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Final Days of the 'Old Lady' : Preparations for Closing Made Quietly

October 17, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Looking out his office windows, Denis McDowell tried to make the future look as sunny as the manicured landscape before him.

The Sheraton Hotels vice president was seeking to put the best possible light on the closing of the Huntington Sheraton Hotel's main building. The sedate relic of the era before World War I had become the victim of modern earthquake safety standards.

"We have these ivy-covered pillars that run all the way around the building," he said, pulling back a curtain. "In a few weeks or months, if we leave the ivy untrimmed, that's all going to be overgrown and you won't see that much," he said, referring to the fence and boarded first floor windows that will soon mar the hotel's facade.

Keeping Up Appearances

Appearances seemed important to McDowell on Tuesday evening as he juggled the thousand and one things it takes to close a hotel.

"I've been trying to make them (measures taken to wall off the hotel) as unobtrusive as possible," he said.

McDowell was also trying to be unobtrusive about what was for the moment a big secret. He and his staff were working stealthily, hiding telltale papers from the eyes of employees and rapidly learning to speak in whispers.

The secrecy about the closing was spiced with disbelief on the part of McDowell and others in the know.

"Like any startling piece of information, it doesn't settle in," McDowell said. "You don't realize or experience the reality of it. . . . I think the impact's going to be when we start walking around here, when we start putting the fencing up, putting up all those thing that are going to alter the appearance of the building."

Even nostalgia was a secret emotion.

"My husband kissed me for the first time here," Christle Balvin said out of earshot of passers-by. Balvin, a public relations expert brought in by Sheraton to smooth the road to closure, turned out to be something of an expert on the history of the hotel.

When the official press conference is held today, Balvin will have made sure that reporters have a rundown on the decades the hotel catered to such notables as Richard Nixon, Prince Philip, Princess Anne and Norman Vincent Peale.

Built in 1906, the hotel opened in an uncompleted state Jan. 1, 1907. It was then named the Wentworth Hotel, after its builder, Marshall Wentworth. In a twist of fate, Balvin said, the hotel was not finished because workers had been lured away to help rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake leveled that city.

Heavy Rains

Damaged by the heavy rains of the winter of 1907-1908--and the lack of business, the hotel closed in July, 1908. The building stood vacant until it was purchased by railroad magnate Henry Huntington in 1911, reportedly because he considered the empty hotel an eyesore.

Huntington added two floors to the four-story hotel and reopened it in 1914, bearing his name. The hotel changed hands again in 1919 and in 1924 was purchased by Steven Royce, who was sole owner and manager until 1955 when Sheraton bought the hotel.

Much of this history can be deduced from the paintings that hang in the lobby or from a 62-page booklet on the Huntington published by Royal Literary Publications of Laguna Niguel in 1984.

Personal Experiences

But it seems clear that what will be on the minds of most people who know the hotel will not be the history but their own experiences at what McDowell calls the "Old Lady."

McDowell and his wife Judy, who will continue to live in a cottage on the grounds of the hotel, recalled a couple of episodes from the recent past.

Housing British royalty during the Olympics last year proved to be a challenge, McDowell said.

"Trying to serve Princess Anne and Prince Philip for 21 days straight is a bit of a strain on anybody's capacity," McDowell said.

When pianist Vladimir Horowitz stayed for a few days last year, he brought "his piano, his plants, his retinue," McDowell recalled. "We were honored every morning about 10 o'clock with some interesting background music. My wife would invite some of her friends over and they would sit with their tea and coffee and listen to a free concert."

Hotel's Slow Pace

Generally, the hotel has appealed to people who found the hotel's slow pace fit their life style or sought to escape their usual frenetic pace, he said.

"Some people who seem to live in the fast lane, all of a sudden they end up slipping into the Huntington and we do not fit into the fast lane at all," he said. "We've used this as a hideaway for some of our friends over on the Westside (of Los Angeles)."

Even with the main building shut down, McDowell hopes that a bit of the Huntington's style will be retained by the rooms and cottages that will remain open .

"It's going to be more like a cottage colony," he said. "We're going to call it the Huntington Sheraton Lanai and Cottages. We're just short of a hotel."

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