Nothing signals the rebirth of downtown Los Angeles more than the new Ace Hotel, which recently opened on Broadway. Built inside C. Howard Crane’s Spanish Gothic 1927 United Artists Theater and adjacent office building (originally used by Texaco), the project is a lost treasure that’s finally been recovered. And the same can now be said for Broadway. It has always been a mystery to me why this once-great, architecture-blessed street has never lived up to its potential. The Ace—along with a growing list of new establishments nearby—re-focuses the creative energy and attention here in a way that nothing has so far. The pace of development is moving from brisk to breakneck.
The hotel is the kind of place you want to keep coming back to, full of satisfying and strange layers, history, and youthful artistic energy. Its design team was led by local fixtures Commune, who made the wise choice of not only combining careful restoration (preserved facade details and marquee and original floors, walls, and ceilings) with a touch of contemporary (fiberboard walls, steel and glass insertions), but spreading the wealth to some of the best young artistic talent in the city. In the first floor restaurant, called LA Chapter, the Haas Brothers’ have sketched cute, hilarious doodles all over the walls, while in the small lobby Jetson has installed a colorful, geometric patchwork of stained glass. Along a wall of the gift shop a wonderfully coarse mural by Tanya Aguiñiga looks like it is made of goat hair and asbestos. In the upstairs rooftop lounge Alma Allen has created tables out of what seems to be petrified wood while Michael Schmidt has hung vintage steel chains and original theater lights from next door. The hotel’s gift for quirky, eclectic originality is what separates it from the sea of boutique hotels that seem to have popped out of Philippe Stark’s website.
Let’s be honest, boutique hotels never have big enough rooms (with the exceptions of their rock star suites) and the Ace is no exception. But the design inside them again utilizes the hotel’s mix of old, new, and artsy (especially the art, by film world art director Mike Mills) with a sophisticated selection of furniture, colors, and a unique layout, along with exposed original concrete and fiberboard. Plus each room has a record player. And it doesn’t hurt that these spaces take advantage of the beautiful Spanish gothic architecture of the building, including their sinuous windows. The building’s curvy, wonderfully intricate detailing keeps your eyes arrested, be it on the facade or in the elevator banks or in rooftop details.
While you are up in the rooftop bar—which is going to be perpetually crowded, because it is not very big—make sure also to take a look at the restored “Jesus Saves” sign, edging the west side of the building. It installed there by the previous owner, the Evangelical minister Dr. Gene Scott, who deserves a lot of credit for keeping the whole building in good shape.
Spencer Lowell (left, right); Meara Daly (center)
But while the hotel is a major accomplishment, the true highlight is its Spanish Gothic (or more appropriately, High Gothic) theater, which used to be the highly popular United Artist, and was later kept up as a prayer hall by Scott (it will now be used for concerts and events). I have been to practically every movie palace on Broadway, and this one is in the top echelon. I would argue that it is the most opulent, strange, flamboyant, and magical space in downtown. The layers of ornament—organ screens and a proscenium arch look like set pieces from “Fraggle Rock”; a lantern space above glows like an ethereal planet—along with over-the-top marble and murals and carpeting and lighting all bring alive the unparalleled energy and dreaminess of old Hollywood. I love that one side of the giant auditorium mural depicts Mary Pickford and her cohorts as the heroes and the other side depicts studio executives as the villains. When you visit here you wonder how such a marvel could have been left almost secret for so long.
Indeed, just coming here makes you realize that the downtown treasure hunt is for real. As I walk down its length and wonder at the fantastically strange and beautiful facades of the Orpheum Theater, the Eastern Building, the Los Angeles Theater, the Bradbury Building, and so much more, I cannot wait to see what happens next on this street, which has always had the potential to transform downtown and finally—finally—seems to be actually doing that.