At 65 and resplendent from its recent $40-million facelift, The Biltmore is currently the focus of a month-long celebration that pays tribute to its enduring image as a first-class hotel, an architectural treasure worthy of its landmark designation and a repository of community nostalgia.
Its history, a kaleidoscope of events intertwined with the city’s own growth and milestones, is recorded in well-documented scrapbooks carefully assembled by generations of owners and managers. They give a remarkable perspective of Los Angeles, then and now.
The “grande dame” of downtown hotels, (named for the eastern chain of hotels once owned by John McEntee Bowman) was built by a consortium of local businessmen, completed in 1923 in a record 18 months, and leased to the Los Angeles Biltmore Co. Total project cost: $10 million.
The hotel opened on Oct. 1, 1923 with a formal dinner dance attended by 3,000 guests. It was dubbed the “host of the coast” and billed as “the largest and grandest hotel west of Chicago.” It soon became a favorite Los Angeles stopover for celebrities and nobility.
Unlike some vintage structures, The Biltmore does not claim that George Washington slept there but other U.S. Presidents have: among them Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Its list of celebrity guests is impressive. The Beatles landed in a helicopter atop The Biltmore and used it as a hideaway on their first U.S. tour. Ingrid Bergman also chose it for her base in Los Angeles when she returned here after her controversial marriage to Italian director Roberto Rosselini.
Among the royals welcomed at The Biltmore (including Queen of the Netherlands Beatrix and Prince Claus), the latest to rate the rarely used full gold service, were the Duke and Duchess of York, guests of honor at the UK/LA Royal Gala in the Biltmore Bowl earlier this year.
The Biltmore has had its share of neglect, confirming what most lodging experts say about the 50-year lifespan for most hotels, before beginning their decline.
During World War II, the hotel suffered through Army occupation when its second floor was set up with cots for military personnel on leave from San Diego’s naval base and Army centers. In those days, the coffee shop alone served 5,000 people daily.
The activity continued under ownership of Corrigan Properties, which began catering to the convention trade. And by then, the hotel had become a dowdy dowager.
It was bought in 1976 at a depressed value of $5.4 million by Ridgway Ltd.--the partnership of Phyllis Lambert and Gene Summers--which poured an additional $30 million into restorations that won for the hotel the prestigious American Institute of Architect’s National Honor Award in 1980.
The latest, $40-million state-of-the art renovation completed in 1987 by Biltmore Partners--a limited partnership of East Coast investors--reduced the number of guest rooms of the original structure from 1,000 to 700 and turned 300 rooms into the new 235,000-square-foot office Court. Known as Biltmore Place, the new hotel complex also includes a 24-story office tower on the corner of Grand Avenue and 5th Street.
Tradition of Service
The hotel now uses 506 S. Grand Ave. as its address, having relocated its main entrance and lobby from Olive Street, across from Pershing Square.
“I feel as if I live in a palace, but the grandeur of the hotel could never overshadow the tradition of service here,” said 75-year old Thelma Becker, the hotel’s best-loved guest celebrity, who checked in in 1940 and never checked out. Now retired, from a successful career in the garment industry, Becker says the hotel help treat her like royalty. “They’re like family to me.”
Among those delivering that A-1 service, Willis Eden takes the prize. Eden has chalked up 48 years of continuous service as a Biltmore bellhop.
Becker, the self-appointed greeter and morale-builder for The Biltmore who also rated the gold dinner service at her surprise 75th birthday party, recalled some of the hotel’s memorable past. Some of it jolted the memory of this reporter’s coverage of Market Weeks--a regular fashion beat in the 50s, the annual Navy Balls, and the political activity in the Music Room when it was transformed into Sen. John F. Kennedy’s headquarters during the Democratic National Convention of 1960; it was later the setting for the “Poseidon Adventure.”
“Did you know that Will Rogers emceed the opening of the 1,700-seat Biltmore Theater?” Becker asked. “Yes, and wouldn’t Will be startled to see the theater gone and replaced by the Tower?”
Where Oscar Was Born
The first Oscar ceremonies were held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel but, Becker reminded, in 1927 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its first organizing banquet at The Biltmore and it was there that the concept for the Oscar statuette was born, from scribblings on a table cloth.
Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart later received their Oscars in the Biltmore Bowl, which also became a famous showcase for the talents of individual performers and the Big Bands of the ‘40s.
Victoria King, another member of the hotel’s team of young executives, led the mini-tour of special areas of the hotel--notably the luxurious Presidential suite that retains the hidden buttons in the paneling that once triggered the opening of hiding places during Prohibition days.
Of special interest was the kitchen, the domain of Chef Roger Pigozzi, who said his 25,000-square-foot facility is equipped to serve 3,500 meals a day. On its historic round-the-world aerial trip, while in Los Angeles, the Graf Zeppelin replenished its commissary with a complete supply of food from The Biltmore kitchens, the scrapbooks revealed.
The Biltmore has long been a favorite location for the filming of more than 250 TV and motion pictures that included “A Star is Born,” “New York, New York,” “Roots,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Airport ’79,” “Hotel,” “Rocky III”,"The Sting” and “Vertigo” which used the 11 flights of ornate wrought-iron back stairs to create its dizzying scenes.
Designed by the New York architectural firm of Schultze & Weaver (also the designers of the Waldorf Astoria), the Biltmore’s ornate beauty and spectacular cathedral-like ceilings were hand-painted by Italian artist Giovanni Smeraldi whose work also graces the White House and the Vatican. All of Smeraldi’s art work has been carefully restored.
Carlos C. Lopes and Eric Prevette, principals of the Windsor Hotel Group, are the new management team overseeing the operation of the hotel under project manager Gary Stougaard of Biltmore Partners. The resident manager is Richard Delaney.
Said Lopes: “We see a new golden era for the hotel, (launched on Friday with a dinner concert by the Los Angeles Pops Orchestra as the first of a series of such events) and we expect a highly mobile senior executives as our primary guest audience. At the same time, our restaurants, namely the award-winning Bernard’s, and social catering funtions are also being actively promoted.”