Downtown L.A.'s revival continues with opening of new Ace Hotel on Broadway

Darkened marquees are flickering to life

Just in time for the Golden Globes, hip and history converged this week, the Los Angeles Times reports, with the opening of the Ace Hotel chain's newest property in downtown Los Angeles.

The Ace's opening in the 1927 United Artists Theatre building at 929 S. Broadway, is part of an ongoing revival of downtown that might surprise you if you haven't visited in a while.

The 87-year-old theater’s preserved condition in an area where long-darkened marquees are slowly flickering to life made it the exact kind of property, at the exact right time, for the Ace to purchase, Brad Wilson, president of the Portland, Ore.-based chain, told the Times

“Ace is about building neighborhoods,” Wilson said. (The chain opened its first hotel in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood).  “We go across the world and look for interesting neighborhoods with interesting buildings. I don’t know that you can do better than this one.”

I reported on the beginnings of downtown L.A.'s renaissance in 2011 in this story for The Seattle Times. Even then, I was surprised at what I found:

It's 5 p.m., and already there's a crowd gathered around the alley entrance to the Edison, a 1920s-styled speakeasy on the edge of what was once Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

An elegant, reservations-are-a-must lounge by night, the Edison nods to budget- conscious Angelenos on Thursday afternoons with a 35-cent happy-hour drink special in the refurbished, century-old power plant.

A hostess points the way to a flight of stairs leading to a basement boiler room furnished with sofas and antique tables scattered
among hulking generators.

Silent movies flicker on two large screens as waiters dart about taking orders in the dim light. Tonight's special (one per customer) is the "Diablo," a tequila, lime juice and ginger-beer concoction that pairs well with the $5 Kobe beef slider and sweet-potato fries.

A few blocks away, gourmet food trucks, selling mac-and-cheese sandwiches and miniature whoopie pies, fill parking lots along Main Street for the monthly Art Walk.
Inside the newly expanded Los Angeles Center for Digital Art, a Hollywood winery pours chardonnay as people gather around a pile of chocolate-chip cookies stacked in the corner, wondering whether they're art or edible.

Welcome to downtown L.A., a once-deserted city center that's coming to life again after years of neglect. Credit the revival to a boom in city living, lively new arts and entertainment venues and events such as the Art Walk for drawing locals and visitors back to what was an elegant residential quarter and premier shopping and theater district in the early 1900s.

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Grabbing attention are modern additions such as architect Frank Gehry's silvery Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the L.A. Philharmonic and its popular young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. But more awaits.

"Lofts for Lease" signs hang outside once-abandoned office buildings and hotels, beckoning to young urban dwellers more in tune to biking or walking to work than long freeway commutes from L.A.'s suburbs.

Their days are spent in the office towers on Bunker Hill, L.A.'s mansion district in the early 20th century, now a financial center and hub for the performing arts.

Open plazas, fountains and reflecting pools create a traffic-free pedestrian zone leading to the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a landmark of swirling, stainless-steel opened in 2003. Benefactor Lillian Disney envisioned a "little brick church covered in vines." Visitors can judge Gehry's interpretation for themselves on a free, self-guided audio tour.
Weekends are for relaxing over breakfast at new coffee bars and diners in the historic center.

"It's the cutting edge of what's happening downtown right now," says Pam Taylor, a volunteer who leads downtown walking tours for the Los Angeles Conservancy.

"Lower downtown," as it's called, is reconnected once again to Bunker Hill by a one- minute, 25-cent ride on the orange and black Angels Flight, a funicular railway built in 1901 to carry residents to and from the shops and theaters, just two blocks away.

Angels Flight funicular railway

Angels Knoll, a park next door to Angels Flight, made famous in the 2009 film "(500) Days of Summer," is weeded by a flock of goats brought in by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. In various stages of restoration are Beaux Arts and Art Deco-style former bank buildings, theaters and hotels, abandoned when people left downtown for the suburbs after World War II.

Starting with the opening of Staples Center sports arena in 1999, now part of the L.A. LIVE mega-sports/entertainment complex, the changes haven't been without controversy.
L.A. has one of the country's largest homeless populations. Pawn shops and discount stores along the former Broadway Avenue theater district cater to a low-income population of Mexicans and Salvadorans. Elaborate 1920s and '30s movie palaces, many with marble staircases and ornate balconies, sit idle, or are used for church services or reality-show tryouts.

But wander the streets during Art Walk, or on a Saturday morning when the locals gather on the terrace of CoffeeBar, the newest addition to the Spring Street indie coffee scene, and downtown starts to feel like parts of Manhattan or Seattle's Belltown, gritty in places, but safe, and alive with new energy.

Downtown hotel choices range from the high-rise Ritz Carlton and Marriott near Staples Center to the restored Biltmore, adorned with painted ceilings, murals and classic photos from Academy Awards ceremonies in the 1930s and 1940s. Nearby, the Standard Hotel in the former Superior Oil headquarters building attracts a fashionable crowd to its rooftop bar carpeted with astro turf.

Working with a $100-a-night budget, I slept in style in the Grand Central Square apartments atop the Million Dollar Theatre, built for showman Sid Grauman (of Grauman's Chinese, the Hollywood Boulevard movie palace known for the concrete blocks bearing the footprints and handprints of stars).

While trolling through, a global Internet network of accommodations offered by locals, I spotted a listing for "Urban Bed & Breakfast" and rented a sunny guest room with private bathroom. Across the street was the Bradbury office building, built in 1893, and a stop on the L.A. Conservancy's walking tour.

The facade is plain-looking, but the interior reflects mining and real-estate millionaire Lewis Bradbury's vision of what a building might look like in the year 2000. Visitors are free to roam the sky-lit lobby, and admire the open cage elevators, marble stairs and iron railings.

My Airbnb host recommended a restaurant inside the faded Alexandria Hotel on Spring Street. He remembered the Alexandria as a popular spot for quinceaƱera parties, the elaborate celebrations for Mexican girls turning 15. Today the hotel houses a mix of low-income tenants, loft-dwellers and the chic Gorbals restaurant. 

Meanwhile, work continues on the transformation of the former not-so-chic Clifton's Cafeteria on South Broadway, across from the State Theatre, where Judy Garland performed in the 1930s.

The former Clifton's Cafeteria on Broadway

Shortly after I visited in April, 2011, Clifton's closed, looking much the way it did when it opened in 1931 — a Disneyesque fantasy forest, decorated with fake trees, moose heads, waterfalls and a faux fireplace.  The fifth-generation family that owned the restaurant sold it to Andrew Meieran, owner of the Edison. As longtime fans of the cafeteria wait, the Los Angeles Times reports that Meieran is laboring on a $5-million makeover that he hopes will make Clifton's an elaborate dining and drinking establishment unlike any other in the city, and bring back crowds. 

Count on his new neighbor, the Ace, to get the party started. 


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