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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Always on Stage : For decades, the Beverly Hills Hotel was Hollywood. Think mega deals, trysts, parties. After a face lift, can it again be a beacon for the beautiful?

June 04, 1995|IRENE LACHER | TIME STAFF WRITER

In the husk of a New York winter, it must have warmed the dreams of businessmen: the fantasy poolside conference room that was the essence of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Indeed, this was what all the money-making was for, the chance to make that money beside an 80-degree pool shaded by birds of paradise and the spirit of Katharine Hepburn diving in fully clothed after six sets of tennis. And what more stylish way to sign an elephantine deal than within earshot of the chink of champagne glasses at the Polo Lounge?

"The hotel is not architecture so much as it is stage set. It's a place for great events to take place," says architect Edward Friedrichs of Gensler and Associates, which helped design the hotel's just-completed $100-million renovation.

Of course, the Beverly Hills Hotel was also Hollywood's clubhouse, and the entertainment industry's idea of a great event is a mega-deal; its brand of sentiment, the dewy-eyed memory of signing this big act or that huge star. The hotel pool was the backdrop of Norma Shearer's career-launching words to industry wanna-be Bob Evans: "Are you an actor?" The Polo Lounge refreshed the players in Charles Bluhdorn's acquisition of Paramount Pictures for Gulf & Western.

"Nobody is allowed to fail within a two-mile radius of the Beverly Hills Hotel," Gore Vidal once said.

Unless, of course, the failure is of historic proportion: John Mitchell learned of the botched Watergate burglary while watching television in his Beverly Hills Hotel room.

Such high rollers generally demand amenities like running water, a chancy luxury before the renovation given a plumbing system that had been sputtering along since the Beverly Hills opened in 1912.

"A lot of people in New York I knew stopped staying there because they would complain about the bathrooms," says longtime regular Joan Didion. " 'It didn't have this' and 'It didn't have that,' and it didn't."

But the 4 1/2-year renovation presented a delicate challenge to its design team: How do you upgrade creature comforts and still retain the singular sense of history embodied by the elegantly frayed stage set of the old Beverly Hills Hotel? How do you maintain the fragile marriage of pricey pleasures and mystique for a world-class hotel that not only helped put the Beverly Hills into Beverly Hills, but preceded it? Would anyone believe Marilyn Monroe slept here before central air conditioning was installed?

"It's a fine line between capturing something that feels like an old hotel and the expectations of a contemporary guest," Friedrichs says.

The Beverly Hills is betting it can dance down that line, and it celebrated its reopening Saturday after two years of planning and 2 1/2 more of construction with a $1,000-a-plate benefit for the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hollywood was expected to turn out in force to check out its old hostelry and dine on venison and smoked swordfish. The curious were to have included Frank Sinatra, Martin Landau, Dennis Hopper, Steve Martin and Debbie Reynolds.

What they found was that some things were better left alone, or merely reupholstered along memory's lines: the iconic Polo Lounge, the Fountain Coffee Shop and the banana-leaf wallpaper designed by Don Loper and reproduced by the Los Angeles company that has been making it for 55 years. Of course, the Pink Palace, as it was nicknamed by Hollywood Reporter columnist George Christy, will be ever thus, repainted "Beverly Hills Pink" with color computer-matched to old paint samples. The Beverly Hills Planning Commission required that those elements stay the same after public hearings.

"The neighbors came and the people who lived here for a while associate this place with most of the major events in their lives--when they were courting, when they got married, when there was a bar mitzvah, a coming-out party, everything from their first date," says Ruth Nadel, the city's director of planning and community development. "It was very important to preserve those aspects that--the older word would have been gestalt, now they say ambience --feeling the hotel had for people."

So the faithful will still have their Polo Lounge comfort fare, the Dutch Apple pancakes and guacamole. But while purists savor the past, the hotel is also mindful of the culinary present and the competition forged by such nearby power restaurants as Morton's and Eclipse. Back to back with the Polo Lounge is the new Polo Grill, an undulating expanse of ribbon mahogany, leaf-embroidered booths and Deco detailing designed to feel like an ocean liner from the '30s.

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