- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

LOS ANGELES — For decades, it was the heart of Los Angeles, the cultural center of a city notorious for having no center. . Its stage featured young singers who went on to greater fame: Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand.

In one of its offices, Norma Jean Baker signed a modeling contract that transformed her into Marilyn Monroe. In its lobby, late Rolling Stone Brian Jones staggered across the floor in an LSD-induced haze complaining about the writhing carpet of snakes.

In one of its rooms, President Nixon, desperate to save his political career, wrote his famous “Checkers” speech.

And on the hard floor of its kitchen, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy bled to death, gunned down by Palestinian assassin Sirhan Sirhan just hours after winning the 1968 California presidential primary.

The Ambassador Hotel faded into oblivion in the late ‘80s, when it closed its doors for the last time. But now the very existence of the landmark is in jeopardy.

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which now owns the site, published details of five proposed plans for the hotel, including razing the building to make room for schools, converting the historic structure into a school and selling part of the property for commercial development. The district will decide in October, after holding public hearings and allowing time for written comments from the public.

Whatever the district decides, it is clear that at least part of the property will become a sprawling school campus. The possibility of restoring the Ambassador as a hotel seems all but closed.

“It is densely populated and the most overcrowded neighborhood in the city,” spokeswoman Susan Cox said. The school system can’t hope to find another 24-acre site in the area, west of downtown in an area known as Wilshire Center and Koreatown.

The school system is considering an option that would partially preserve the building: converting it into a huge classroom. Under the plan, the historic Cocoanut Grove nightclub, where generations of entertainers got their start, and the Embassy Ballroom, famous as the site of Kennedy’s final speech, would be preserved as auditorium and theater spaces.

The problem: a price tag approaching $400 million.

Tearing down the building and starting over would cost about $280 million, according to school board estimates. Ideally, the site would be home to three schools — elementary, middle and high schools — playing fields and perhaps administrative offices.

Preservationists suspect the board will opt to clear the site. They believe the board is overestimating the price of preservation and underestimating the cost of new construction.

Preservationists and admirers of the Ambassador have mobilized an Internet and letter campaign in a last-minute effort to save the building.

“We believe the Ambassador has layer upon layer of history above and beyond the association with the RFK assassination,” said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “But that alone should be grounds for the preservation and restoration of the hotel.”

He pointed out that the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy, and the Lorraine Motel, site of the Martin Luther King assassination, have both been preserved despite their otherwise undistinguished histories.

Although the conservancy would love to see the Ambassador preserved as a hotel or museum, it realizes that that is unlikely, Mr. Bernstein said. At this point, local preservationists would settle for the option of reusing the building as a school. That at least would preserve most of the historic features of the site.

The local business community, meanwhile, is also casting a covetous eye on the property. The Chamber of Commerce is pushing an option under which five or six acres along Wilshire Boulevard would be used for private retail and residential development.

Mrs. Cox said that option will also be considered when the board meets, but it is likely to prove even more expensive than preserving the building because it would limit the acreage available for the school buildings and force the board to buy other property.

The Ambassador opened in 1921 and immediately became a center of the Los Angeles social scene, attracting celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The hotel was the site of the Oscar ceremonies in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The building is the product of two legendary architects. The original building was designed by Myron Hunt, responsible for Art Deco-era landmarks, including the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Twenty years later, the building was partially renovated under the direction of pioneering architect Paul Revere Williams, who was also responsible for the Shrine Auditorium and the Los Angeles County Courthouse.

Across Wilshire Boulevard from the Ambassador sat the equally legendary Brown Derby restaurant, another long-defunct landmark of Los Angeles’ past glory.

The Ambassador opened the Wilshire Boulevard corridor west of downtown, the city’s first major commercial artery designed specifically for automobiles. When construction began on the hotel after World War I, Wilshire Boulevard was a dirt track through barley fields. Within 10 years of the hotel’s opening, the road was the West Coast’s pre-eminent commercial strip.

But the hotel was, in a sense, the victim of its own pioneering success. As Wilshire Boulevard developed, it drew development farther to the west. The economic center of Los Angeles shifted from downtown to Beverly Hills, Westwood and Santa Monica. Hotels opened closer to the ocean. New hotels included the Beverly Hills Hotel and the complex of convention hotels known as Century City.

As downtown declined, so did the Ambassador. The ownership seemed disinclined to keep up the property, and after the Kennedy assassination, the hotel went into a downward spiral.

In the late 1980s, a business consortium including real-estate mogul Donald Trump bought the property and announced that it would replace the hotel with a 125-story building — 15 stories taller than the World Trade Center and 52 stories taller than the tallest building in Los Angeles. Preservationists fought the Trump plan, and after years of litigation, the school board bought the property for about $100 million.

By then the hotel had fallen into serious disrepair, making it more unlikely that anyone would step forward to save the building.

“It is so sad to walk through there, and I wish I had the money to restore it,” said Carlyn Frank Benjamin, 82, who grew up in the hotel, which was run by her father and grandfather from 1921 to 1938.

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