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Century Plaza Hotel faces demolition

LOST L.A.

The hotel once captured the essence of an American paradise.

April 25, 2009|Sam Watters

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, who had an office in Century City, here we go again.

In March, this column waved goodbye to the Robinsons-May in Beverly Hills. Up for the count this month is another monument in our dwindling legacy of under-appreciated midcentury modern. It is the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel at 2025 Avenue of the Stars.

Long before Southern California was a land of houses, it was an eden of hotels. The Raymond, the Green, the Mission Inn, the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Ambassador were designed as homes away from home. Owners reasoned that if they cranked up the California fantasy, tourists would never leave, building bungalows on open lots owned by shadow cartels of investors, hoteliers and railroad execs. The formula worked and L.A. grew.

After World War II, undeveloped acres were at a premium as L.A. made room for boomers. Just west of Beverly Hills was the 20th Century Fox studio on land that had once been cowboy star Tom Mix's ranch. TV's rise and the studio system's decline in the late '50s led Fox to sell its back lots to New York developer William Zeckendorf and corporate giant Alcoa. Welton Becket, architect of the Beverly Hilton hotel, supplied the master plan for a city within a city, an idea pioneered by Le Corbusier at Chandigarh in India and Oscar Niemeyer at Brasilia in Brazil.

In 1961, the developers launched their city of the century, a modern residential-business acropolis between Santa Monica and Olympic boulevards. As its "keystone," they built what was then called the Century Plaza Hotel, an ultra luxury home for tourists and businessmen.

Minoru Yamasaki was the hotel's architect. From a childhood in a Seattle slum, he rose in a career that landed him the cover of Time. He rejected the classicism of early modernism for buildings that inspired through shape and decoration.

Century Plaza construction began in '64 and finished in '66. Alcoa supplied its new, gold-anodized aluminum to allow for maximum glass and light. To eliminate the gloomy straight halls of early hotels, Yamasaki swept the Century Plaza in a broad arc across the hilltop at the development's center. To keep the lobby open, he buried 32 shops, restaurants and a ballroom below grade.

Donald A. Robbins, senior designer for manager Western International Hotels, decorated the 800 guest rooms. Each had cutting-edge luxuries: wide sliders that opened onto balconies with an ocean or a mountain view, soundproofed walls, central air and heating, electric blankets, built-in vanities, ice machines, radios in the nightstands, and color television a decade before it reached most American homes.

Out of the box, Century Plaza became a VIP destination, where suntanned valets in Beefeater uniforms greeted the limos of movie stars, moguls and mistresses.

In the L.A. hotel tradition, the Century Plaza drove new business. It increased demand for apartments, office space, restaurants, shopping and entertainment, in and around Century City.

The year construction began on the Century Plaza, Yamasaki presented his plans for New York's World Trade Center. NYC's towers and L.A.'s hotel captured the essence of two cities, one a financial behemoth, the other an American paradise. While New York lost its Yamasaki to the violence of terror, we may lose ours to the voracity of money.

Local investor Michael Rosenfeld owns the Century Plaza with the D.E. Shaw Group. Their plans, to be reviewed by the city, call for leveling Yamasaki's landmark to make way for two mixed-use monoliths, one with a 240-room hotel designed by the firm founded by I.M. Pei, architect of Century City's original apartment buildings.

The developer's attack follows a proven strategy for the razing of historic buildings, the same one used for Robinsons: Seduce city officials with a big-name architect, promise some open space and green construction, project high revenue and underplay historic significance. The prize: lucrative tax abatements, forgiving zoning variances and a demo permit.

In December, a press release quoted Rosenfeld as saying, "The opportunity to redefine an urban center in one of the great international cities comes along once in a lifetime." What also comes along once in a lifetime is the chance to sacrifice profit to preservation. International cities become great by preserving their cultural achievements. They refurbish, recycle and expand noted buildings, creating unique urban experiences that define for the world what makes Paris Paris and Prague Prague. Great cities do not trash the past. They use it to enrich the future.

The Los Angeles Conservancy has placed Century Plaza on its list of endangered buildings. The hotel cannot defend itself, so call the city now. If New York can keep its historic Plaza Hotel, why can't we keep ours?

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For Watters' past columns, go to latimes.com/lostla.

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