The Baltimore Hotel opened in 1910 with all good intentions, a first-class reinforced concrete, fireproof structure just across Fifth Street from John Parkinson’s handsome 1906 King Edward Hotel.
The owner-builder was T. Ashton Fry, and the architect Arthur Roland Kelly, whose later commissions include the William S. Hart estate and the Arthur Letts, Jr. estate (better known as the Playboy Mansion).
There were 215 rooms and apartments, and the style was said to be Spanish Colonial (we don’t see it). Today there are 202 rooms, but only 76 residents, which is a troubling statistic for a building that is legally bound to operate as low-income housing for decades to come. But as at the King Edward, tenancy declined precipitously since it was purchased out of bankruptcy in 2012. Neighborhood reporter JD Kelly (Universal Network News) documented the hotel’s habitability crisis, but the city just let it slide.
But that was then.
The Baltimore, like its neighbor King Edward and Charles Bukowski’s beloved Madison deeper East in Skid Row, has now been purchased by the Healthy Housing Foundation of AIDS Healthcare, and will soon be filled with formerly homeless and chronically ill Angelenos in need of a place to call home. In addition to housing people, and restoring decaying historic elements of these landmark buildings, HHF is trying to make a point: adaptive reuse of SRO hotel facilities is much cheaper and faster than building new ground up housing, and should be part of L.A. city’s and county’s policy for dealing with the homeless crisis. As preservationists who care about our homeless neighbors and fiscal responsibility, we think it’s an idea worth talking about.
To celebrate the purchase, The Baltimore will be open for tours today from 10:30am-12:30pm.
Here’s just a taste of her fascinating 108-year history:
When she opened, Angelenos called her the “New” Baltimore, to distinguish from the hotel’s original location at 7th & Olive. That was such a prime piece of downtown real estate that in 1907, the Los Angeles Athletic Club bought the turreted 1896 hotel for $450,000 with the intention of demolishing it; its new, million dollar clubhouse was erected on the site in 1912, and still stands.
The New Baltimore, a more modest establishment than the original, was completed by fall 1910. Among the first guests to check in was a union fellow from back east, just stopping briefly in Los Angeles to place a dynamite bomb against a wall of General Otis’ open shop Los Angeles Times. 21 people died. (Yes, we have a bus tour about it.)
And the Baltimore, which in its old digs had regularly featured in the society pages as a site for banquets and social shindigs, seems to have adopted a deliberately low profile, perhaps reasoning no press was better than “visit the New Baltimore, favorite stop of terrorist bombers.”
Upon completion, T. Ashton Fry had leased the hotel out to operators C.W. and E.E. Hatch. This arrangement immediately went south. In May 1911, Fry sued the Hatches in superior court for $8587 in unpaid rent, and $5000 in damages. In addition to stiffing Fry on rent, the Hatches had permitted contractor J.H. Proper (aka The Human Mole) to illegally excavate a west-leading tunnel beneath Werdin Alley, through which sewer, hot water and steam pipes were run between the Baltimore and the Conda and Renne hotels on South Main Street. Proper’s network of Downtown service tunnels, all dug in violation of city law, came to light when one connecting the Alexandria Hotel and Chester Williams Building caused a cave-in of Fifth Street.
Later managers avoided such controversy. But the world was changing fast, and the solid Beaux Arts travelers lodgings of 1910, with modest lobbies and simple accommodations, couldn’t compete for the travelers’ dollar with air conditioned, modern hotels, with their cocktail lounges, swimming pools and marketing budgets.
The hotel’s ads, when they bothered to run them, spotlighted the good food in the trendy, cafeteria-style dining room. Patrons liked visually confirming that their meals would be agreeable, and saving money on tips; these show-me lunchrooms became so popular that one wag nicknamed Los Angeles “Sunny Cafeteria.” But a good cafeteria wasn’t enough to bring in the tourist trade.
Downtown’s energies migrated westward. Fifth Street had once been the way into town for visitors arriving at the various train depots near the river, and grand East-facing rooftop and wall signs welcomed them. But when arrivals were consolidated at Union Station, The Nickel lost its luster.
In time, The Baltimore became a residency hotel, offering rooms by the week, weeks turning into years. And when the Rolling Stones made Los Angeles their base for portions of their 1970 American tour, Robert Frank brought them down to pre-redevelopment Skid Row to shoot some promotional film for the Exile on Main Street project (yes, it’s L.A.’s Main Street!) in which the Baltimore’s awning has a brief cameo above Charlie Watts’ shoulder.
Over on Main Street itself, a little logo inspiration was found at a dirty picture house.
But back to Baltimore and its 108 years at the center of the action. A spin through the newspaper archives reveals a house of sorrows and occasional flashes of mirth.
Christmas week, 1911: as oil driller Frank Miller attempts to slash the throat of his common law wife Josephine Swift on the sidewalk in front of the Baltimore—her teenage daughter wrestled the razor away—Marie Pinson, aged 18, is discovered semi-conscious and despondent in a 3rd floor restroom. She tells manager E. H. Hess that she’d run away from her home in Los Angeles intending to join a motion picture company, but had lost her $100 stake and couldn’t find work. Happily, Miss Pinson was only drunk and not poisoned.
July 1914: the hotel is the site of a weird, locked door mystery. Elwood Beaver, a Philadelphia railroad man on a cross-country tourist jaunt, checked in on a Sunday afternoon. He went to his room and was not seen again. The chambermaid knocked daily, but got no response. On Tuesday afternoon, concerned hotel staff broke his door down and discovered Beaver gasping on the floor, near death. The room was spattered with blood, and Beaver’s skull and arm were fractured. It would be reasonable to presume the visitor had been attacked, but nobody had heard a fight, and the room still contained Beaver’s cash, watch and other effects. After the dying man was carried away, detectives examined the scene and determined that Beaver had suffered a violent attack of tuberculosis, spraying blood and injuring himself while trying, in vain, to call for help.
September 1916: suffering from depression relating to the impact of the Great War on his numerous international investments, Canadian real estate and mine owner J. Anson Wheeler, 54, slipped away from his bride Isabelle in their apartment in the Bryson overlooking Westlake Park and spent nine days brooding in a room at the Baltimore. Then he checked out, for good. Detectives hired by Mrs. Wheeler conveyed the grim news that when Wheeler had shot himself in his hotel room, he had in his hand her newspaper photograph announcing their recent wedding, on which he had written “Darling wife, please forgive me.” He was buried at Monrovia, with the first Mrs. Wheeler.
July 1916: Miss Christine Buist, until recently Mrs. Dr. Horace Pierce of Santa Barbara, doggedly worked the Baltimore’s serpentine telephone exchange. She was the daughter of a millionaire, and her former husband’s people were rich, too. But her pride was such that she needed to earn her fare back home to New Jersey, and so had refused alimony from her estranged spouse and would not ask her family for help. The lady’s public complaints must have been particularly humiliating for the Pierce family; having failed to secure $100,000 in an alienation of affection suit against them, perhaps that was payment enough.
August 1922: When she checked in under a pseudonym to rest up from an exhausting day, she was a nobody. But soon Clara Phillips was the notorious Tiger Woman, on the lam after crushing the skull of her husband’s mistress with a hammer. That no-account husband parked Clara “Jackson” at the Baltimore while scheming how to get her out of town, and his hair. When asked later about her stay, Clara claimed to have suffered absolute amnesia from the moment of the murder—which she blamed on her pal Peggy Caffee—to when she woke up in her room. There’s another marketing line never used: “The Baltimore Hotel: You’ll Sleep Like A Baby, No Matter What You’ve Done.”
Let’s leave the Baltimore’s back pages with a sweeter sort of tale. In 1971 and again in 1972, the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith wrote about his friends Bill and Maggi Bender, the hotel’s managers who lived on the 6th floor with their pet iguana, Heathcliff. The Benders “prefer an iguana to a dog because an iguana requires more imagination, which is why they prefer old radio to contemporary television.” The couple, young actors who loved their colorful neighborhood, were hardcore collectors of old time radio air check tapes, and welcomed friends like Smith to sit for hours in the heart of Skid Row, eyes closed and listening to golden age recordings of Jack Benny, The Green Hornet, Lum n’ Aber, Fred Allen and scores more.
The Benders were special people, as Smith observed. Where business interests saw a slum worth wrecking filled with dirty, useless people, the Benders saw a great place to call home, packed with interesting architecture and colorful characters, like Porno Bill who ran the bookstore and Frank the hallelujah man. And Dodger Stadium and the Music Center were each only 12 minutes away (“we saw ‘Man of La Mancha four times!'”).
Time has a way of flickering in and out of focus at the corner of Fifth and Los Angeles Streets, and bringing interesting people into port. Why not come by some time and see what the Baltimore has in store for you? Here are some of the gems you might see.