It was 1995 when arson claimed the derelict Hotel Californian at the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae in the Westlake District. But before the grand old H-shaped structure was demolished, the city removed its massive twin neon roof signs and placed them behind a chain link fence just east of the Mulholland Fountain on Riverside Drive.
The plan, if you can call it that, was to convince the developer who would eventually build on the site to fix them up and put them back.
And there they sat, lonesome, rusting and occasionally vandalized, for almost two decades. Folks would spy them from the road and pull over, astonished, full of questions and humming that Eagles song.
At some point, one of the signs vanished; the preservation grapevine buzzed that Diane Keaton had mysteriously acquired the least ruined of the pair and installed it on the patio of one of her many historic homes.* Then the second sign was gone, too, and nobody seemed to know where.
But then came a hot tip from our neon historian pal Dydia DeLyser, which is how we found ourselves at high noon on the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae, hitching a ride in the freight elevator of The Paseo at Californian, the nearly-finished low income housing complex that has sprouted on the grassy vacant lot where the old Hotel Californian (1925-1995) lived and died.
Up on the red-tiled roof, we found vintage neon artisan Paul Greenstein putting the finishing touches on the glass tubes that will illuminate the second, newly restored Hotel Californian sign. The metal cans are smooth and clean now, and painted a brilliant California orange with cream that had been revealed as the original colors, visible in flakes beneath layers of rust and paint. (“Creamsicle!” Paul laughed.) As the neon crew posed for photos, then packed up from a job well done, the master’s doggy sidekick Harpo enjoyed the cool breeze off the lake in MacArthur Park.
After 21 years in the exile, the Hotel Californian sign again rises proudly above the city: behold! (She’s not yet lit, but watch this space, and we’ll let you know when you can see her glow.)
Update: Here’s video of the speakers at the relighting ceremony on March 9, 2017.
*Update: we got curious about the rumors of Diane Keaton’s absconding with one of the Californian rooftop signs after her vocal advocacy for the demolition of William Pereira’s 1965 LACMA campus, which is a weird thing for a Los Angeles Conservancy board member to do. A little sleuthing of listing photos for her recent property sales revealed that not only did she use the hotel’s sign for poolside decoration on a $7M flip in the Palisades, but she apparently scrambled the letters to spell CLARION.
Recent aerial photos show kids’ play equipment on this spot, and no rusty neon cans. Was the attractive nuisance taken to the dump after the house sold?
The location of the missing letters “HOTEL” and “IFAN” are also presently unknown. Let us know if you see them in a spa or garage conversion.
“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”