February 27, 2000 - From the February, 2000 issue

Is The Ambassador Hotel LAUSD's Next Belmont? Maybe!

Even in a city with a reputation for ignoring or demolishing its history, it's a startling proposition: destroying a genuine icon, former hotel of choice for Presidents, launcher of careers ranging from Merv Griffin to Barbra Streisand, and perhaps most importantly, if sadly, the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. Who proposes this? LAUSD. In its desperation for new land, the site's 23 acres are too tempting. L.A. Conservancy Preservation Director and former TPR Editor Ken Bernstein details the "win-win" possibilities, allowing the land to contain a school and retail development while preserving this historic landmark.


Ken Bernstein

By Ken Bernstein

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is moving to seal the fate of the historic Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, one of our city's most important historic sites, seeking the hotel's demolition for a new school. The District's decisions on this issue in the coming weeks will speak volumes about whether LAUSD is truly adopting a new, creative approach to facilities planning, or whether it remains "business as usual" at the District.

LAUSD has been proposing to carve up the Ambassador site into two pieces, with the new property line drawn straight through the heart of the historic hotel. The southern half of the property, following demolition and the extension of Seventh St. through the property, would become a new middle school for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and the northern portion would be developed as a retail and cinema complex by a partnership that includes the Magic Johnson Development Co. Since the Board of Education's decision to abandon the Belmont Learning Center project, the District has been considering a larger portion of the property for a new high school.

The Los Angeles Conservancy, now the largest local historic preservation organization in the United States, is working to preserve the Ambassador Hotel, seeking to facilitate the same kind of "win-win" solution that it helped create on nearby preservation projects such as the Central Library, Wiltern Theater, the Sheraton Town House hotel, and the Wilshire May Co. building (now LACMA West).

While the Ambassador still could become a hotel once again, the Conservancy recognizes the District's severe facilities crunch and does not oppose a school on the site. However, the Conservancy believes that the large 23.7-acre Ambassador property is large enough to allow the District to build a new school on the southern 10 acres, without demolishing the hotel. The main hotel structure could be successfully renovated to accommodate various possible uses-including school facilities, school district offices, other office space, a vocational school linked to the LAUSD campus, senior housing, or even a hotel-with new retail and entertainment development along Wilshire, creating an exciting mixed-use complex using the historic hotel as a centerpiece.

A Unique Piece of L.A. History

Because the Ambassador Hotel has been tied up in litigation for the past decade, many Los Angeles residents have begun to forget the central role it once played in our city. But if there is a Los Angeles historic structure truly worth fighting for, with significance of all types-architecturally, culturally, and historically-it is the Ambassador.

Built in 1919-1921, at the top of a hill at Wilshire between Mariposa and Alexandria, the Ambassador Hotel was built to exemplify the California lifestyle and quickly became a catalyst for development of the entire Wilshire District. The hotel is one of the best works of Los Angeles architect Myron Hunt, one of Southern California's most notable architects, who also designed the Rose Bowl, the Pasadena Public Library, Occidental College, and the Huntington Library.

With accommodations for 3,000 guests, the hotel became a popular spot for celebrities and socialites. Guests of the hotel included Charlie Chaplin, the Barrymores, Joan Crawford, Sid Grauman, Gloria Swanson, and many others. Eastern society-the Sinclairs, Fitzgeralds, DuPonts and Vanderbilts-spent their winters at the Ambassador. The Ambassador's nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove, itself became one of Los Angeles' most popular night spots and helped launch numerous performing careers-from Merv Griffin to Barbra Streisand.

The Ambassador was the site of early Academy Award banquets and was where Richard Nixon, the 1952 Republican vice presidential nominee, wrote his famous "Checkers speech." Numerous Presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy were guests of the hotel.

In 1968, the Ambassador became part of our nation's political history when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the hotel's kitchen after winning California's Democratic presidential primary. The Texas Book Depository Building in Dallas now houses a museum on John F. Kennedy's assassination; the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was killed has been transformed into a National Civil Rights Museum. Yet, the Ambassador-which also has tremendous significance even beyond one single, sad event-may soon be wiped away.

The Recent Saga

The Ambassador issue has taken numerous twists and turns in recent years. Donald Trump purchased partial ownership of the property in 1990, announcing plans to demolish the hotel and erect a 125-story skyscraper on the site. During the same period, LAUSD moved to condemn 17 acres of the property to build a high school on the site, depositing nearly $48 million in an escrow account for the purchase. After litigation ensued between Trump and LAUSD, the School District withdrew its bid in 1994, deciding instead to build the new Belmont High School west of downtown.

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The litigation was settled, and the Trump partnership was required to pay back the escrow account funds plus interest. Since Trump bowed out of the partnership in 1998, Wilshire Center Marketplace, a partnership now led by the S.D. Malkin Co., has been seeking development partners for the site in order to repay LAUSD and thereby avoid foreclosure on the property. The partnership in late 1998 proposed demolition of the hotel for a new big-box retail and entertainment center. Now, while LAUSD is negotiating with the Magic Johnson partnership on a possible property split, it is still threatening to foreclose.

The Preservation Alternative

Because the Ambassador Hotel sits in the middle of a very large property, creative site planning options may allow new school buildings south of the hotel's main structure, while still leaving room along the large Wilshire frontage for new retail development and a large multiplex cinema, all while preserving view corridors to the existing hotel.

The Conservancy fully recognizes that LAUSD badly needs the Ambassador site for a new school to relieve overcrowding in nearby campuses. If so, our preferred alternative would utilize the 10 acres on the south portion of the property for a school, which may be accomplished without touching the main hotel structure. Such a plan would allow the District to embrace the creative school planning ideas advanced by "New Schools • Better Neighborhoods." As Board Member David Tokofsky has pointed out, some of the District's most successful schools are on smaller sites, indicating the educational value of smaller, more personalized campuses. Bravo Medical Magnet, which has accommodated 2,000 students on a 3.2-acre campus, recently scored in the top three of the District's high schools on the new Academic Performance Index.

A smaller high school on the Ambassador site might also allow the District to renovate the main hotel structure for District offices, thereby freeing up its Fort Moore headquarters for a second high school. The District currently has about 300,000 sq. ft. of office space at Fort Moore, with another 300,000 sq. ft. of leased space on Bunker Hill. LAUSD could consolidate most of its staff within the 450,000 sq. ft. of the Ambassador, allow its employees to work adjacent to actual students, and gain an additional high school site.

If the District still believes that it needs more than 10 acres, a 1991 reuse study of the Ambassador, prepared by M2A Architects, indicated that LAUSD may build its school less expensively by utilizing portions of the historic hotel. The reuse study examined three options for school construction on the site and found that, in all cases, the costs of rehabilitation were significantly less than the costs of new school construction. While the Ambassador Hotel would need significant seismic rehabilitation to make it safe for school children, these estimated seismic costs amounted to less than one-tenth the cost of new school construction.

A preservation-oriented project on the site is not only less expensive, but it can also allow LAUSD to get its desired school faster. The District can quickly secure needed State school bond funding only by avoiding significant adverse impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which can be achieved only by pursuing a project that avoids demolition.

In addition, if LAUSD partners with a private developer who would rehabilitate the hotel building itself, its private sector partner would be eligible for the significant 20% Federal Historic Rehabilitation tax credits that can result in millions of dollars in cost savings-savings that could be shared with the District.

A preservation-oriented project would also allow the Ambassador's continued economically productive use by Hollywood as a coveted filming venue. The Ambassador's unique ambiance and historic character have allowed Hollywood to capture the authentic feel of a true resort hotel without leaving the city. In 1999, the Ambassador was used for 214 days of filming, which likely generated nearly $1 million in revenues from the site.

Historic buildings can be successfully adapted for school uses: the Bullock's Wilshire Department Store just a few blocks down the street has been beautifully transformed into the Southwestern University Law Library. The prestigious Archer School for Girls on the Westside has moved into the historic Eastern Star Home on Sunset Blvd. in Brentwood. In Savannah, Georgia, an entire college campus-the Savannah College of Art and Design-has been cobbled together utilizing more than 50 formerly rundown historic structures. The Ambassador Hotel provides an unparalleled opportunity to transform a Los Angeles site of exceptional significance into an exciting, community-serving mixed-use complex.

The Challenge

Can the School District break out of its bureaucratic insistence that every school site, no matter how urban or how historically significant, must conform to a 1950s suburban model of school design? Can the District learn from the mistakes of Belmont and begin to truly listen to sensible cautionary notes rather than charging forward, blinders firmly in place, on school facilities decisions? And can Los Angeles rise to the challenge of protecting the best of its remarkable 20th century history in meeting the changing needs of the 21st century? The Ambassador Hotel decision will begin to reveal the answers.

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