Wilshire Grand Hotel bids farewell

In its nearly 60-year history in downtown Los Angeles, the Wilshire Grand Hotel has been host to such notable guests as Pope John Paul II and Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.

And, with the aging hotel closing to make way for a $1.1-billion tower complex, the final guest to check out will be a longtime fan with little notoriety.

"I cherish the memories I have had here," said Richard Macias, a Los Angeles attorney who has been staying at the hotel for business since the 1960s. Because of his longtime patronage, the hotel is letting him check out late Friday, making him the hotel's last guest.

The 16-story hotel, built in 1952 with a $25-million price tag, will be replaced by a 45-story hotel with 540 rooms and several floors of condominiums. Next door, the complex will feature a 65-story office tower with about 1.1 million square feet of office space, with shops and a public plaza on the ground floor.

Korean Airlines, a subsidiary of the South Korean conglomerate Hanjin Group, owns the 896-room hotel and plans to complete the project by 2015 with its development partner, Thomas Properties Group.

As a final send-off, the hotel held a party for its current and former employees Thursday with live music, free drinks and a buffet of pasta and tacos. In the Pacific Ballroom, dozens of workers hugged and posed for photos while a supervisor passed out the final checks.

"I will miss my co-workers and my bosses the most," Maria Jimenez, a housekeeper with 30 years, said as she entered the party.

The hotel offered laid-off workers severance packages or the right to return to their old position once the new hotel opens.

The hotel at Figueroa Street and Wilshire Boulevard is closing at a time when the hotel industry is beginning to rebound from a steep decline in rates and demand, which were weighed down by the economic downturn in 2009 and 2010.

During the first 10 months of 2011, occupancy rates in the Los Angeles area have jumped 5% compared with the same period in 2010, according to statistics from PKF Consulting, a San Francisco-based consultant to the hospitality industry.

Room rates in Los Angeles have increased to nearly $155 per night, a 6% jump from the same period last year, according to PKF.

For the hotel industry, the increase in rates and demand has resulted in an 11% increase in revenue per available room, according to PKF data.

"There really is no good time to close," said Bruce Baltin, a senior vice president at PKF Consulting. "They may be missing out on some strong occupancy numbers."

And once the new hotel opens in 2015, Baltin estimates it will take the new Wilshire Grand two or three years to climb back to its position as one of the city's most popular hotels.

The hotel owners had previously considered simply renovating the hotel while continuing to book guests, but they found that the 1950s design was so inefficient that it made more sense to replace the aging facility with a modern hotel with more efficient air-conditioning and heating systems, said Marc Loge, a hotel spokesman.

"There was no alternative to do this piecemeal," he said.

The hotel, though not the biggest or oldest in Los Angeles, remains a landmark in the city's history. Then-actor Ronald Reagan was the master of ceremonies in 1952 at the hotel's opening ceremony, which was attended by actresses Celeste Holm and Mary Pickford.

At the opening, it was named the Hotel Statler and was run by Hotel Statler Co. Later, it was renamed the Statler Hilton when it was taken over by Hilton Hotels, and then the Omni before taking on its current name in 1999. Korean Airlines bought the hotel in 1989.

Soon after it opened, the hotel was host to the 1952 Emmy Awards, where Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca took home the top acting awards.

In 1993, television sets and radios were removed from hotel rooms occupied by the jurors in the civil rights trial of officers charged in the beating of motorist Rodney King Jr.

The hotel drew more headlines in 2000 when it became the headquarters hotel for the Democratic National Convention and an animal-rights activist in a pink pig costume dumped four tons of manure on the hotel driveway to protest the treatment of animals.

Macias, who booked a room for Thursday night when he heard the hotel was closing, said he made arrangements to be the last guest before the hotel closes.

When it is gone, he said, he will most miss the workers he has befriended over the years and the escalator that carries guests from 7th Street to the lobby. He recalls his many visits to the hotel fondly but said he will have no problem checking in to the replacement hotel when it opens.

"I would love to stay in the new one when it's built," he said.


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