November 24, 2001 - From the November, 2001 issue

Perspective: Ken Bernstein

Ken Bernstein, Director of Preservation Issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, makes the case for converting the Ambassador Hotel into a school, while preserving the building's historic spaces.


Ken Bernstein

With the sale of the Ambassador Hotel property to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), this prime 23.7-acre property will unquestionably be utilized for much-needed public school facilities. LAUSD must make decisions that put kids first. And simply put-preservation of the Ambassador Hotel will get LAUSD more seats for more kids, less expensively, faster, and in a remarkable setting that could not possibly be replicated by new construction.

Why is the Ambassador Hotel significant? The Ambassador is unquestionably one of L.A.'s most important historic sites, as: one of the two most significant hotels in the City (along with the Biltmore); the catalyst for development of the entire Wilshire corridor; one of the most notable works of architect Myron Hunt; home of the Cocoanut Grove, L.A.'s premier night spot for decades; host to six Academy Awards and every President from Hoover to Nixon; and the tragic, nationally significant site of the Robert F. Kennedy assassination.

How Can a Hotel Be Converted to a School? The Ambassador converts beautifully to a high school and/or middle school facility. The lovely, expansive hotel lobby serves as the school's entrance, "commons", and student gathering place. The famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub becomes the school's large auditorium/lecture hall. The grand ballroom serves as a magnificent school library. Hotel rooms are combined into classroom spaces, with "double-loaded" corridors altered to create a single, wider corridor for student passage. The large retail concourse, downstairs from the lobby and accessed through a separate entrance, creates "shared use" opportunities, offering on-site space for neighborhood services, literacy training and after-school programs. A new gymnasium and new athletic fields would be added south of the hotel building.

Will It Be Safe? Seismic retrofit of the Ambassador for school use is very feasible and less intrusive than originally estimated. The Conservancy's Ambassador Hotel Task Force, which includes top professional expertise on the seismic retrofit of historic structures, has completed a detailed modeling of the entire hotel structure, demonstrating how to achieve full and economical compliance with the Field Act.

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But Won't Reuse Cost More? By utilizing the existing structural system and site amenities, reuse actually costs less. The cost of the entire seismic retrofit, plus rehabilitation of the exterior and roofing is less than $55 per sq. ft., including all design and contingency fees. In contrast, creating the same basic structural system and building shell for comparable new educational buildings typically costs about $80 per sq. ft. These cost savings do not even include the high cost of demolision and re-grading for the huge Ambassador site.

Is There Room for Multiple Schools or Commercial Development? The reuse plan leaves plenty of room for future student growth or a middle school campus on the site because it does not even utilize one entire wing of the hotel in order to create a 2,500-student high school. In addition, the reuse plan leaves seven acres on the Wilshire Boulevard frontage untouched, allowing for compatible commercial development opportunities that can contribute to Wilshire Center's economic revitalization, or for additional school construction.

How Will Our Kids Benefit? L.A.'s students of the 21st century will have the opportunity to get their education in one of L.A.'s architectural and historic treasures-a site where our city's and nation's history is not academic, but truly tangible. By avoiding a lengthy demolition process, the school can be built and opened much faster. And just as our nation's most expensive and desirable educational institutions-our great universities -are built around historic classroom facilities, the Ambassador Hotel offers remarkable beauty and amenities that simply cannot be provided by new construction. L.A.'s kids deserve no less.

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