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When it opened on 2 October 1923, the Los Angeles Biltmore— now called the Millennium Biltmore— was the largest hotel west of Chicago, with somewhere around 1,000 rooms. (The various articles I read each gave a different number.) That opening day was a major event, with over 3,000 of Los Angeles’ wealthy elite on hand, and some 6,000 hopefuls turned away. A mural-sized photograph of that opening gala adorns the hotel’s main corridor.
New York architects Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver designed the Biltmore to be the West Coast rival of the renowned Waldorf-Astoria in New York, which set the standard for American luxury hotels in the 1920s. The real estate investors who owned the property made the appropriate choice of architects, as Schultze and Weaver had designed the Waldorf-Astoria. The Biltmore achieves its opulence with a blend of architectural styles.
Outside, the Biltmore looks like it could be a bank or an office building. Its Beaux-Arts style represented refined formality in the early 1920s. The hotel’s exterior is probably less impressive than it originally was, now that it’s dwarfed by the skyscrapers across Fifth Street. But if you venture inside, you can see (and perhaps even experience) what was considered the height of Jazz-Age elegance.
The entrance on Olive Street, directly across from Pershing Square, was the hotel’s original lobby. Schultze and Weaver made the visitor’s first impression of the hotel an imagined Spanish-Moorish Renaissance palace, invoking the Spanish heritage of Los Angeles. It features two vaulted arcades, a coffered ceiling, and elaborately decorated travertine walls. The Spanish Renaissance motif may have been meant as an extravagant alternative to the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style inspired by 18th century California missions, which was practically obligatory for Los Angeles buildings in the 1920s.
A 1984 renovation moved the lobby to what was originally the Music Room, at the Grand Avenue entrance on the other side of the building. (It served as John F. Kennedy’s campaign office during the 1960 Democratic National Convention.) The new covered entrance is convenient to the adjacent parking garage, a consideration surely more important than it was in 1923. The old lobby became the Rendezvous Court, a lounge where afternoon tea is served on weekends.
An ornate staircase at the back of the Rendezvous Court, possibly inspired by the “Golden Stairs” in the 15th century cathedral in Burgos, Spain, leads to the Galleria (it was originally called the Galleria Real). Recalling the luxuriant decoration of aristocratic Italian renaissance palazzi, its sculptures, carvings, and elaborate inlaid ceiling are the work of Italian-born muralist Giovanni Smeraldi.
Smeraldi painted his distinctive “Italian Renaissance Revival” decorations and murals at the Vatican and in buildings all over the United States, including the White House, Grand Central Station in New York, and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. He reportedly considered the Biltmore his finest work. Smeraldi’s apprentice, Anthony B. Heisbergen, made significant contributions to the Biltmore’s artwork, including the ceiling of the old lobby. His son, Anthony T. Heisenbergen, restored Smeraldi’s work during the hotel’s renovations in the mid-1980s.
Along the Galleria are large rooms that were originally places for hotel guests to eat, drink, and enjoy dancing and entertainment. Today they’re venues for meetings, conferences, and wedding receptions. The Crystal Ballroom is the largest and fanciest of them, with a ceiling that provided an enormous canvas for Smeraldi to decorate.
The Crystal Ballroom is best known as the site of a 1927 luncheon, where members of the brand-new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences planned a ceremony to present achievement awards for their peers in the Academy’s five branches. There, on a Biltmore linen napkin, MGM’s art director reputedly drew the first design for a world-famous trademarked golden statuette. A corridor off the Galleria is a gallery of historic photos, including one taken at the luncheon labeled with the names of every participant who could be identified.
The Biltmore’s swimming pool has been restored to its original 1920s appearance. It was designed to resemble an indoor pool on an ocean liner, the most luxurious form of travel at the time. The pool is part of an expanded modern health club facility accessible (at least in theory) only to hotel guests.
The rather mysterious South Galleria leads from the main Galleria to an entrance on Grand Avenue. Its vaulted ceiling is decorated with fading, peeling Smeraldi frescoes that seem to have been overlooked when the glittering artwork in the main Galleria was restored. About halfway down the South Galleria, an ornate gilded iron fence with a locked door blocks access to a large carpeted staircase. The staircase descends to an escalator, which leads to the Biltmore Bowl, a large (1073 m2) theatre and conference space that was the site of eight Academy Awards ceremonies in the 1930s. Below the Biltmore Bowl is the even larger (1560 m2) Regency Room, added during the renovation after a fire in 1950.
The apparent reason for the fence is that the cavernous subterranean rooms are in much less demand today than in the past. A trip on an unlocked, working elevator reveals that when these facilities are not rented for a conference or filming, the lights and air conditioning are turned off to save energy. It would not be a good idea to let visitors stumble around in the dark. The inactivity of the facilities on the South Galleria may also explain (though not excuse) the condition of the Smeraldi frescoes on the ceiling.
And speaking of filming, the Biltmore has been a “location” for numerous Hollywood feature films, as well as television shows and commercials.
In addition to being an artistic and architectural gem, the Biltmore is a very convenient base for exploring Downtown Los Angeles. It’s near the Red, Purple, and Silver Metro Rail lines and DASH buses, and you can walk to just about anywhere in Downtown. Since the main clientele of the Biltmore (and of other major Downtown hotels) are business travelers attending weekday meetings or conferences, weekend rates can be surprisingly reasonable. An overnight stay is a worthwhile experience; rooms offer a pleasing mix of 1920s style and 21st-century amenities.
As parking at any Downtown hotel is absurdly expensive, it’s really best to leave the car at home and use mass transit. (Downtown is one of the very few places in Southern California where mass transit is not only convenient, but preferable to driving.) If you must drive, parking in the Metro Headquarters lot at Union Station is the most affordable option. From there you can ride Metro Rail (or walk) to wherever you want to go.