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Specter of Bygone Glory Haunts Hotels

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“A drug-addict lady had a baby in the lobby,” Pablo is saying. “She didn’t even know she was having a baby. People been found in their rooms dead from ODs. The night before last, somebody got stabbed in the street.”

Pablo sits with his wife and year-old daughter in what used to be an opulent hotel suite. They have been here more than a year, paying $325 a month for a room with no kitchen and no bathroom mirror. A strip of wood nailed outside the front door is meant to keep the rats out.

Their couch is an old mattress, folded in an L-shape and wedged against a wall. “It’s not healthy for a kid to live here,” Pablo says.

His wife nods in agreement. “Especially not a newborn--it’s too filthy.”

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Downstairs, there are still traces of grandeur in what used to be one of Los Angeles’ most magnificent hotels, the Rosslyn, at 5th and Main streets. Gold-trimmed skylights cast a muted glow over an expansive marble floor. There are soaring marble pilasters and wrought-iron lamps topped with delicate white globes. A sweeping balcony has the look of fine black lace.

Skid row now claims the old hotel and the streets around it. Dealers and addicts frequent rooms that rent for as little as $22 a night.

The Rosslyn not only bent under the social and economic forces that ravaged that part of downtown, it fractured completely in two.

The main building, with its grand lobby, closed in 1959 and was gated shut for 20 years. It sold in 1979 and reopened. Suddenly there were two competing hotels in the Rosslyn’s side-by-side, Renaissance Revival-style buildings.

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North of 5th, the main building contains 450 rooms and operates as the Frontier Hotel. South of 5th is what used to be the annex, a 264-room wing that still uses the Rosslyn name.

They are independent businesses linked by history. Tall scaffold signs on the roofs of both hotels proclaim “The Rosslyn” and “New Million Dollar Hotel Rosslyn.” And the Frontier’s north facade still says “Rosslyn Hotels” in faded white letters.

When both buildings were a single destination, the Rosslyn was a showcase. Along with the Alexandria, the Cecil, the Huntington, the Hayward and other luxury hotels, it accommodated thousands of film stars, businessmen and tourists early in the 20th century. Many of the visitors disembarked on 5th after rolling west on the transcontinental railroad.

“These were the grande dames,” says Amy Anderson of the Los Angeles Conservancy, describing hotels that are now little more than flophouses. “You can sense [their elegance] just by looking at their architecture today.”

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The Rosslyn’s 13-story towers were built in 1913 and 1923 and connected by tunnels--now sealed--that ran beneath 5th. The brick facades remain embellished with terra cotta and elaborate friezes. A mammoth neon sign hangs down the side of one building.

At one time, a seven-story addition brought the total number of rooms to 1,100, but that burned down in the early 1940s--a harbinger of tough times ahead. By the close of World War II, Los Angeles was growing outward, to the beaches and suburbs. Downtown entered decades of decline.

The streets outside the Rosslyn are noisy with squealing tires, buses and music from windows above. Drug dealers wait and bicker near a boarded-up coffee shop.

“People don’t care what happens on skid row,” says Moe Dotson, her breath pungent with alcohol. “Ninety-five percent of the people down here are crack heads.”

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Dotson rents a room in the smaller tower, which still bears the Rosslyn name. Unlike the Frontier, the Rosslyn provides sheets and towels, even though such items become hard currency for buying crack and heroin. Security at the Rosslyn is tight: Guests must show their keys and pass through an electric gate to get beyond the spartan lobby.

Safety is always on Dotson’s mind. She passes along a story circulating this day on the streets--about an attack at the Cecil a block away. “Three people killed in one day,” she says. “Two women raped and murdered, and one guy was hung.”

The account, like much that passes for truth on skid row, is wildly distorted. Yes, one young woman was found murdered, says LAPD Det. Cliff Shepard. The Oct. 7 attack did not involve a rape. No one was hung, nor has anyone been arrested. A day earlier, a different woman was discovered dead in the same building, but that was the result of an overdose--a common occurrence on skid row.

“We go through spurts where we’ll have, say, six deaths from heroin overdose in a week,” Shepard says. Some bodies are dragged into the hotel halls and left because other drug users “don’t want to be caught with a dead body in their room.”

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The Rosslyn, with its security gate, cameras and heavy glass to protect the desk clerks, is one of the quieter hotels on skid row.

The Frontier, larger and easily entered, has added far more to the police blotter, according to Shepard. The log for recent years includes at least one drug-related murder upstairs, another on the street out front, and the suicide of a young man who leaped out a window.

Owner Rob Frontiera blames the clientele. “The police come by,” he says, “and five minutes after they leave, the same element is right back out there.”

The Frontier’s carpets are dark with grime. A scent of urine hangs in one stairwell. Even so, every complaint about trash and broken plumbing has been addressed, says a spokesman for the city’s Building and Safety Department.

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Frontiera says he has four employees assigned to cleaning, and the hotel has a full program of traps and poisons to control rodents.

“People just abuse the building,” he says. “I myself have seen people open the door and just set the trash outside--not even walk it down to the trash can. There’s a lot of vandalism.”

Some guests remain indoors at night. Becky Storey is one. She rarely ventures out except to attend recovery meetings. Jesus Amezquita, who regularly stays at the Rosslyn, labels it one of the row’s better hotels, but he can lie in bed and hear trouble in adjoining rooms.

“You can hear the deals go down,” he says. “You can hear them argue over crack pipes.”

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Lucy Wang, whose family bought the Rosslyn annex 22 years ago, says she does her best, but it’s frustrating. When room checks show evidence of drugs, guests are evicted. Their names are added to a list of those who are not allowed back--a tally that’s grown to more than 1,000 people.

“It’s very heavy now,” Wang says, “many pages.”


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