It was home to the 1960 Democratic National Convention when John F. Kennedy was announced as the party’s presidential nominee, one of the last sightings of the Black Dahlia in 1947, the site of a significant gay rights protest against the psychiatric establishment listing homosexuality as a disease, and for its role in the death of the famous Pershing Square critter, Benny A. Squirrel. The Biltmore Los Angeles celebrates its centennial this year, and if only those walls could talk.
Recently designated as a Los Angeles Historic cultural monument, the building was originally designed by architecture firm Schultze & Weaver, inspired by the Italian and Spanish Renaissance with travertine walls and painted Mediterranean landscape murals throughout and two bronze light fixtures imported from Italy that hang between the ceiling’s ribs. There are detailed carvings throughout, and the rooms are finished with paint that’s accented in 24-karat gold. The hotel commissioned artist Giovanni Battista Smeraldi, who was renowned for his work on the White House and the Vatican, to paint the ceilings.
Early home to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Oscar Awards, the grande dame of Los Angeles will continue to undergo improvements, including a complete overhaul of all the windows and fixtures and a restoration of its original fresco ceilings. Three ornate towers stretch above the ballrooms below, giving guests a view of Pershing Square, and the indoor pool still features the original brass railings and ornate blue tiling from the Roaring Twenties. The hotel also has planned to return the entrance to its original location on Olive Street.
“Of course the hotel is always prominently mentioned in accounts of the last known sighting of Beth Short, the Black Dahlia murder victim, who used the Olive Street lobby as a place to ditch the clingy married guy who gave her a ride from San Diego in January 1947,” says Los Angeles historian and preservation activist Kim Cooper, who together with husband Richard Schave curates Esotouric, the wildly popular and quintessential tours of LA’s upside and underside.
“Although she quite likely was last seen at a long shuttered bar called the Crown Grill a few blocks away, it’s the Biltmore with its largely unchanged interiors that basks in Beth’s noir shadow,” says Cooper, who has been bringing tour groups to visit The Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles for nearly 20 years and calls it a gorgeous time capsule that plays a role in so many fascinating L.A stories., and the past feels very present within.
“For members of the Self Realization Fellowship faith headquartered atop Mount Washington, the hotel’s Grand Avenue lobby, formerly a ballroom, is sacred as the place where Paramahansa Yogananda suffered a fatal heart attack on March 7, 1952 and transitioned to an even more enlightened state,” says Cooper. “Portions of the neoclassical fountain against the west wall appear in the last photographs taken of the guru that night, and sometimes you will find the faithful observing a moment of respect close by.
“And in fall 1970, a large group of undercover gay activists, including Morris Kight, whose Hollywood and Westlake homes were recently landmarked, stormed the stage during the American Psychiatric Association convention to halt a disturbing presentation on the use of electric shock synched to erotic imagery to quash same-sex attraction.” she says. “They broke into small groups to tell the shrinks about the pain that the medical establishment was inflicting on gay patients and their families. They must have been good talkers, because within a few years, homosexuality was no longer categorized as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”
The meticulously restored Grand Avenue Bar in the hotel was one of many popular LGBTQ- friendly establishments located in “The Run” of downtown Los Angeles. From the 1920s through the 1960s, “The Run” was a series of bars, parks, public restrooms, hotels and bathhouses that were in close proximity to one another and were well-known places for LGBTQ individuals to meet and socialize with one another.
After the heyday of the sixties, downtown LA saw a decline, and in 1977, following the 50th anniversary of the Oscars, the Biltmore Los Angeles was forgotten and the doors closed. What was once the pride of the city was destined for demolition. Recognizing its historic value and beauty, architects Gene Summers and Phyllis Lambert stepped in to rescue the historic landmark and brought it back to life. By the 1980s, it changed hands again and the new owners spent $135 million on upgrades.
Now known as the Millennium Biltmore Hotel as well as the hotel of a Thousand Angels, it has a glittering Hollywood history that includes being the filming location for various films including Rocky and Chinatown. More recently Taylor Swift shot her Delicate music video at the hotel and Justin Bieber danced through its hallowed halls in Yummy. If you’re up to the scavenger hunt of your life, scour the hotel from top to bottom and discover the 1,000 cherubs artfully embedded into the architecture.
A glamorous afternoon tea is currently served in the original lobby, now known as the Rendezvous Court, on Saturdays and Sundays, which includes an assortment of sandwiches, scones, pastries and fine-blended custom tea under a Moorish beamed ceiling and giant Spanish baroque staircase leading to a 350-foot long galleria.
“I remember getting a room upstairs and having such an eerie feeling there,” Dan Aykroyd tells L.A. Weekly, of the time he filmed Ghostbusters 40 years ago in the Crystal Ballroom. “I remember seeing doors open to the rooms and the passage of light and mist through the halls. I could feel the presence of past lives in my bones.”
The festivities continued this week with a formal gala in the Crystal Ballroom that featured local dignitaries, including 100-year-old Connie Fenari, who remembered the early days of the Biltmore Los Angeles.
“I used to come here when they had dances and luncheons in the afternoon,” the centenarian told the crowd. “It was such a beautiful place, the Biltmore was just exquisite. There was nothing else like it in Los Angeles. We’d go there to watch the floor show, have lunch and dance the afternoon away with an orchestra sipping coffee and eating pound cake.”
This article first appeared in LAWeekly