Craig Owens Valentino Suite at Hotel Alexandria

Craig Owens shoots restaged photos of ghost sightings in the Valentino Suite at Hotel Alexandria for his book.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Hotel Alexandria was the first luxury hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. 

It cost $2 million to build and was the product of Albert C. Bilicke and Robert Alfred Rowan, two Pasadena businessmen who rented plots of land along Spring and Fifth streets so they could build a world-class hotel. 

Hotel Alexandria was named after John Alexander, the man who owned the parcel of land at the corner of Spring and Fifth that Bilicke and Rowan had leased. Construction on the eight-story, beaux art hotel began in 1905, and it was designed by Los Angeles architect John Parkinson’s firm, Parkinson & Bergstrom. On February 10, 1906, Hotel Alexandria opened and was an instant success.

“The Alexandria was LA’s equivalent to San Diego County’s Hotel del Coronado,” said Craig Owens, a historian, author and photographer who runs the popular blog Bizarre Los Angeles, which is dedicated to LA’s forgotten history and Old Hollywood.  

“Not only was it touted as being fireproof, but it also became LA’s first five-star hotel and was touted as a ‘gemstone set in tile, steel and marble.’ It featured a massive lobby with tall pillars made of Egyptian marble, mosaic tile floors and stained-glass skylights.”

The hotel was frequently sold out and became a popular place where wealthy people would stay when they were visiting LA from around the country. According to Owens, newspaper reporters would often stake out in the lobby, waiting to catch a glimpse of one of the hotel’s famous guests. Hotel Alexandria ended up being such a success that Bilicke and Rowan eventually leased additional plots to expand it. 

“They also successfully lobbied the city of LA to raise its height restrictions on buildings from eight stories to 12,” Owens shared. “The owners then built a taller annex that connected to the original building. This newer addition featured a second-floor ballroom and the Franco-Italian Dining Salon, known today as the Palm Court. The new annex opened in 1911, just in time for a presidential visit by William Howard Taft, who spoke at a private dinner there.”

 

Attracting the famous

A new chapter in the hotel’s history began in the winter of 1910, when film pioneers D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett of New Jersey’s Biograph Company checked in for several months while shooting films in Southern California. It wasn’t long before other film directors and producers from the East Coast followed suit, and film stars that included the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and others frequently frolicked in the hotel.

“By the late 1910s, the Alexandria had grown from being the West Coast film colony’s Plymouth Rock to its Rome,” Owens said. “D.W. Griffith lived in the Presidential Suite, and future ‘Ben-Hur’ star Ramon Novarro worked as a singing waiter. Elevator operators occasionally pitched and sold movie ideas to producers, and the lobby became so crowded with aspiring filmmakers and stars trying to sell blockbuster movie projects that one of the hotel’s large Persian carpets became known as the ‘Million Dollar Rug.’”

Hotel Alexandria also became an important social hub for professional boxers and athletes, with many heavyweight champions, such as Jim Jeffries and Jack Dempsey, frequenting the hotel to socialize and rub elbows with the movie crowd. Its importance as LA’s film capital climaxed in 1920 when Chaplin, Pickford, Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart gathered inside the Palm Court to announce they were forming United Artists.

After the hotel’s original owners passed away, by 1919 the John Strauss Company in Chicago took over and financed its sister property, The Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, which opened on January 1, 1921. By this time, many of the film-industry guests who used to frequent Hotel Alexandria had moved to Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and the hotel entered a slow decline through the 1920s. The Millennium Biltmore Hotel opened in 1923 and outshined Hotel Alexandria with its size and opulence, replacing it as DTLA’s most luxurious hotel.

Shortly before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Strauss Company sold Hotel Alexandria, which eventually closed in 1932. After the hotel went bankrupt, ownership reverted back to the original landowners, who owned parts of the building. All but one sold their section of the hotel in 1937 to Phil Goldstone, a retired silent movie producer who dreamed of restoring Hotel Alexandria to its former glory, although his vision never materialized. Following the end of World War II, Goldstone sold the hotel, then in 1954 the new owners gave the lobby a midcentury modern makeover, while the shopping level, basements and electric plants underneath the lobby were converted into underground parking garages.

“In 1958, boxing promoter George Parnassus leased the Palm Court and second-floor ballroom,” Owens said. “He then constructed boxing rings inside both rooms and charged people to watch his fighters train. At first, the novelty of having boxing rings inside the Alexandria resonated with boxing fans and reporters. By the mid-1960s, the novelty had worn off.”

S. Jon Kreedman purchased Hotel Alexandria in the 1960s and refurbished the property, giving it a Victorian theme and naming several suites in honor of well-known silent film legends, including Chaplin and Valentino. The second-floor ballroom is named after King Edward, although he never set foot in the hotel.

“Those in charge of the Alexandria’s Victorian makeover chose a suite on the top floor of the Annex to honor Valentino’s memory,” Owens explained. “They added gold and red wallpaper to the suite, dark red carpeting, mounted a photo of Valentino to the wall, and furnished it with Victorian Revival furniture.”

After arriving to Los Angeles in 1917, Valentino stayed at Hotel Alexandria for two weeks while he was an unemployed actor. His friend and fellow actor Norman Kerry, who later starred in ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ invited Valentino to stay with him in his suite at the hotel. During that time, Kerry introduced Valentino to film-industry people who frequented the hotel.

According to Owens, the Valentino Suite is haunted. While working on a photo shoot for his 2017 book, “Haunted by History Vol. 1: Separating the Facts and Legends of Eight Historical Hotels and Inns in Southern California,” Owens visited Hotel Alexandria, where he shot restaged photos of various ghost sightings, as well as a fistfight that occurred between Chaplin and MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer in the lobby. 

“On the night of my first photo shoot there, a door to the bathroom slammed shut by itself with such force that it rattled all of the glass inside the suite,” Owens said. 

“We all knew it wasn’t the wind that caused the door to slam. Earlier that same day, we had tried closing that same bathroom door. It wouldn’t budge because of the warped tiles on the bathroom floor. Not wanting to break anything, we left it open and decided to shoot around it. There’s no logical excuse for it—seven of us heard it and we all jumped out of our skins.” 

Casting a shadow

Despite Hotel Alexandria’s glamorous past, the hotel also has its share of darker stories, which include strange deaths and suicides. Some people have reported seeing a ghostly Edwardian woman in black wandering the hallways of the hotel, in addition to phantom waiters from the 1910s in the Palm Court area, ghostly dancers in the second-floor ballroom, and a female child ghost. Folks living in the hotel’s penthouse have reported seeing a dapper man dressed in 1920s clothing reading a newspaper while sitting at a table, while others claim to have seen occasional shadow figures in the parking garage.

“When ‘American Horror Story: Hotel’ came out, people thought that the show’s fictional Hotel Cortez was patterned after the Cecil Hotel in DTLA,” Owens said. “That is only partially true. The season’s storyline also incorporated the Alexandria’s ghost legends as well. For instance, the sealed-off hotel wing and subsequent Valentino vampire subplot is all based on the Alexandria. Most people don’t know that—a few fans of the show, however, figured it out after reading my book.”

When Kreedman sold Hotel Alexandra, it eventually became a low-income housing building in the early 1980s. It changed ownership several more times over the years, then in 2014 it was purchased by developer Izak Shomof, who restored portions of the existing lobby, as well as the Palm Court and second-floor ballroom. These areas are now popular wedding and party venues known as the Alexandria Ballrooms, and in 2019, the 1900s-themed Parisian bar and restaurant The Wolves DTLA opened in the building.

After the release of Owens’ book, he began to receive requests for tours at some of the locations he wrote about, including the Alexandria Ballrooms. He approached the owners and received permission to lead a 90-minute tour there, which sold out immediately. The pandemic occurred shortly after, although Owens is looking forward to offering more tours of in the future.

“We do have plans to resume tours at some time,” he said. “People seem to love connecting with the historic vibe of the building. Plus, the stories are oftentimes surprising since most of us have been given misinformation about the hotel and its history for years.”

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