One photographer’s obsessive pursuit of a disappearing southern California legend
The Manson trial jurors were sequestered on a guarded floor for months during the trial. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald skipped out on a substantial bill by lighting their bungalow on
fire. Subterranean tunnels enabled trysts of the highest celebrity order. A topless LL Cool J enjoyed the pool area in his epic film, “S.W.A.T.” It is a legend. It is being demolished as you read this. It is the Ambassador Hotel. Lounging on twentythree acres a stone’s hotoblogs magazine may 2005 throw from downtown Los Angeles, this decrepit grand dame was once a city unto herself. Four imposing wings comprise the main building.
Crumbling bungalows follow the eastern edge from Wilshire Boulevard back to an abandoned tennis complex, the courts impotent without their nets. To the west, an
Art Deco swimming pool sits empty. An equally ignored putting green lays buried under a sea of weeds nearby. Downtown Los Angeles faltered as a travel destination during the second half of the twentieth century. With a new freeway offering easy access to the west side’s beaches and airport, the sharp drop in revenue had a devastating effect on downtown LA’s hospitality business. Hotels whose doors were once opened by white-gloved doormen today collect hourly rates from behind bulletproof glass. The Ambassador’s location and size gave it a buffer. But after Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the hotel’s pantry, the resort began a slow slide into obscurity. Shuttered floor-by-floor, building bybuilding, the front desk settled it’s final bill in 1989 and closed forever. In short order, the hotel began to operate as one of the most popular filming locations in Los Angeles. But I won’t be delving into that era of the hotel’s history. No…I’m more obsessed with her glory years, with traces of an era that have been slowly decomposing over decades of neglect.
Empty spaces and structures have always both fascinated and terrified me. And the solitude I find in photography dovetails nicely into this attraction. The Ambassador and I felt like serendipity. And my resolve only grew stronger once LAUSD announced plans to build three schools on the property. Urban legends abound with people sneaking into the Ambassador for séances, romantic trysts, and yes, photo shoots, since she closed her doors. So I imagined a well intentioned photographer would be able to walk the
property for an hour or so. I was wrong. The brick wall I ran into was the site’s building manager. Following up on a written proposal I submitted, his secretary told me in no uncertain terms that the site was closed to the public. I lamely offered
my status as a student photographer and asked about a reduced location
fee. She accidentally hung up on me. I hit up the site’s current owner, Los Angeles Unified School District. Using a tenuous personal link to Superintendent Roy Romer, I wrote him directly. That led nowhere. So I turned my attention to the rest of the administration. After
compiling a list of names, I sent a disgustingly humble email to each one, begging for help. Nothing. To recharge my energy, I drove down to the hotel and got an exact idea of what
I could shoot legally from outside the property. The Wilshire frontage offered an impressive view of the main building, the Coconut Grove, and some bungalows, all obstructed by tall chain-link fence. But a few locked gates offered just enough room to fit my lens through.
The rest of the perimeter revealed only limited views of the hotel and her grounds. The majority was hidden behind dense foliage layered with lots and lots of chain-link. As an aside, that stuff is the bane of my existence as a photographer of abandoned architecture. I spend a lot of time standing on my car’s roof. Maybe it was the lack of response from LAUSD. Or perhaps I was upset that I’d had a chance to tour the site in 1995 and squandered it. Whatever the catalyst, on the way home, I crossed the line from admirer to stalker. I found an aerial map online and plotted linesof-sight from surrounding parking garages and office buildings. I purchased a telephoto lens that got me exponentially closer to the buildings. I envied and cursed the security guards who had unlimited access to the property but didn’t appear to be photographing any of it. Then one day, I got an unexpected note from LAUSD. An official responded with an offer to tour the property. We had to put it off until the current film production left, they said, but it shouldn’t be a problem. I was elated and immediately discontinued the cursing. And then the lawsuits started dropping. The hotel’s distinguished history hadn’t been completely forgotten and a
conservation group sued to stop demolition. A lawyer for Robert Kennedy’s assassin sued to save the pantry as a crime scene. The Kennedy family sued to have the room demolished,
not wanting another Texas Book Depository-like museum. My tour was permanently put on hold. I directed my renewed cursing at members of the California Bar Association. Over the following months, I shot two lengthy sessions from the perimeter. On my last trip in December, there were noticeably more security guards strolling the grounds and, of course, shiny new chain-link fence. Through press articles, it was obvious LAUSD would prevail in their plans, and sooner rather than later. The need for schools in the area was a fact no one
could dispute. Now hyper-aware of the time constraint, I wrote every one of my government representatives asking for help. I explained I wasn’t involved in any of the suits and just wanted to take pictures. My state assemblyman’s office called back quickly and said they would look into my request. Two hours later, LAUSD emailed with a firm offer of access for a photo. Thank you, Assemblyman Mike Gordon. So in the beginning of March, I found myself stepping onto the property with a handful of strangers from LAUSD for the “final tour”. We spent about forty minutes in the main building.
The shopping arcade was remarkable to imagine bustling with guests. A perfectly designed barbershop sat empty, the candy-cane pole outside frozen in time. The gentlemen’s clothing shop was filled with dark wood tables sitting bare save for a fine layer of dust. A cavernous main lobby offered dozens of silent conversation areas. The white leather furniture was tagged with notes warning one not to sit down, lest you break their brittle frames. In the middle of it all, a dry fountain sat gleaming, waiting to be filled by pipes capped years before.The massive concrete kitchen was sturdier than a bomb shelter and looked built to outlive all of us. In the shadows, industrial appliances sat unused on ornate green and crimson tiles. We looked into the pantry where RFK was shot and there was a cold draft, just as I’d read. It was the only spot they didn’t allow photography. Upstairs, we toured a handful of guestrooms.
A subway-tiled bathroom was stripped clean, save for a remarkably preserved shower faucet. The adjoining closet hosted only a naked pole and empty light socket. One second-floor suite featured an interesting view into the hotel’s interior. A canyon wall of windows rose above us on three sides. The absence of curtains offered no escape from hundreds of unblinking panes of glass. My thoughts revolved exclusively around “The Shining”. But, despite this imposing physical presence, the Ambassador carried herself like a long forgotten grandmother that day. The attention being paid her was the same energy surrounding a funeral – a final, very public effort allowing us to forget her with a clean
conscience. Minutes after we left the property, the front gate was chained shut and the site locked down for initial demolition. As a final note, the pool area was totally inaccessible by the time I finally talked my way onto the property. It was being used to store felled trees
and I never got to see it in person. But that was my only regret and it’s a small one. Besides, there’s always “S.W.A.T.