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Japanese Buy Hotel Bel-Air for $100 Million

Times Staff Writers

The legendary Hotel Bel-Air, a bougainvillea-bordered haven for show business celebrities and European royalty seeking privacy and elegance, is being sold to a Japanese investment group for more than $100 million, the hotel’s current owners announced Monday.

The per-room purchase price of more than $1.2 million shatters the old record of about $757,000 per room, established when the Sultan of Brunei bought the nearby 260-room Beverly Hills Hotel for about $200 million in 1987. Investor Donald Trump paid $496,000 a room when he bought New York’s Plaza Hotel last year.

Part of a Trend

With the sale of the Bel-Air, the three most famous hotels on Los Angeles’ Westside are now under foreign or multinational ownership. The Beverly Wilshire Hotel was purchased in 1985 by Hong Kong-based Regent International Hotels.

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Laurie Farmer, a spokeswoman for Rosewood Property Co. of Dallas, which purchased the 11-acre Bel-Air Hotel property in the exclusive Stone Canyon residential neighborhood near UCLA in 1982 for $22.1 million, said the sale should be completed later this month.

The purchaser, Sekitei Kaihatsu, is a 95-year-old firm based in Tokyo that operates eight luxury resort hotels in Japan, Rosewood president Atef Mankarios said.

Rosewood, part of the Caroline Rose Hunt Trust estate, formed by the oil heiress often described as one of the world’s wealthiest women, will continue to operate the 92-room hotel for the Japanese investors. The company has already spent more than $20 million renovating and adding rooms to the Bel-Air.

Mankarios said the Bel-Air sale will have no impact on the hotel’s operations. “It’s still an American hotel, run by an American company in an American style,” he contended.

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Mankarios said Sekitei beat out about 50 other prospective buyers, not just on the basis of price, but also because its management philosophy was most compatible with Rosewood’s. He would not name the other bidders.

In a statement issued by Rosewood, Sekitei president Kimio Haneda said the purchase of the hotel “is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. . . . It is important to us that Rosewood continues to manage this property with the same exacting standards of excellence which have made Hotel Bel-Air so exceptional.”

Efforts to reach officials of Morgan Stanley Realty, who represented Rosewood in negotiating the sale, were unsuccessful.

The rambling Mission-style complex of bungalows and larger buildings was allowed amid the mansions and estates of Stone Canyon because several of the original structures had served as business offices and stables for the original 1920s Bel-Air subdivision. Since these structures failed to conform to local residential zoning codes anyway, their transformation into a luxury hotel in the 1940s met with little opposition.

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The pink stucco Bel-Air has been described by Travel and Leisure Magazine as one of the “10 great hotels in the world.”

The hotel has an average occupancy rate of 90%, one of the highest in the Los Angeles area, Farmer said. Room rates start at about $195 per night, with the most expensive two-room suite priced at $1,300 a night, said manager Paul Zuest.

Famous for Weddings

He said as many as five couples get married each weekend alongside the famous pond where eight swans are in residence. Among the hotel’s 300 employees are 12 full-time landscapers.

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“The hotel has sort of an understated elegance,” Farmer said. “That’s why so many celebrities flock there. Because it’s not a showplace, they can be left alone there.”

Or as Zuest put it, when turning down a request to interview patrons: “We sell privacy.”

On Monday, for example, Zuest nervously whisked reporters through the hotel terrace, where former First Lady Nancy Reagan was seen lunching with publishers of her forthcoming book.

Over the years, stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn lived in the hotel for months at a time while under contract to movie studios, said concierge Phil Landon Jr., a 40-year employee of the hotel.

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Kelly, for one, felt so much at home there that the morning after she won an Oscar for “Country Girl,” she excitedly brought it over to Landon’s desk. “She was just like a little girl,” he recalled.

In recent years, guests have included such celebrities as Don Johnson, Dudley Moore, Angela Lansbury, Mick Jagger, Boy George and Dolly Parton, Landon said.

At one time, the hotel had a reputation as a high-class trysting spot, since every room is accessible through walkways and there is no need for visitors to pass through the small lobby.

“We have guests here we’ve never seen,” Landon said. “Their man comes in (the lobby) and takes the key, and that’s all we ever see of them.”

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One longtime resident has been actor Tony Curtis, who lovingly described the hotel as “the best wife he’d ever had.”

“If I could, I would marry the Bel-Air tomorrow,” he told an interviewer in 1987. “She doesn’t ask me where I’ve been all night. She doesn’t mind if I bring a girl home. She makes my bed every day, feeds me regularly, takes my messages faithfully and puts my laundry in those little boxes tied up with ribbon.”


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