the following was written in conjunction with the filming of “Objects Also Die: The Last Days of the Ambassador Hotel“ as part of a catalog to be published by ELK books…
Cortez Hotel 1988
“In the elder days of art builders wrought with the greatest care
each minute and unseen part; for the Gods see everywhere”
–Longfellow, The Builders
“The true paradises are the paradises we have lost.” Marcel Proust wrote that, in Remembrance of Things Past. Though he is probably quoted too often on the subject it’s hard not to mention Proust when referring to the tangible prick of remorse that comes from remembering what is irretrievably lost. Not just the whiff of a Madeline dipped in tea, but all and sundry that can’t be recovered and how it effects our relationship with the past. The fleeting nature of our own history and the full brute, staggering force of memory recalling what will never and can be never again. It’s a universal condition that connects us to others and also relates to a less self-referential type of regret that was less of an obsession for Proust. That feeling isn’t so much about what we ourselves will never recover but empathy for others coupled with an attraction to the constructed sites from which their loss emanates.
As far back as I can remember these abandoned structures that weren’t being used or had been left to the elements held a fascination. Empty houses, sheds, barns, motels, gas stations and schools seductively beckoned and aroused a potent desire to go inside and poke around. Growing up it wasn’t something I questioned, it was just an irresistible compulsion that made me figure out a way inside, an urge I couldn’t and didn’t analyze. The draw was a communion with unknowable bygone times and that special stillness pervading a room where no one has been for a long time, as well as the thrill of going where I wasn’t supposed to. Drawn to those manmade enclosed spaces with all their reminders of former inhabitants and forgotten secrets, I climbed over fences, trespassed, found open doors or broken windows and snuck around with ears cocked for the approach of an authority figure who would chase me away. This predilection wasn’t that strange, it being a kind of mildly illicit exploring that has been common with the young, especially adolescent and teenage boys, from time immemorial. Looking back I know my solitary lurking was a way to get away from others, paradoxically where there were traces of human activity, and that for me those decaying and ignored structures were entities with their own character. They had presence, and that resonated somewhere deep down in my being.
A childhood spent luxuriating in the untended and the slowly, passively falling apart, rummaging through homes for sale, houses under construction, and establishments closed for the season. In a category all of its own was the Stanley Hotel, a Colonial Gregorian pile built in 1909 by F.O. Stanley, the inventor of the steam powered automobile. Majestically set on a hill, it dominated the town where I grew up in Colorado. The Stanley was only busy in the summer and during the other nine months of the year it operated at such a reduced capacity as to be practically abandoned. Since both my older sisters worked there so I had free reign to wander and generally float around like a ghost, padding along long empty corridors and up and down the stairways. If adults were encountered I would be almost always invisible to them in that way you can be as a child because you’re a nonentity not worth bothering about. How many times I’ve wished that invisibility could be taken with us along into adulthood. Unfortunately it can’t, but back then those wayward guests and maids ignored me and I in turn could pretend they didn’t exist. Other times I rambled around the grounds and in the rock formations behind the hotel to look into upper story windows of mysterious rooms with no sign of occupancy. What the Stanley had in common with my other favorite haunts was an undeniably spooky quality that could make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. I wasn’t the only one with that reaction. A couple years earlier and unbeknownst to me until decades later Stephen King stayed at the Stanley for a weekend and found it so unsettling and disturbing he was inspired to write The Shining. The Stanley of the book is the isolated and snowbound Overlook, a closed for the winter hotel that wields a malevolent influence on the main character Jack Torrence and turns him into a homicidal madman. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. The Stanley’s effects on me weren¹t that dramatic, but there¹s no doubt that in its down at the heels late-70s low point (or high point, in my opinion) it exuded a simultaneously menacing and seductive aura.
Five years after leaving that town I was an adult in the legal sense but hadn’t outgrown that obsession with the overlooked and the abandoned. By then I was in San Diego, where in the mid-1980s the downtown still had some grit with sleazy tattoo and massage parlors, rampaging drunken sailors, homeless encampments, mentally ill free radicals and a level of lawlessness that was a far cry from the situation today in that prettified bastion of banality. Above it all on El Cortez hill stood a beautiful fourteen-story Spanish Colonial Revival high-rise wreck of a hotel that had been built in 1929 by Albert R. Walker and Percy Eisen, the same architects responsible for the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. With its dramatic recessed arched doorway and vaguely baroque air the El Cortez was by far the most regal building in San Diego and of real architectural interest, which naturally meant it had suffered years of neglect and was slated for demolition. One night during one of many nocturnal downtown missions by chance I pushed on an access door and found it unlocked for some reason. Returning in the daytime I began to spend entire afternoons climbing up and down the wide staircases, wandering through the dilapidated rooms and hanging out in the tattered Sky Room on the top floor to take in the view of downtown and Coronado Island in the bay. I took pictures of the hallways with their stained carpets and peeling paint, found numerous hidden nooks and crannies on every new visit, and once almost stepped into an elevator shaft behind some loose boards on the 9th floor. The El Cortez provided the complete emptiness the Stanley couldn’t and as I roamed around submerged in a complete silence of almost physical intensity magical hours drifted by and time lost all quantitative meaning. Ensconced in an inside dream of reality, separated by glass and distance, I would stand at the picture windows and watch the tiny cars and human figures down below going about their utterly pointless motions.
Memories of the Stanley and the El Cortez surely caused me to take more notice than the usual passerby would when I saw the Ambassador for the first time a couple years later.
The sight of it bordered on a mirage, so unexpected and massive there on that part of Wilshire Boulevard where many Angelenos never went. Mammoth, gargantuan even, just barely glimpsed over the surrounding fence and overgrown foliage, the building was a vision from some faraway imperial colony of the 19th century. Not only was it a great old hotel falling to ruin, there was something so improbable about a shuttered, silent and apparently deserted complex that big right there on Wilshire. I saw the hotel once and then moved away. In New York it remained mostly absent from my thoughts although I did become cognizant of the main event that will always unfortunately be associated with the Ambassador, that is, Sirhan Sirhan’s killing of Robert Kennedy there in 1968. Besides that I didn’t know what was happening at 3400 Wilshire. For all I knew it could have been torn down. Some research could have cleared things up but honestly finding out any history would have ruined the memory and inherent mystery of that big deserted hulk past the palms and the barbed wire. It was that feeling I wanted, not the details, and I just wished that somehow I’d gotten in there and explored while there was still a chance.
Considering the sway ruins have had over the collective imagination through the ages being drawn to a place like the Ambassador isn’t that out of the ordinary or by any means special. For thousands of years people have stood amongst what their predecessors left behind and pondered the transience of man’s accomplishments, thinking age-old thoughts of mortality and dust turning to dust. The Greeks had a sensitivity to Etruscan ruins and the Romans felt it at the Parthenon, and so on and so on, each successive civilization amidst the tumbled stones ruminating on the futility of human endeavor. The Romantic sensibility took this to the level of fetish in the 19th century with follies on English country estates and an artistic and literary mania for all constructed traces of the past. Fake or real, these extant reminders of our transitory nature cater to deep vein of sympathy for built remnants surviving in a state that gives them a heightened poetical resonance. They might have that but as Charles Caleb Colton wrote, “To look back to antiquity is one thing, to go back to it is another” and ruins in the classic sense are from so far back in time that summoning up life’s messiness in their midst requires a substantial leap of the imagination. The Stanley, the El Cortez and the Ambassador are of a different stripe, not ruins per se, being of more recent 20th century vintage and from a time closer to my own. Not temples or Pompeii, but modern still-intact ruins in the making that can offer an even more piquant encounter with a past, one lived by people who aren’t even necessarily dead yet.
Philosophical musings of that sort might have been swirling around my head when I saw the Ambassador for the first time. Then again, they probably weren’t. This is intuitive, an inexplicable calling; though over time the desire to get lost in decay was suppressed and partially forgotten. Maybe I’d grown up. Then thirteen years later I spent a week at the Radisson Hotel on Wilshire and the fixation came back with full force. From my seventh floor room I could see a lush tangle of overgrown vegetation and palm trees and a bare hint of the building looking more dilapidated and forsaken than ever. A few times I walked along Wilshire to peek through the gate to get a frustratingly partial view of the Cocoanut room’s elongated canopy. While at the Radisson I also frequented The Bounty up the street, where faded prints of ships, a shabbily genteel feel and courteous bartenders three times my age incubated alcohol-enhanced Romantic longings that flowered when I came out at 2am and saw the darkened Ambassador across the way. By that point I’d heard or read the Los Angeles School Board owned the land and wanted to demolish the whole complex and this news precipitated a bout of sappy sentimentality about this place I had no personal connection to whatsoever-. It wasn’t like my parents stayed there back in the 50s or I had found out about its history, and I still didn’t know the name of the architect or even have a clear idea of the hotel¹s appearance, but the realization it wasn’t going to be around forever added a new urgency to acting on all that built-up unfulfilled curiosity
The Ambassador will most probably meet its maker this year and as it happens just prior to the original demolition date I stayed in a nearby apartment for a while and did a lot of aimless nighttime motoring through the other side of Los Angeles. With a particular focus on the LA River, Downtown and West Adams I listened to late-night black metal shows on the radio, drank beers and cruised the empty streets before driving past the Ambassador numerous times with the rueful acknowledgement that what had seemed so permanent would soon be gone for good. Then one serendipitous night in February I attended a small literary gathering in a 1920s apartment building called the Talmadge. Very genteel, and after the pizza, hors d’oeuvres and copious amounts of alcohol went down the hatch I made a tipsy exit and spilled out onto the sidewalk to breathe in the fresh late night air. Although I needed it about as much as a hole in the head, a nightcap at the Bounty momentarily beckoned until a siren-blaring ambulance screeched to a stop in front. That option gone, I ambled down Wilshire where I found myself by that long fence and came to the conclusion that this was the night to breech the walls of the Ambassador. It seemed possible.
Twelve-foot high walls topped with barbed wire, traffic and prying eyes even that late at night ruled out a frontal assault so by the Western edge of the property I went up the driveway to where the fence and a glowing occupied security booth stood in the way. So tantalizingly close, but from that angle there was too much light and too much risk. Continuing South I came to a gate chained together loosely enough that it could almost be squeezed through. Almost, but not quite. If I’d been eight it would have been a cinch. Stymied, I crept toward 8th Street and ended up outside the Sunset Room where all was quiet and still with only one wall’s thickness separating me from the prize. I knew I could get inside, that there must be some way, but all the doors were locked or rusted shut and then my scheming came to an abrupt heart-stopping halt at the sound of footsteps and the sweep of a flashlight beam coming down the drive. Flattened against the building, holding my breath, I didn’t dare look around the corner as the arc of flashlight came swinging back and forth, closer and closer. Frozen, rigid, enduring maybe even ten slowly ticking minutes under the smudged night sky. Finally I peered out and nobody there, the guard had returned to his station. Slinking back to Wilshire I left chastened but also frustrated and disappointed.
Back at the apartment with previously forgone nightcap in hand I idly picked up The New Yorker and got a jolt when the first sentence of an article caught my eye. “The Western entrance to the Ambassador Hotel, an H-shaped nineteen-twenties Spanish Revival that occupies a twenty-three acre parcel on Wilshire Boulevard, is a monumental portecochere.” Coincidence, kismet, who knows. Dana Goodyear’s “Hotel California” mostly dealt with the black architect Paul Williams who re-designed the hotel’s coffee shop but there was plenty of other information about the Ambassador and the battle over its future. Finally some details, after studiously avoiding them for so long. The hotel’s architect had been Myron Hunt, it was finished in 1920, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald used to stay there and supposedly set one of the bungalows on fire, and its imminent razing would make way for a forty-two hundred student school. Then the strange timing of the article segued into another totally unrelated and even better and almost unbelievable coincidence. The next day, telling a friend the story of trying to sneak in, he nonchalantly answered with “So, do you want to go in there?” He wasn’t joking; he had a meeting scheduled at the film office and could bring me along. A meandering path from lingering fifteen-year interest to intense fixation to trying to break in to a random magazine was coming to its end.
The appointed day arrived soggy, gray and grim. Rain fell in sheets. We signed in at the security booth and were ushered through a long shabby corridor past the coffee shop and up a set of stairs to the immense lobby. I stood transfixed and mesmerized in the inner sanctum. My friend disappeared into the office and I decided if there ever was a time to enjoy carte blanche it was right then and took a turn around the lobby’s white couches and lamps repeating almost endlessly into the gloom. At the front desk I soaked up the ambiance, sensing the muffled hubbub from times past as it reverberated in trace form on some kind of sub-audio frequency that is felt instead of actually being heard. A silence that speaks, a soundless echo. I ventured into the disorientating murkiness of the Cocoanut Grove where hundreds of drops of water rhythmically plunked into unseen buckets and smidgen of light reflecting off the brass railings provided just enough illumination to make the huge multi-tiered room’s interior barely visible. Over in the Dolphin Court a cherub sculpture and two painted unicorns frolicking under palm trees, faded pistachio paint, and a half-inch of water on the floor gave it the aura of a Roman bath gone to seed. Back through the lobby I stood in the Venetian Ballroom amongst the mirrored square columns for a minute before running up the stairs to a long hallway that couldn’t help but conjure up The Shining. With their walls of peeling blocks of worn color, white and black checkerboard floor patterns and complete lack of furniture and fixtures the rooms were empty husks, the leftovers of so much activity and life.
Up in those rooms time stretched out with presentiment of future memories, an awareness of fleeting experience becoming grist for later reverie as I gathered more information and essence through sight, sound and smell than I normally would during a month. Minutes turned into virtual hours of a fertile in between, elongated moments that one wishes would last forever. But they don’t. The tyranny of time reasserts itself, so I slipped back down to the lobby and played it cool as if I’d been there the whole time. When my friend came out of his meeting we ignored the hand written “Do Not Sit” signs and surreptitiously took pictures of ourselves on one of the white sofas, a sofa that incidentally were not endemic to the Ambassador but was left over from a movie shoot. Outside we looked at the forlorn half-filled pool and the palms that had become intertwined around the columns in the courtyard and then knowing we couldn’t loiter much longer all there was left to do was duck quickly into the Coffee Shop to admire the curves of William¹s bar and the bas-relief on the ceiling. From there a door opened to a an intimate lounge that didn’t seem to have a name, a boozy hideaway alternative to the big bands and entertainment upstairs in the Cocoanut Room resplendent with black and white echoes of jazz or Henny Youngman-era stand up comics. And then it was out into the pouring rain.
Not until the next day did we realize that without knowing it we’d been a few feet from the ice machine in the pantry Sirhan hid behind before shooting Robert Kennedy. It wasn’t a disappointment though, because seeking out that fateful spot would have been too literally morbid, too obviously sensationalistic and too much a part of the known story. The same goes for the connotations elicited by all the archival photographs of Norma Shearer in the Fiesta Room posing with her Oscar for her performance in The Divorce, Mickey Rooney kissing Judy Garland in front of an American Flag at the Academy Awards, Gary Cooper twisting uncomfortably next to Louella Parsons, Ronald Reagan and Nancy arriving at the Screen Writers Guild dinner and Marilyn Monroe smiling radiantly in conversation with Cole Porter. That’s the official recorded history and is interesting and intriguing enough but ultimately lacks nuance. The hidden corridors, closets, stairwells and budget rooms where no celebrities stayed and nothing of particular significance took place are the unrecorded zones that supposedly don’t matter but they are no less important. They might not have a collective historical or sentimental value but surely for the individual bellhop, waiter, janitor or regular guest the events of their lives and the memories connected to where they originated are just as worthy of memorializing as the ones associated with the notorious and the famous.
Manifested in so-called unimportant details and inanimate objects the wound of transience and mortality holds our imagination hostage. A coffee cup, a car, a typewriter, a lamp and on up to a whole building; we look and touch and are transported back through these things. The empty, the forgotten, the soon to be destroyed have a broad poignancy and give rise to the question of whether we should save these trinkets and edifices and wallow in nostalgia or just let them go. Maybe with the Ambassador that’s the attitude to take, though of course now it’s a moot point. Allowing the object to die gracefully is an antidote to our maudlin sentimentality and painful attachment to remembrance, and though we might live in the past we must know that reminiscence trumps the inanimate thing every time. “Compared with memory, all possession, in itself, can only seem disappointing, banal, inadequate. .” Michol says to her would-be lover Gino in Georgio Bassini’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Bassini then has Gino mentally articulate the plight of many, a plight I know well, and one Bassini’s book powerfully evokes. “How she understood me! My eagerness for the present to become immediately past, so that I could love it and cherish it at easeŠ.it was our vice this: proceeding always with our heads turned back.”
Going haltingly forward with our heads turned back is a vice, a curse and the Ambassador plays to that affliction and encourages the delusional perversions of preservation. Those who want to stop the inevitable are thinking of the Ambassador in its heyday and want a return to some impossible to reconstruct splendor, a time and place and zeitgeist that can never exist again. All those gestures, words, thoughts and actions can live on in memory but the shell must go. Much better than the preserved relic is the Stanley in the winter without any guests, the stripped and rundown El Cortez before it was turned into million dollar apartments, and the Ambassador in all it’s leaky, broken glory. If it were preserved it would be a bright, petrified, gussied and fixed up sham. Not ignored and neglected, the condition that made it great in the first, or more accurately, in the last place.
I had all those years of driving by and that great half an hour inside and now it’s over. Easy come, Easy go. There will be other forsaken structures where a combination of ignorance and wonder will lead to a stroll through the forgotten where what was lost can be appreciated on its own silent, unbending, and profoundly unknowable terms. The importance of letting these things go can not be overstated, a philosophy Michol gives peerless expression to elsewhere in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Lamenting the family servant¹s devotion to an old Dilambda automobile, she adamantly declares that there is a vast gap between trying to keep that “pathetic relic” alive and what she holds up as a much more noble course. Pointing to a used-up discarded canoe in the garage, she says to Gino: “I beg you, . . . observe its honesty, dignity, and moral courage; it’s drawn all the necessary conclusions from its own total loss of function. Objects also die my friend. And if they also must die, then that’s it, better to let them go. It shows far more style, above all. Don’t you agree?”
Los Angeles 2005