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Landmark Awaits New Role

As L.A. Unified mulls over options for the Ambassador Hotel, conservationists hope history is preserved in the resulting schools.

September 02, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

It is a building lost in time, captured in black-and-white images and haunted by ghosts. Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr. and F. Scott Fitzgerald all frolicked there. Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby were discovered there. And Robert F. Kennedy died there, on the floor of a pantry off the kitchen.

Since the Ambassador Hotel closed Jan. 3, 1989, it has been a symbol of battles waged all over the city, about whether to preserve our past or prepare a different sort of future.

Many plans have been floated over the years -- including one by Donald Trump to bulldoze the hotel for shops and housing -- only to be dropped. Now the Los Angeles Unified School District has stepped in, with proposals to use all or part of the Ambassador site for three schools. The five options range in price and scope, from restoring much of the hotel building to knocking it down altogether.

For now, it is up to the district's facilities committee to weigh the options and make a recommendation to the superintendent, who is expected to present the board with a suggestion in November or December. Already, there are rumblings that the district might ultimately select a blend of the current proposals.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Ambassador Hotel -- An article in Tuesday's California section about the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles incorrectly stated that Robert F. Kennedy died there. He was mortally wounded at the hotel and died at nearby Good Samaritan Hospital.

Whatever it decides, the district must wrestle with a weighty legacy.

The Ambassador, said Margaret Burk, author of "Are the Stars Out Tonight? The Story of the Famous Ambassador and Cocoanut Grove, Hollywood's Hotel," was, in its heyday, one of the most important hotels in the world. "Everyone knew it, and everyone wanted to come to it," she said.

But now it is a monument to faded glory -- in a city where space is hard to come by. Today, the school district estimates that nearly 6,900 children in grades kindergarten through 12th live within half a mile of the hotel and that 3,800 students are bused out of the area because they can't be enrolled locally. The district hopes to build an elementary, middle and high school on the site, serving a total of 4,400 students.

"That neighborhood is one of the most populated neighborhoods in the United States," said Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer. "We really need this space, and the seats. We obviously have sensitivity to the historical value of the property. But we have to be careful not to be spending money that bondholders said use for schools to build something that is very much more expensive, to serve other values."

Cost and time estimates for the project vary dramatically.

The least expensive option, priced at $286 million by the district, is to raze the building altogether and replace it with new structures within about four years. Two other alternatives -- costing $307 million and $320 million and taking up to five years -- would make use of different historically significant pieces of the building.

Another plan, costing about $381 million, would retain the hotel's original tower and several key sites, including the Embassy Ballroom, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and the coffee shop designed by architect Paul Williams. Some of the money for that plan could come from state funds allocated for historical preservation.

The most expensive option, which is supported by some local business leaders, would lease or sell about six acres along Wilshire Boulevard for commercial use and convert the hotel into a middle school and high school. That plan would cost $404 million, in part because the district would probably have to condemn property nearby to make space for an elementary school.

The latter two options would take longest to complete, about 5 1/2 years.

Some critics of the district, most notably the preservationist Los Angeles Conservancy, say L.A. Unified has provided inaccurate cost and time estimates for the project. The conservancy says it would be cheaper -- as much as $23 per square foot less -- to preserve the site rather than rebuild on it.

"If you listen to our constituency, there are many who would prefer the school district goes elsewhere," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues at the conservancy. "That has not been our position. We recognize that there is a school facility crisis, that this is the best and only site."

But, he said, "we can't support anything that does not provide for meaningful preservation."

Of course, the mixture of history and urban utility presents architectural challenges.

"It's hard for people to envision how it gets converted to a school," said Barry A. Milofsky, a local architect who specializes in the restoration and reuse of historic structures and is a member of the conservancy's board. "It got frozen in time. It's a relic, but it's retained its character. All the pieces are still there."

The Ambassador today is both an inspiring and disheartening sight. It stands behind barbed-wire fences, past dilapidated grounds on which 80-year-old olive and palm trees reach towering heights and ivy grows unabated.

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