Although the Ansonia and Cecil shared similar ambitions, past turbulences during their history bearing similar characteristics, the different surroundings and class conditions produced a totally different outcome.
By now everybody has heard about the sordid history of the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. The subject of various docs in the crime investigation genre the building received added exposure when Netflix jumped into the fray with its own series highlighting the disappearance of a Canadian College student there in 2015.
Is this building cursed, one might ask? Is there such a thing as a curse on an architectural artifact, such a that a building consequently acts to fill headlines of tabloid journalism and its insatiable lust for crime stories solved and unsolved? One season of the popular series American Horror Story was supposedly inspired by the recent disappearance at the hotel.
Among the facts and urban legends surrounding the Cecil Hotel, most mentioned are its listings of unfortunate deaths in and around the hotel as well as some of the gruesome guests staying there. It occurred to me that is not so much that the hotel itself is a character in a crime story but rather its surroundings. Its historic economic rollercoaster ride, and of course its change of status to a hotel that houses marginal inhabitants account for its reputation.
Located in Downtown Los Angeles the Cecil was built in 1924 to rival other hotel constructions in a booming economy, which saw a meteoric rise in the number of residents. All those who moved to Southern California in the early 1920s, constituted the largest internal migration of the American people, and Los Angeles replaced San Francisco as the largest city on the West Coast. All while the city struggled with a troubled socio-political configuration that pitted an emerging working class against the brutality of capitalism favoring any freeform entrepreneurship over unionization and labor rights.
With its 15 stories and about 700 rooms, the Cecil was one the largest hotels built to compete in the LA market with appointed luxury and urban convenience. But all these intentions were soon eclipsed by the incoming global economic downfall of 1928, making the need for cheap and more flexible residential choices necessary. This ended its rise to opulence and provoked a fall into the category of Single Residence Occupation Hotel.
By chopping up rooms and suites and installing shared bathrooms and kitchens it became a home for the down and out, within close proximity to the emerging Skid Row, a place where people were starting to live on the street, created by the Great Depression.It is no wonder then, that the clientele went from aspiring entrepreneurs and Hollywood wannabes to those with down-spiraling careers, to forgotten veterans and lost souls depending on government handouts. The closure of state mental institutions in California reached a high point under Governor Reagan, who had business ties to operators of profit care homes, when he abolished the Mental Health Systems Act ( instituted by previous President Jimmy Carter).
The infamous “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez is rumored to have stayed at the hotel for a few weeks when he was not residing on the streets of Skid Row. Austria’s most notorious serial sex worker murderer Jack Unterweger , posing as a crime reporter, used the hotel as a residence while supposedly researching the literary atmosphere of Charles Bukowski and stalking out female victims on the side.
Jack Unterweger’s background that startled me, as he was born in the town as I grew up in; Judenburg, Austria. Born to an Austrian waitress mother and an American soldier, he was a year younger than me and went to the same Elementary school as me and my close friend Fritz, whose mother taught all of us German. I don’t remember him personally since he was not in my close group of friends, but it makes me shiver now to know that we might have been in sports class or altar boys together.
When I arrived in California in 1976 to act on my dream to become an architect for rock and roll musicians (a subject for another story), Mr. Unterweger was already serving a life sentence for murdering a sex worker in Austria. While in prison he wrote short stories, poems and an autobiography account and became the darling of the press and literary elite, who petitioned the government citing his case as a study in rehabilitation and redemption. After his lawyer had fallen in love with him he was released after a mandatory 15 years in prison, he was offered his own national show, enjoyed celebrity status among the intelligentsia and helped the police solve crimes in public all while murdering 11 more sex workers, 1 Czech and 7 Austrians. Three Americans were strangled while he was a resident at the Cecil Hotel in the early 80’s. He was in Los Angeles to research crime stories and was even invited to drive around with a Police patrol car as a guest investigator, in order to solve crimes that he even probably committed.
Even though I was fascinated and distracted by this coincidental personal confluence, I grew to doubt more and more the myth of architecture as an enabler of crime. Despite the lurid details that put this hotel on the map of crime-related tourism, it is rather the circumstances around socio-economic configurations, its distorted reprogramming, and its questionable management among changing ownerships that redefined the Cecil as a Hotel of Horror. I contemplated the influence of social factors in Design, a subject vigorously meditated at progressive architecture schools such as Berkeley and Princeton in the late 70’s and early 80’s and defensible-space theories that made bad designs responsible for social ills. It was a time where economic exploitations and the diminishing governmental safety-net for an endangered class of socially vulnerable worsened. In a society dominated by capitalism as the core of American Conservative / Republican values, only the “strong” will get richer and live in gated communities while the “weak” have to fight it out on the streets.
Before coming to the West Coast I worked on a proposal for a similar category hotel in New York after arriving from Vienna in 1974. I was hired to work for Haus Rucker Co, an experimental Austrian Architecture group that successfully put together an architecture show at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art and was consequently granted a study of rooftop use in Manhattan as part of the National Endowment Awards. Consequently I spent my first 6 months on the roofs of this magnificent city marveling at the possibility of utilizing the unused roof-scapes of New York for public, commercial and private uses. One of our case studies was the Ansonia Hotel, uptown on Broadway, built with the goal of revitalizing the glory of the once largest hotel in the city, which covered 550,000 square feet of space divided among 1,400 rooms, 300 suites by an heir to a Copper fortune.
While in the past the hotel had its share of scandals, suicides and crime related incidents, it was also an exercise in extravagant planning and content exploration. Besides it size and grandeur inspired by the hotels of Paris, the fanciful 17-story limestone and turreted structure, was a lavish vision of a residential hotel that offered amenities that no other residence could offer. It was clairvoyant to erect it in this location when it opened in 1904, since the subway extending north providing convenient transport, thus benefitting from its transit-oriented location for its future sustenance.
The Ansonia contained several grand ballrooms, restaurants decorated in the style of Louis XIV, a palm court, tearooms and cafes, a bank, a barbershop and tailor shop, writing rooms, Turkish baths, and the world’s largest indoor swimming pool.
Within a few years of its opening, the hotel would garner an unsavory reputation, known criminals and sport celebrities would mingle in the vast hallways and public places. The infamous Black Sox Scandal, a plot which planned for the Chicago White Sox to intentionally lose the 1919 World Baseball Series, was orchestrated there. Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth lived there among the tenor Enrico Caruso, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, and the composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. To facilitate communication throughout the vast building, vacuum tubing was installed within the walls to carry messages in capsules between the residents and staff.
The grand lobby, with its large open stairwell and huge domed skylight, featured a large water fountain with live seals. On the roof top the owner kept four geese, a pig, and a farm in the sky, containing about 500 chickens, many ducks, about six goats and a small bear; with fresh eggs delivered to tenants daily until the Department of Health shut it down. When I first visited the hotel it had lost most of its glamour, but it featured the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse “reminiscent of the glory of ancient Rome” with palm fronds, a waterfall that emptied into the pool, a discotheque, and, in one cubicle, drug dealers. The best-known element was the cabaret, featuring Bette Midler and her piano accompanist Barry Manilow.
A decade later the same space would become “Plato’s Retreat,” the infamous heterosexual swingers club whose reputation as a magnet for undesirable characters and actions only added to the Ansonia’s demise.
Inspired by this colorful past we designed a grand rooftop glass house reminiscent of an Art Deco Crystal Palace for grand dancing and other inclusive events in addition to topiary trellised outdoor dining areas, to imitate the original copper turrets that were melted down in the war effort to make tanks.
Even though the Ansonia and Cecil shared similar ambitions, past turbulences during their history bearing similar characteristics, the different surroundings and class conditions produced in each city a totally different outcome. In New York the Ansonia became a high-priced housing Coop for the wealthy on the Upper Westside near Central Park, commanding one of the highest real estate prices in the world. On the other hand the Cecil moved closer to Skid Row in an Ersatz Metropol of a Bladerunner-like apocalyptic looking part of Los Angeles. In LA, where officials and other urban boosters have continually catered only to the capitalist developers exploiting tax benefits in a futile attempt to create DTLA as a symbol of urbanity and metropolitan grandeur, never addressing the socially exploited or neglected population that have resided there for many generations. The Cecil is now closed for renovation in wait for the next economic upswing or urban development that can gentrify the neighborhood, and is forced to cash in on its reputation as a hotel of horror tourism.