Great Read: Downtown L.A. speakeasy rests easy — for now
The booze flowed freely during Prohibition in the basement speakeasy at the Rosslyn Hotel annex in downtown Los Angeles.
And the illegal bar’s customers flowed freely as well, relying on a marble-lined tunnel beneath 5th Street to discreetly come and go.
“I’m sure that in the past you can imagine the gangster element down in the speakeasy needing to make a quick getaway during Prohibition,” said Joseph Corcoran, whose nonprofit organization is refurbishing the 12-floor hotel for low-income tenants. “They would go through the tunnel and exit through the building across the street.”
Corcoran discovered the long-forgotten speakeasy down a wide basement corridor while inspecting the annex five years ago.
“The basement here used to have a barbershop and bathrooms right across from the speakeasy,” said Corcoran, whose SRO Housing Corp. bought the building in 2010. “You can imagine the gangsters getting their hair cut and a shave and maybe machine-gunning someone and then high-tailing it through the tunnel. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies.”
The bar featured windows on two sides with a flamenco dancer hand-painted on the glass. A painted sign on the front door featuring saguaro cactuses and an orange sunset boasted the name of the place, the “Monterey Room.”
Near the entrance was a reception counter and a hat-check area. Across the room, a 30-foot-long wooden bar stood in front of a decorative liquor cabinet that also featured an old-fashioned “refrigerator” box roomy enough for a block of ice. A series of mirrors lined the wall above the cabinet.
It’s unclear when the Monterey Room ceased operations, but it clearly sat empty for decades as the Rosslyn annex fell into disrepair and disuse.
Once lobby-to-top-floor renovation began, work crews used the space to store tools, building supplies and trash, covering the bar and the front reception desk with debris. Corcoran and SRO Housing Corp. executive Julia Robinson-Shimizu carefully removed piles of trash from the smaller front desk to show off its woodwork.
Corcoran hopes to eventually find an entrepreneur willing to operate a bar in the Rosslyn speakeasy’s space.
“It could absolutely become a bar,” he said.
The original 800-room Rosslyn Hotel was built in 1914 at the corner of 5th and Main streets. The 275-room annex directly across 5th Street was a twin of the Beaux Arts original when it opened in 1923. Both were topped by mammoth glowing signs featuring the names surrounded by a heart — a nod to the Hart brothers who owned the hotels.
At the time, the two luxury hotels served rail travelers who disembarked from Main Street train depots used by the Santa Fe, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads.
Prohibition, banning the sale of alcoholic beverages, began in early 1920, three years before the Rosslyn annex was built.
From the start, implementation of the 18th Amendment was controversial. Mobsters such as Al Capone made fortunes by bootlegging and controlling speakeasies in and around Chicago.
Los Angeles historian Nathan Masters of USC said the city had its share of bootleggers and speakeasies when Prohibition was repealed in late 1933.
“Speakeasies were all across town,” he said, pulling out an April 19, 1919, newspaper clipping showing a photograph of Tony’s Cafe on East 1st Street, noting “Examiner representatives had no trouble in buying drinks here.”
The newspaper added that “this is but one of 400 places that are selling liquor to citizens of Los Angeles.”
Masters said he was unaware of the Rosslyn annex’s Monterey Room speakeasy, although he said these days there are several speakeasy-themed bars in the downtown area.
Corcoran said he’s had conversations with local community groups and they would support a bar in the old speakeasy space.
About 100 homeless veterans will eventually occupy the Rosslyn annex in addition to current residents who have remained tenants during the two-year, $16-million renovation. Corcoran recognizes that having a watering hole in a building that houses people who may have substance abuse issues could be controversial.
“Although some of the people we serve are recovering alcoholics, there’s a theory going around that if you’re the proprietor of a business that sells alcohol in a building with recovering alcoholics, you’re going to take extra steps to protect the integrity of the separation between the business and the residents,” Corcoran said.
“Look, people can leave the building and go across the street and buy alcohol if they want to. There’s a liquor store a half-block away. I can see it happening if it’s done right.”
Corcoran said original features of the hotel have been retained, things like room radiators, large expanses of marble and tile flooring.
“This is an historic, significant property built by the Hart brothers,” he said. “The speakeasy is part of the historic significance of the building. We’ll restore it some day and preserve it in its original condition.”
Cindy Olnick, a director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said the Rosslyn annex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in August 2013.
For the Record
Oct. 31, 9 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that the annex had not yet been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After publication, Olnick said she had erred and that it indeed was listed.
The speakeasy isn’t the only unusual feature of the Rosslyn. Employees say ghosts haunt the building.
Security guard Joyce Hunt works behind a large marble guest check-in counter in the hotel’s ornate lobby and swears she’s seen them.
“A security guard went to the top floor and said that when he got off the elevator, something grabbed hold of him. He said he couldn’t move and kept saying, ‘Jesus, Jesus’ and it let him go,” Hunt said.
“He came back down and stood against the wall and said, ‘Miss Joyce, whatever it is up there is an evil spirit — an evil spirit that’s cold,’ ” she said.
The next day, the guard quit.
“I’ve had two guards quit because of them. You can imagine the people who lived and died here and the things that went on here over the years.”
Building manager Carlos Campos has worked at the Rosslyn for 14 years. He said he doesn’t feel threatened by the ghosts, but acknowledges that “you get the heebie-jeebies” in the place.
“One day about 10 o'clock I went into the basement to turn out the lights and there was a tall shadow behind me. My back got real cold and I ran back up the stairs,” Campos said.
The constant construction taking place in the building may have chased some of the ghosts away.
“Once in a while you feel a presence, but it’s not like it was before, when you’d actually see shadows or something flash by your eyes. You can hear people coming down the stairs, but when you look at the stairs there’s nothing there.”
As for the speakeasy, about five years ago a man came to the hotel asking to see the place, Campos said.
“He said his grandpa used to come to the speakeasy for drinks back in the day and he wanted to know if it was still here.”
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