The Hotel Normandie, a mid-Los Angeles inn with a checkered past, is on the way to becoming respectable again as its new owners labor to restore its Jazz Age charms.
It's a testament to how fortunes have improved in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods that investors are eager to spend millions of dollars restoring a beaten down building with a modest pedigree.
The squat brick structure at Normandie Avenue and 6th Street drew attention in 2010 when its then-owner vowed to turn it into a "pot-tel" catering to medical marijuana smokers. Decades before that, long before the area had been dubbed Koreatown, the hotel saloon was known for its B-girls, women who worked for the bar and encouraged men to spend money.
The bar and the rest of the first-floor businesses were closed by the time new owner Jingbo Lou came on the scene. He has launched a $5-million makeover intended to turn the Normandie into a 100-room boutique hotel for travelers who want to stay in the middle of town.
Lou, a Pasadena architect and preservationist, had stopped by early last year as a consultant for a potential buyer trying to figure out how to improve the Normandie. Lou and his partners ended up buying the building themselves for $4.4 million.
"The architectural elements were very interesting," Lou said. "I was shocked at how grand the lobby was, how many original details were still intact."
Like many older Los Angeles buildings, the hotel completed in 1928 was a mash-up of architectural styles — Renaissance Revival on the outside and Spanish Revival on the inside, said Lou's partner Niall Kelly.
The architects were Albert Walker and Percy Eisen, who also designed such architectural treasures as the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills and the Fine Arts Building in downtown Los Angeles.
The Normandie was more broad-shouldered, an unassuming four-story residence hotel intended to serve men living on their own. It was also a gathering spot for local women's clubs that met for lunch and a game of bridge. On Sundays in 1930, the turkey dinners prepared by Mrs. H.F. Bruner sold for $1 in the Normandie dining room.
The hotel's most famous resident was a legendary drinker. English author Malcolm Lowry worked on his masterpiece novel "Under the Volcano" while living there in the late 1930s. His father sent checks directly to the manager to make sure the family money was spent on rent and meals from the Normandie's kitchen, not on booze.
"It's never been a glamorous place," Lou said. "We can add some romance to it."
Early steps have included undoing a lot of "improvements" added through the years, such as stucco plastered over the bricks on the street level. Worn carpets were pulled up to reveal terrazzo tiling in the lobby and hardwood floors in the guest rooms.
Windows at the entrance had been covered with drywall and most of a grand fireplace was shrouded. A tall arched doorway in the lobby was cemented shut and the ballroom was shrunk to make more room for shops.
"Some of the improvements were unthoughtful," Lou quipped.
Five skylights that have been covered for decades will be restored, and workers have been re-creating tiles that were removed from the roof perimeter in the 1960s to prevent them from falling in an earthquake. New technology and materials enable the faux mansard roofs that once graced many Los Angeles buildings to be safely replaced, Lou said.
Regional demand for hotel rooms is growing, said hospitality consultant Bruce Baltin of PKF Consulting. Occupancy in Los Angeles in 2012 is projected to approach the peak of 2007 and Baltin expects demand to hold for at least the next few years.
"A boutique hotel can really work in today's market," Baltin said. "It's an urban experience."
When the makeover is completed at the end of the year, the Normandie stands to pull visitors coming to Koreatown or east Hollywood, as well as conventioneers willing to ride the subway downtown, he said.
Lou also has his eye on nearby residents as customers for shops along Sixth Street and Normandie Avenue. He hopes to land such tenants as a high-end bakery, a restaurant and a coffee bar. He also wants to open an electric bicycle rental facility serving guests and neighbors.
"The neighborhood is incredibly diverse," he said. "It's young, urban and pedestrian friendly. Places are open super late."
The emerging signs of trendiness in the wider area often referred to as Wilshire Center, such as new apartments, nightclubs and restaurants, mark an economic comeback from lean years around the 1992 riots when the area fell out of favor with corporate office tenants and educated young renters.
Though it's now in the center of a giant metropolis, the neighborhood emerged in the early 20th century as a suburban addition to Los Angeles.
"You had the car culture, so all of a sudden you didn't have to be downtown," said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. The Ambassador Hotel, Bullocks Wilshire department store and the Brown Derby restaurant were among landmarks built in the 1920s in the well-heeled neighborhood of single family homes and upscale apartments.
It's now the densest neighborhood in Los Angeles and home to a large portion of the city's Korean Americans. Lou, who was born in China, hopes to attract overseas visitors and locals interested in a glimpse of what life was like in an earlier era.
"It's our hope to use the hotel also as a history book," he said.