Ambassador Has Its Final Checkout

Times Staff Writer

Were those useless and broken-down doors that Alexey Steele so intently stared at Saturday, as he bounded through a crowd on the grounds of the Ambassador Hotel?

Or were they things of beauty? Bits of history? Objects of desire?

“Junk?” Steele asked, rhetorically. “Some might say that’s what this is. I disagree. For me, those doors are gorgeous. The material itself is a bit ragged and old. But I see texture. It has the dirt of history in it. This is actually the beauty of the past. It’s all over the place here.”


Steele, a Russian-born, Carson-based artist, was one of scores of hopeful bidders who attended an auction of goods from the historic Los Angeles hotel, once a 1,000-room jewel that is being torn down to make way for a new school.

All morning and afternoon, people streamed through a parking lot, looking and touching items that once filled the hotel -- and making offers that were sometimes matched by bidders on the Internet.

“I’ve got $25 for the lamp!” “27!” “I’ve got $35!”

“Do we have more than that from our people on the Net?” an auctioneer shouted.

A few items caught almost everyone’s eye: the Cocoanut Grove’s mirrored disco ball, an alabaster fountain pulled from the lobby and the hotel’s black safe.

But the hotel, which opened in 1921 and closed in 1989, has seen most of its most glamorous goods sold over the past decade or so. The silver platters, the piano used by Sammy Davis Jr., the bowls from the nightclub? Long gone.

To many, that meant the parking lot was largely full of detritus; the tattered, faded and commonplace.

There were weathered desks, dressers and mirrors, floppy chairs, tattered couches and metal filing cabinets with little obvious character. Some said the only thing that gave the items any allure was the fact that they had once been somewhere in the hotel.

“It’s junk,” said Bethany Leal, who came to the auction hoping that she could find a stylish couch. “It’s sort of like this is the last gasp. The stuff left looks like it’s from when the hotel was really on the decline.”

Her opinion was common.

“Looks like a bunch of garbage to me,” said one man, standing near a row of tables. He looked at his wife and announced that they would be leaving.

Still, the auction was seen as a success by the Los Angeles Unified School District officials who staged it.

For all of the grumbling, the bidding was hot from the moment it started, about 10:30 a.m. Bidders loosened their wallets -- spending as little as $75 for a wooden table and as much as $6,000 for the safe.

“It’s going better than anyone could have imagined,” said James Sohn, a school district project manager, early in the afternoon. By day’s end, he said the auction had taken in $80,000. And for many, attending the sale was like going to an old museum: They were happy to be there, just for the memories.

“I’m sad,” said Patti Walsh, a lawyer who walked slowly past a row of forlorn-looking tables. Walsh said she had gone to the hotel many times as a child, and her parents’ prom was held there in 1953. “There’s just so much history here.”

In its heyday, the sprawling hotel was a place to be seen -- for everyday people like Walsh’s parents and for Hollywood stars, business tycoons and political power players. Howard Hughes, Charlie Chaplin, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon stayed there, to name a few. Many also know the hotel for tragedy: Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated there in 1968.

After a long, bitter fight with those who wanted to preserve the hotel, a deal was struck that will lead to the hotel’s demolition and pave the way for the construction of a multi-school campus for about 4,200 students.

Among the bidders, many expressed dismay that the building will be torn down.

“There’s just a lot of memories we’re losing,” said April Snell, as she sat in a wooden chair with black upholstery. Snell had come to the auction to look for anything that would remind her of both the great and terrible nights she had there in the 1960s.

The great was her prom night. “The Fifth Dimension played,” she said. “I wore a pink gown with a satin coat. My date was Ernest Armstrong.”

The terrible was the night Kennedy was shot. “I was there that night,” she said, thumbing at the chair. “I was in the ballroom. That was just terrible.”

Snell said she didn’t see much at the auction that she would bid on.

“Oh, you’re sitting on a wonderful piece,” a man with a tan fedora and a handlebar mustache said. “Right there, that’s the chair I just bought.” It was Steele, seemingly the happiest man in the parking lot. He had spent all morning combing through what was available, a gleam in his eyes. Through it all he had a perpetual look of astonishment as he lamented the fact that Los Angeles was about to lose a fabled hotel and imagined the things he could do with furniture others were passing over.

That weary kiosk over there, he said, that could hold a painting. That cracked door, it could still be mounted against a wall. Those chairs didn’t look like much, but they could be put to good use for a party. He backed up his talk. He had been the successful bidder for the kiosk and several chairs. How cool, he said, that each item had a storied past.

“The chair you are sitting on is the most wonderful chair,” he said as he snapped a photograph of Snell, the faded hotel in the background.

“It might not be much, but it is history. It has to be preserved. I am happy to preserve it.... I will take with me a bit of the Ambassador.”