beef burgers and avocado toast topped with cured salmon and whole chiles. By night, the pool deck becomes a nightclub, often playing host to D.J. sets — like the Float Fridays party, which converts the swimming area into a dance floor from 6 to 11 p.m. “The romantic idea for the Line, going back to its initial creation is it would be a gathering place for the community,” said Andrew Zobler, chief executive officer at Sydell. “Now, at night, we get a large contingency from the neighborhood.”
Mr. Zobler says he has already seen the communal culture of the Line start to replicate at his new hotel, The Freehand, which opened this summer inside the historical Commercial Exchange building in Downtown Los Angeles (the roof deck bar, the Broken Shaker, opened to the public in September). “The beauty of a hotel lobby is there is both an air of a private space and a public space,” he said. “If you are at a restaurant or bar, people have an expectation of privacy, but at a hotel, some of that comes down.”
3515 Wilshire Boulevard; (213) 381-7411; thelinehotel.com
The Ace Hotel, Downtown
Leading the Downtown hotel renaissance — which now includes the renovated Figueroa and an upcoming outpost of New York’s NoMad — was the Ace, which popped up inside the Spanish Gothic United Artists building on South Broadway in 2014. The building, which was once a clubhouse for silent film stars, is very narrow — a creative challenge for the developers in situating the lobby. There was barely room downstairs for a restaurant, so the team made a bold choice: They made the rooftop into the nerve center of the hotel.
“We thought, we have such an iconic lobby experience in New York,” said Kelly Sawdon, an Ace executive vice-president. “And so we asked ourselves, what makes sense in L.A., where do real people want to be here?” The idea, she said, was to harness the city’s generally balmy weather and direct foot traffic straight up the roof by opening a public elevator on street level. “It’s not for guests only; there are no restrictions to coming up and taking in the view. We wanted people who live and work Downtown to feel like they have ownership over this space.”
Their strategy worked: the Ace rooftop is packed from breakfast to the wee hours. In the afternoon, locals bring their dogs up the elevator to pant near the small paddling pool (the day I was there, I saw two pitbulls and a terrier mix), and the bar serves oysters and $10 slices of funfetti birthday cake all day. After sunset, the cake is still available, but the focus shifts to Mary Bartlett’s cocktail program, which always features a frozen drink ($12; a slushy Paloma, for example) and quirky specials like Count Chocula-flavored Jell-O shots.
On the roof of the Ace, I encountered longtime friends Lindsay Rogers, 29, who works at the hip Bolt Barbers on Spring Street (“it’s a whole scene there,” she said) and Christopher Smith, 27, a choreographer and creative director who works with the pop star Justine Skye. They both live Downtown, which they say reminds them most of their native New York habitat. “The hotels here have become like Manhattan,” Mr. Smith said. “We come here so often that we know all the bouncers and bartenders by their first names.”
The roof of the Ace at night is an intimate environment, with groups of friends nestled into canvas and leather bucket chairs and huddled around a crackling fireplace. A D.J. booth features a rotating schedule of events, including a Wednesday night residency for NTS, an underground online radio station. Billowy tapestries and rattan rugs add to the bohemian-den feeling. At the long wooden bar, which sits between the dining area and the small concrete pool, patrons perch on spindly stools drinking mai tais and licking cones of soft serve, which comes in flavors like toasted coconut and granola.
“Los Angeles used to be a backyard culture,” Mr. Smith said. “But now, with all the new hotel roofs, you can sit outside and still feel like you’ve had a big night.”
929 South Broadway; (213) 623-3233; acehotel.com