If you go into business with someone, make sure you have an exit plan. And an entrance plan. William Chick didn't have either, and it probably cost him millions. The hotel wing he built in downtown LA has been closed off for 74 years; only now is a developer working on unsealing this time capsule from 1938.
Chick, according to the LA Times, ran a livery stable next to the grand Alexandria Hotel. He knew a good business opportunity, and built a fully integrated wing onto the hotel, circled below in this photo of Spring and Fifth Streets.
It made a lot of sense. After all, the Alexandria was LA's grand hotel, where Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, and Caruso stayed.
It retained some of its grandeur for some years ...
...before becoming the SRO it is now. You can now rent rooms there for as low as $575 per month.
But back to Chick's wing. According to the Times, by 1938, the hotel and the wing were in new hands. Movie producer Phil Goldstone owned The Alexandria, and Chick's daughter Lee Roddie owned the wing. After a rent dispute, Goldstone walled off his part of the Alexandria from Roddie's wing. That wouldn't have been a problem except that Roddie's father had never built stairs or an elevator to the guest rooms in his wing. "Father made a terrible decision," Roddie told the Times in 1967 ... when the wing had only been "frozen" for 29 years. In the ensuing years, while the ground floor shops have been rented out, no owner has spent the money to fix the problem, and the upper floors have been the realm of pigeons, taggers, and perhaps a squatter or two. They're locked in time, as they were when Goldstone started building his personal Cask of Amontillado in 1938.
When I heard about the frozen wing, my mind started racing. I wanted to breathe air last breathed when FDR was in the White House, to thumb through postcards and letters left by rushed correspondents dead now for 50 years, to sit on a bed where ... well, I imagine a man and a woman-not-his-wife, sleeping late after making love, woken simultaneously by the manager's brisk knock and the sound of bricks being piled up across the hallway. If I can't live in the 1930s, this would be the next best thing.
A little over a year from now, you might be able to sleep with those same ghosts. Culver City-based developer Nick Hadim says a group of anonymous investors has purchased the building and is reportedly spending $3-million to make the upper floors usable. He's heading up the project, and met KPCC photog Mae Ryan and me at the corner of Spring and Fifth a few days ago.
Hadim, a slim, handsome Iranian, says, "A year ago, walking down Fifth Street, I noticed it. Why are the windows open, why are they shattered, why are they dirty? One part of the building looks good, the other part doesn't." So he started asking questions and learned the sad story. His plan is to turn the wing into a luxury apartment building, The Chelsea, with a lounge in the deep sub-basement and suites above designed to retain the charm and the mystery of the time capsule they are. (Target opening: December 2013.)
But here's the catch: Hadim, the man spending his time and treasure, hasn't even been into the whole wing. You can get into the basement through the leather goods store on the ground floor. You can climb onto the roof of the ground level stores and then into the first floor of hotel rooms. And you can get into the top floor of rooms from the roof of the wing. But with no stairs, no fire escape, and no elevator, the middle floors, 3-6, are inaccessible. Who knows what's in there? Hadim says he saw some furniture on one of his excursions, but later in the day, when Hadim had left us and we climbed on our own to the lowest level of rooms, there was nothing but a few bathtubs and toilets, crumbled wallpaper, old phone lines, and floors, ceilings, and woodwork in surprisingly good shape. There isn't even as much pigeon poop as you'd imagine.
Still hopeful, I climbed a fire escape across the street and peered into the upper floors through a pair of binoculars. I'd like to say I saw an Underwood typewriter, a feather boa, a chintz bedspread, and a skeleton in a fedora in the tub ... a cigarette in its teeth and a bottle of burbon in its hand ... But I didn't.
The light was wrong and the remaining windows are too grimy to see much, but it looks just like the rest. Stripped bare and waiting for an exit plan.
Archival photos: LA Public Library online photo archive.