With demand for rooms growing in downtown Los Angeles, one of the city's oldest and boldest hotels is about to get a major makeover.
The new owners of Hotel Figueroa, a quirky boutique inn dating to the 1920s, are planning a $30-million renovation to bring back its original Spanish Mediterranean decor. The interior is now a fading but flamboyant interpretation of Moroccan style, replete with authentic but uncomfortable furniture.
"It was a very classy, elegant place," said one of the owners, Jack vanHartesvelt. "Now it's more like a movie set."
In recent decades, the Hotel Figueroa has operated as a low-cost alternative for travelers, primarily tour groups from Japan and Germany. But lately blocks around the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street where the hotel stands have gone from blighted to blooming.
Multibillion-dollar projects such as the Staples Center arena and the L.A. Live entertainment and hotel complex near the hotel have helped launch a wave of new residential, hotel and retail development in the neighborhood.
A view from the hotel roof reveals heavy construction in almost all directions including the Wilshire Grand hotel and office skyscraper to the north, the Metropolis condominium, hotel and shopping complex to the west and the Fig Central retail, residential and hotel development to the south.
The three projects are valued at about $1 billion apiece, and more are on the way, including a high-rise hotel and residential complex planned next door to the Hotel Figueroa on land now occupied by a car wash.
The downtown renaissance has been a boon to tourism and the city's convention business, pushing up demand for hotel rooms.
"People can't find a place to stay," said Ernest Wooden Jr., president of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board. The city lost hundreds of potential conventions in the last few years because it doesn't have enough hotel rooms in easy walking distance of the Convention Center, he said.
There are about 3,100 hotel rooms near the downtown convention facility, less than half of what Los Angeles needs to be competitive with other California cities such as San Diego and San Francisco, he said. Hotel Figueroa is in a prime location to benefit from growing room demand in downtown L.A.
"That is a very valuable piece of ground, at Los Angeles' Times Square," Wooden said. "I don't think they will have a problem getting a return on their investment."
The 12-story Hotel Figueroa opened in 1926 as "an exclusive women's hostelry," according to a Times article, which noted how it was "financed, built and operated by and for femininity."
Created by the Young Women's Christian Assn., the hotel catered to "business, traveling and professional women," the newspaper said. Married couples and their children could stay on the first three floors, while the floors above were restricted to women.
"It had a very socially conscious purpose," said Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, a historic preservation group. "There was a real need for young women moving to cities to have a safe haven, a place where they could land, get a job and figure out where they were going. It was a safety net for so many."
Photos from the era show elegantly furnished rooms and hotel staff dressed smartly in naval officer-style uniforms. Most of the rooms were tiny by today's standards, however, and didn't have their own bathrooms.
That changed in the 1950s, VanHartesvelt said, when the YWCA departed. New owners reduced the number of rooms from more than 400 to 285 and gave every one a bathroom.
The latest plans call for reducing the number of rooms again to 270 while restoring original Spanish Mediterranean elements, said designer Adam Goldstein of Studio Collective, a Santa Monica firm that specializes in historic building makeovers.
"We're trying to lighten and brighten," Goldstein said.
Lobby skylights have been cleaned and repaired and Moroccan drapes will be cleared from arched Spanish-style windows. New restaurants and bars will be created and a second entrance on Figueroa will be reopened. Neon lighting will be restored on the prominent Hotel Figueroa sign on the roof, where a garden will also be planted to grow vegetables for the hotel's three kitchens.
Although most of the Moroccan touches will be removed, the owners plan to keep an exotic underground bar and lounge called Tangier as a nod to the hotel's long-held Moroccan ambience. The colorful space has been used for a Victoria's Secret fashion shoot and filming location for HBO's vampire television series "True Blood."
Work on the renovation is expected to start in November and be finished in about a year, said VanHartesvelt. He is a partner in Urban Lifestyle Hotels, which bought Hotel Figueroa for $65 million last year with private equity firm Green Oak Real Estate.
Average rates at the renovated hotel should be comparable with prices at other hotels nearby, VanHartesvelt said, at about $250 a night.