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For Sale: Stardust Memories

Times Staff Writer

It might just be the biggest architectural salvage project in Los Angeles.

For more than 15 years, workers have been slowly taking apart the Ambassador Hotel. They’ve removed many of the fixtures, furniture and equipment from the Wilshire Boulevard landmark that once hosted Hollywood stars and world leaders and have sold them off, piece by piece.

It started in 1991, about two years after the hotel closed. Donald Trump, who had bought the hotel in hopes of tearing it down to build a 125-story building, sold off silver serving platters with the hotel’s eagle-topped crest, tiki-style soup bowls from the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub, and beds and nightstands from the rooms. Someone paid $2,250 for a baby grand piano used in the hotel by Sammy Davis Jr.

Trump’s grand plans never materialized. But the slow process of stripping the hotel continued. Now, the Ambassador’s current owner, the Los Angeles Unified School District, is poised to demolish most of the sprawling hotel this fall and replace it with schools. So workers are frantically pulling out what is left -- to be put up for auction Sept. 10.

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Many of the soon-to-be-auctioned goods are already grouped in careful rows in a parking lot at the west edge of the Ambassador property that will serve as the auction site when the bidding starts at 10 a.m.

Some are one-of-a-kind treasures, like the old black safe, made decades ago by Halls Safe Co. of Cincinnati for the Ambassador. It will be auctioned off along with its combination.

Then there are the two statue light fixtures that may have once peered out over the Cocoanut Grove and are, admittedly, of questionable taste nowadays: Black boys in richly colored tunics holding palm-frond chandeliers aloft. District officials said they have been rewired more than once.

Other items are the more mundane pieces necessary to run a hotel famed for serving hundreds of guests at once: banquet chairs and tables, for example.

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Also for the taking are dozens and dozens of sconces, products of the disco era, with burly wood bases and cork-and-fringe lampshades; eight black leather couches with red trim, their wooden feet a little chipped, their lining a little frayed; a gaggle of stage lights pulled down from the Cocoanut Grove ceiling; and two spotlights from the nightclub.

A district official said he had heard that the lights still worked. But there was no guarantee.

Is there a market for any of this?

Officials say they’re not sure -- it depends in part, they said, on the “buzz” the auction generates. But they have agreed to remove as many pieces from the hotel as they can before it is razed.

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The hotel, closed since 1989, still holds a warm place in the hearts of many Angelenos -- so much so that the Los Angeles Conservancy and other groups fought for years in an ultimately unsuccessful battle to keep the hotel buildings intact.

The booty also has ties to Old Hollywood, always a plus in the collectibles world: Opened in 1921, the hotel was host to six Academy Awards ceremonies as well as countless movie stars and dignitaries, including Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill. It is perhaps best known, however, as the site where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

And to make sure everyone knows the pedigree of that lamp, items sold at the auction will include certificates of authenticity, said Diane Bendis, president of Bendis Companies Inc., which is managing the auction for the Los Angeles school district. (An online catalog of the items is available at www.proxibid.com/asp/Catalog.aspaid2658.)

One reason the Ambassador has sustained so many years of salvage is its sheer size. It has 1,000 rooms, and the hotel’s grounds, pool and bungalows took up a 27-acre site.

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As its layers have been stripped away since it closed, the hotel itself has taken on the look of a house left vacant by owners who departed quickly.

The furniture left in the lobby -- much of which is being auctioned off in the sale -- was placed haphazardly, moved around the cavernous space by movie crews that used the hotel regularly to recapture bygone eras on film. Ballrooms were littered with trashcans to catch the leaks, and the only fixtures that truly seemed to belong to the hotel anymore were a group of cats who called the old building home.

Even after the Sept. 10 auction, more last-minute salvaging could occur -- on big items like the massive alabaster fountain in the lobby, stair railings and heavy-duty kitchen equipment.

Glenn Gritzner, special assistant to district Supt. Roy Romer, said the district hoped to find architectural salvage firms willing and able to remove those items from the building. But he said the construction of the new schools was on a tight schedule and that timing was an issue, because the district was committed to opening the campus’ elementary school in 2008, and the middle and high schools the following year.

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School officials said they hoped that there were enough small items in the auction so that anyone wanting to take home a piece of the Ambassador would find something they could afford.

Among those they can pick from are dozens of floral prints and mirrors, one of which has a sticker from the liquidators last time around -- and a price tag of $35.

All of the money raised from the auction will go into the school district’s general operating fund. But Bendis said she had no way to predict how much that would be. “Because of the historical thing,” she said, “you really have to have a crystal ball to know.”

Gilliam Greyson, owner of Scavenger’s Paradise in North Hollywood, said her store was selling a couple of crystal chandeliers -- removed from the hotel on the last go-round of salvaging -- for between $200 and $500 apiece.

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“When people come in, I think of finding a good home for these pieces, because they have such a good history,” Greyson said. “If we can save a piece of that history, it’s well worth it.”


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