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New Day Dawns for Sunset Tower as a St. James's Club : First in U. S. to Open This Week in W. Hollywood

February 21, 1988|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

Multimillionaire English yachtsman Peter de Savary will be in West Hollywood on Tuesday for a "Sunset Tea" to rededicate the landmark Sunset Tower as his first St. James's Club in the United States.

The 47-year-old entrepreneur, who is behind Britain's bid for the America's Cup, acquired the 130-year-old club's name in 1980, and now has clubs in London, Paris and Antigua.

"We're looking for a suitable building in New York," he said by phone from Cornwall, England.

Saved from Demolition

His focus Tuesday will be, however, the Sunset Strip landmark, which he and his project director/designer David Becker saved from demolition with the help of the city, the Los Angeles Conservancy, Hollywood Heritage and project architect David Lawrence Gray.

"I've been restoring old buildings for 14 to 15 years, and I love it," said De Savary, who is involved in the oil and energy fields as well as yachting, hotels and real estate development.

"It was my idea to try to establish a club in Los Angeles, but we looked for seven or eight months. Then the derelict building was brought to my attention, and I thought what a good opportunity it would be to bring it back (to its former glory)."

In its heyday, the 14-story, 1930 building was one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in town. It was called "as much an emblem of Hollywood as the Hollywood sign."

Designed by Leland A. Bryant, it was built on rockers to make it one of the first earthquake-resistant buildings in California. It was also one of the first all-electric apartment houses in the state.

Its beauty and location, near the major studios, attracted such celebrity tenants as Errol Flynn, Zasu Pitts, Jean Harlow, Paulette Goddard, Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne. Legend has it that Wayne once brought a cow by elevator to his apartment so guests could have fresh cream.

Nearly Three Years

By the early '80s, the tower was gutted and deteriorating, the victim of a failed scheme to convert the 46 apartments into condominiums. The property was purchased by De Savary in November, 1985, from a holding company that acquired title at a foreclosure sale in 1982.

"It took us 18 months to get through all the complications of buying it," Becker said. "Building took another 18 months. So, it's going on three years from the first time we saw the building."

It took a year longer than they first figured to complete the restoration and new construction, and the project cost escalated from $25 million to $40 million.

Costs mounted as exterior features only made in Europe had to be imported. It was also costly to reconfigure the tower into 13 stories, add the adjacent wing, and furnish the 74 guest accommodations with reproductions of Art Deco pieces found in the Beaux Arts Museum in Paris and Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Then there were the details required for a facility that caters to the likes of Michael Caine, Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, Roger Moore, Joan Collins, Christopher Plummer and other members on a roster of 5,000 who have such titles as esquire, lady, sir and sheik.

"Our tableware is the Rolls-Royce of silver," Becker said, "and all our linen comes from Florence." A set of sheets used in one of the hotel's bedrooms would retail on Rodeo Drive for $1,100, he estimated.

Open to Members

The tea on Tuesday is by invitation only, but the newest St. James's Club will open to members and potential members starting Thursday. There are several classifications of membership, the most common of which is, for an individual, $750 to join and $750 a year.

Hollywood Heritage is buying a corporate membership at $2,250 to join and the same per year, said Marian Gibbons, founder of the nearly 8-year-old group, "because now we can take visitors to one of the best examples of a deteriorating historic building that has been turned around and made into a viable project, paying for itself."

The fees allow members to use the club's facilities--a couple of restaurants, library, health center and meeting rooms--but members must pay additionally to stay overnight, something the general public can do for a daily membership fee of $8 besides nightly rates, said H. Ross Justice, the L. A. club's general manager.

Room Rentals

Room rates range from $180-$850, or about $2,000 for the whole penthouse, which can be divided. The rates are equal to those of hotels in Beverly Hills, Justice said.

There are seven large hotels in the same neighborhood, but that doesn't worry him, he says, "because we're small, not for conventions."

Besides, said Alan Viterbi, mayor of West Hollywood: "The St. James's Club is, without a doubt, the city's most important historic landmark."

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