Early in the last century, it housed the city’s first permanent symphony orchestra. During the Jazz Age and beyond, it swayed to the sounds of such legends as Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Rock ‘n’ roll followed, and then a long period as a nondescript university property.
But in its next incarnation, if developers’ hopes are realized, the former Trinity Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles will be teeming with mostly young, hip and affluent patrons who currently gravitate to the Sunset Strip.
The Trinity’s comeback is key to the builders’ $30-million makeover of a defunct downtown hotel, later known as the Embassy, that contains the auditorium and was once at the center of civic culture. The landmark auditorium, part of a sprawling church complex that opened in 1914, will reopen in about 18 months inside the new Gansevoort West hotel on Grand Avenue at 9th Street.
The developers expect to hold concerts, performances and perhaps movie premieres in the triple-decked, 1,800-seat hall, decorated with the elaborate stained-glass windows and skylight that graced the original theater. Other historical details, including Italian marble and wrought-iron decorations, will be preserved as the theater and hotel are brought up to modern standards.
The builders are the Gansevoort Hotel Group, a New York company known for bringing the first swanky hotel to that city’s Meatpacking District in 2004.
Downtown’s hotel business is improving, industry consultants say, but the area may not be quite ready for a glossy boutique that charges upward of $225 a night, the Gansevoort’s target minimum for the planned 170 rooms. By comparison, rooms start at $99 at downtown’s Standard Hotel, where the rooftop bar is a thriving attraction.
“We don’t mind being out front of the market,” Gansevoort developer Michael Achenbaum said. “They called us cowboys in the Meatpacking District.”
Today the neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower West Side is considered fashionable, and rising rents are pushing meatpackers to other locations, Achenbaum said.
To sharpen the appeal of the Los Angeles Gansevoort, the developers are building an addition on the south side that will house a spa and fitness center, along with a restaurant and bar that will look up into a glass-bottomed swimming pool. On top of the existing nine-story building will be an outdoor lounge and another restaurant under a copper dome that once housed a small concert hall.
The hotel will take its design cues from the golden age of Hollywood, with blue carpeting, velvet chaise longues and sit-down vanity areas in the rooms. The look is being conceived by architect Stephen B. Jacobs and interior designer Andi Pepper, the team that designed the Hotel Gansevoort in New York and the Gansevoort South under construction in Miami.
When the $1-million Trinity Church property opened Sept. 20, 1914, The Times described the Methodists’ complex as “probably the most complete religious plant in the world.” In addition to the large auditorium and men-only hotel, it boasted a cafeteria, roof garden, library, gymnasium, smoking room, bowling alley, nursery, barber shop, hospital and 16 club rooms.
“We can take a man from the shower bath to the pearly gates,” the Rev. C.C. Selecman said a day before the complex opened.
Trinity Church had the West’s largest pipe organ, now long gone, and movie projection equipment in the main auditorium. In 1915, actress Norma Talmadge watched herself on screen in “The Battle Cry of Peace” from a box in the theater, The Times reported.
But it was through music that the Trinity Auditorium made its mark. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, the city’s first permanent symphony orchestra, made its debut there in 1919.
The hall became known as a jazz magnet from the 1930s to the 1950s and played host to Ellington, Basie and Charlie Parker. Rock concerts were held there in the 1960s.
“The auditorium and hotel is a significant early landmark of Los Angeles that also played an important role in the cultural development of the city,” said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy.
Trinity Auditorium also held meetings of “nearly every major labor union” from the 1920s through the 1950s, Bernstein said, including mass gatherings that led to a 1933 dressmakers’ strike.
The hotel and auditorium became known as the Embassy in the 1930s. USC bought the property in 1987 and used it as a residence and educational annex for 400 students. The complex has been empty since 1998, when the university sold it to Chetrit Group, said Chetrit representative Michel Attias. Chetrit, a group of landlords and developers based in New York, also owns the Clark Hotel, AT&T; Center and Giannini Place in downtown Los Angeles.
Chetrit’s partner in the Gansevoort is Achenbaum’s WSA Management Ltd., another family of builders. The joint venture also owns a lot across Grand Avenue from the Gansevoort; the developers plan to build condominiums there and possibly a condo hotel, where rooms would be owned by individuals.
The rejuvenated theater would add a sizable venue to Los Angeles, said Terence McFarland, executive director of LA Stage Alliance, which represents local performing arts organizations. At 1,800 seats it would be “large for theatrical productions but intimate for concerts,” he said.
The theater would join another new venue just a few blocks away, a 7,100-seat performance hall that the owners of Staples Center plan to break ground on this month.
The $1-billion entertainment district addition to Staples -- which is to include a 55-story Hilton hotel, movie theaters, broadcast facilities, stores and restaurants -- is part of the attraction for the developers of the Gansevoort. The South Park district of downtown is on a roll, Achenbaum said, and “we’ll help push that along.”
The downtown hotel market has been growing for two years, said industry analyst Bruce Baltin of PKF Consulting, and will end the year with an average occupancy of about 67%. That is close to the peaks in the late 1980s and late 1990s but below the 75% mark considered to indicate a strong market.
Building a deluxe hostelry such as the Gansevoort is “somewhat of a gamble but not a wild one,” said Baltin, noting that downtown’s residential boom and planned commercial developments at Staples and on Bunker Hill are bringing interest to the area.
“Two years ago I would have said it was insane,” he said of the Gansevoort. “Today I would say it’s a pretty reasonable bet.”