The Baltimore Hotel, Empty No More

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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.”

Civil War Musicians in a Memorial Day parade, Los Angeles Street, between 5th & 6th Streets, looking north, Los Angeles, ca.1915 (USC, California Historical Society Collection)

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.

Find the Fire Door! 3-D Tour of Downtown L.A.’s King Eddy Saloon Speakeasy Reveals A Vanished Cultural Treasure

king edward 3d preview

Welcome to the ninth in a series of 3-D explorable tours of off-the-beaten-path Los Angeles spaces, created by Craig Sauer of Reality Capture Experts using cutting-edge Matterport technology.

This tour takes you behind the scenes of John Parkinson’s 1906 King Edward Hotel, recently purchased by the Healthy Housing Foundation so its scores of vacant SRO rooms can be made available to low-income tenants.

In addition to the exquisite lobby with its Egyptian marble details, vintage rolling wall safe, mosaic tile floor, faux marble scagliola columns (soon to be restored!) and dolphin fish wall fountain, we also go upstairs to explore the room upgrades in progress, and into the basement, packed with incredible artifacts of 112 years as a working apartment-hotel. Don’t miss the collection of massive iron boilers in the northwest corner, too big to remove when they became obsolete.

We share these immersive photo projects to bring fellow history lovers along with us into spaces that are often hard to visit, experiencing transition and rich in layers that reward a deeper look.

This is the first time, while documenting an historic space, that we’ve uncovered evidence of a crime!

But before revealing details of that crime, and asking for your help in solving it, let’s go back to the beginning, at least to our beginning as professional tour guides. When we launched Esotouric in 2007, one of the Los Angeles writers we celebrated was John Fante. We successfully nominated the intersection of 5th & Grand outside Central Library as John Fante Square, got to know Fante’s family, marked his centennial, sought out time capsule locations that Fante would still recognize and generally did our part to honor a fine, unjustly neglected artist.

The most resonant Fante location proved to be the King Eddy Saloon, the last of the old school Skid Row dive bars, and a featured location in the 1939 novel Ask The Dust. In the book, Fante’s literary alter ego Arturo Bandino blows his first royalty check on one of the b-girls hustling in the basement speakeasy.

In 2008, while filming an episode of Cities of the Underworld in the junk-filled basement, our Richard Schave was among the first people in decades to see a Skid Row masterpiece emerge from the dust: a big metal fire door that separated the bar from the hotel basement, expertly painted with a comic scene of an old fashioned cop rousting a drunk on a bench.

Over the next few years, we had numerous opportunities to take groups down into the speakeasy, and to see how the fire door thrilled people. Every group asked if the speakeasy could ever come back. Word got around about the real speakeasy (something rare as hen’s teeth in a city filled with “speakeasies”) beneath the King Eddy, and other bar owners lusted after the space.

In 2012, the King Edward Hotel changed hands after a death and bankruptcy. The Croik family, owners of the bar since the early 1960s, found themselves without a lease. To stay on, they’d need to agree to invest big money in the speakeasy and to make major changes to the working man’s bar upstairs. Investing in the speakeasy was a no-brainer, but the latter demand went against the Croiks’ ethics as the stewards of that fragile ecosystem, the last Skid Row bar. Grandson Dustin couldn’t be the person to dismantle an environment crafted over three generations, by his father and grandfather before him, a place that meant so much to The Regulars.

So with more than a little sadness, it was announced that the King Eddy would be closing at the end of 2012. We organized a special night of farewell speakeasy tours, led by Dustin, then put the video of that night aside, too sad to do anything with it, until now.

The new owners, ACME Hospitality Group, were nice and loved the bar’s history, and we kept bringing groups down to tour the speakeasy (here’s ACME’s Jonny Valenti showing a private John Buntin organized crime history tour group around).

But the promised big money investment demanded of the Croik family never happened, and the numerous changes to the working man’s bar upstairs didn’t click. From 2015 through today, the bar changed hands a couple of times, and we could never connect with the new owners to learn about their plans for the precious speakeasy.

Okay, enough background. So what about the crime?

Summer 2018. There we were in the dark and cavernous western side of the hotel basement, helping to set up lights so Craig could complete his 3-D scan and excited to show him the lesser-known hotel side of the Weirton Steel fire door (painted with a comely Dutch girl serving a foamy beer to a baby-faced sailor), when we discovered the unthinkable.

That magnificent painted fire door, Skid Row’s own American Gothic and the centerpiece of the historic basement speakeasy, had been TAKEN OFF ITS HINGES AND SPIRITED AWAY!

You can see the hole where the door should be over Craig’s shoulder at left in the photo below.

According to hotel staff, one day several years ago, they noticed that this integral piece of building safety infrastructure had been removed. They put a large piece of plywood up to cover the hole in the wall between the bar and the hotel basement, securing it on the hotel side. The plywood panel is visible in this speakeasy tour video shared by Oddity Odysseys in June 2017, and in the screen grab below.

The new owners of the King Edward Hotel, the Healthy Housing Foundation, love the building’s history and very much want to see this lost artifact returned and preserved. We asked Miki Jackson of HHF what message she had for anyone who might know where the fire door is now. Miki says, “The King Edward and the King Eddy Saloon basement speakeasy are just not the same without our cantankerous cop, our resident miscreant, our charming Dutch girl, the mischievous sailor and his beer! They have gotten lost; please send them back home. We are honoring the long and colorful history of the famed King Edward Hotel and this painted door is a very important part of that history. Please help us find it.”

The Healthy Housing Foundation is offering a reward of $300, a behind-the-scenes tour of the building and a round of beers in the King Eddy Saloon for the return of the King Eddy’s historic fire door. Because we love the door and feel responsible for rediscovering it in the first place, we’re throwing in tickets for the person who helps return the door and three friends to ride our Downtown L.A. true crime history tour, Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice or, if you’re more bookish than ghoulish, Charles Bukowski’s Los Angeles.

Somebody knows where the painted fire door is now. And as cool as this artifact is out of its historic context, we hope they can see that it ought to be returned to the King Eddy cellar, the room it was created to decorate.

Please help spread the word by sharing this blog post and the missing posters below. And if you know where the door is or where it’s been since it was last seen around 2015, please say something and help bring this precious cultural artifact home, so future generations can be as charmed as we were when we brought it back into the light ten years ago.

REWARD

with any info

CONTACT Kim and Richard

tours@esotouric.com

213-915-8687

http://www.esotouric.com/KingEddyDoor

The King Edward Hotel: Empty No More

Michael Weinstein describes what’s next for the King Edward Hotel

Yesterday, we attended an event at the stately King Edward Hotel (John Parkinson, 1906) in the heart of historic Skid Row, where Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare Foundation introduced the new Healthy Housing Foundation model of housing L.A.’s homeless and chronically ill population quickly in historic hotels and motels.

The previous owners of the King Edward were keeping about 110 of the 150 rooms vacant, as we learned when a longtime tenant posted a disturbing video last summer. The HHF plan is to fix the empty rooms up and have the building fully inhabited by summer. The cost per unit at the King Edward is about $70,000 for the purchase of the building and simple upgrades, as opposed to the Measure HHH budget of $434,000/unit for brand new construction.

Weinstein asked why the County isn’t housing people in County General Hospital, and why the City of LA plans to demolish Parker Center rather than using it as desperately needed housing. These are good questions.

It was an interesting and inspiring press conference, in one of the most beautiful, though neglected, landmarks of old Skid Row. We’re looking forward to the King Edward’s new life as a place people call home, and to some much needed preservation of the historic features. (But sorry, Presidential history buffs, Teddy Roosevelt didn’t really sleep here!)

We hope you enjoy this photo tour, including the grand lobby with its faux marble columns and Grecian mosaic floor, and a trip upstairs to see one of the newly renovated rooms (simple but dignified, with terrific views), the long, haunting hallways with their shared baths, and some doors still showing the bright blue seal of the Coroner’s Office. How sad and stupid to think that a person died, and their room was left empty, while tens of thousands sleep in the streets of Los Angeles.

Old buildings need new ideas, and we’re glad to see the great King Edward is where they’re being hatched.

Update: we returned a week later, and found an entire empty wing on the second floor being readied for residents.