When you think of visiting the City of Angels, downtown L.A.—despite its world-class museums, live music venues, and globally inspired cuisine—may not be the first neighborhood to come to mind. But long before West Hollywood and Santa Monica became the Los Angeles destinations of choice for many Southern California travelers, the city’s burgeoning creatives congregated downtown.
The result was a rich collection of buildings erected during the Roaring Twenties. A century later, the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance—a preservation tool establised in 1999 that makes it easier to convert historic buildings into houses and hotels—has prompted the area’s gradual resurgence. Consequently, downtown L.A. is in the midst of a renaissance, spearheaded in large part by the beautiful art deco buildings that first brought the area into prominence nearly a century ago.
“There is a strong desire to make downtown Los Angeles the ‘heart’ of Los Angeles. With the city being so spread out, it allows for nearby cultural hubs such as Silverlake, Echo Park, Highland Park, Los Feliz, and West Hollywood to converge at the center,” says Kelly Wearstler, the interior designer behind one of the latest hotels to join the revival boom—the Downtown L.A. Proper. Wearstler notes that the ongoing renovations of the many historical buildings in the area gives residents and travelers the unique opportunity to discover these architectural treasures.
Whether you live in Los Angeles or are planning to visit, the following design and architecture gems are not to be missed.
Downtown L.A. Proper Hotel
With its giant vintage sign and grand archways, you don’t have to be a preservationist to immediately recognize the Downtown L.A. Proper Hotel’s historic value. Less obvious, however, is the hotel’s greatest design feats—its presidential suites. “Other hotels make their presidential suites too safe; this is bold,” general manager Stephane Lacroix tells me on a tour of the property. The boldness he’s referring to? A 35-foot-long by 12-foot-wide swimming pool set in the living room of the aptly named “Pool Suite.”
The splurge-worthy room honors the building’s past life as the Young Women’s Christian Association (commonly known as the YWCA) in the 1960s. So does the “Court Suite,” which once served as the club’s indoor basketball court. Aside from the original painted timber floors and two-story ceilings, you would never guess the living room was once the site of basketball games.
While much of the design pays homage to the building’s history as a YWCA, its roots actually trace back to the 1920s, when it was constructed by L.A. architects Curlett & Beelman. “The building was originally a private club with members like Cecil B. DeMille, so it has a very authentic old Hollywood vibe,” says Wearstler. “It was my job to bring this landmark into the modern age but also to preserve its rich history, so I added contemporary design elements balanced with vintage pieces that allude to the building’s roots in early 20th-century Los Angeles architecture.”
Since opening in the fall of last year, the 148-room hotel has been attracting locals and visitors alike to its 5,000-square-foot rooftop offering one of the city’s best views of downtown L.A., an intimate swimming pool, and Mexican fare at restaurant Cara Cara. Equally as inventive (and delicious) are the Portuguese-meets-Mexican dishes served on the ground floor at Caldo Verde. It’s no surprise both restaurants are drawing a crowd—they’re headed by James Beard Award–winning chef Suzanne Goin and restaurateur Caroline Styne.
Book Now: From $350 per night, expedia.com
Another building that reflects its history as a former YWCA is Hotel Figueroa. The largest commercial building funded by women for women originally opened its doors in 1926 as a safe haven for solo female travelers who were prohibited from staying at hotels without a male chaperone. The property was run by the first-ever female managing director of a hotel, Maude Bouldin, who is honored today by a large painting depicting her on a motorcycle in the lobby.
The painting is one example of many women-led artistic endeavors throughout the hotel that pay homage to its feminist history—from the elevator doors hand-painted by local female artist Gabby B-Vasquez to the 13-story-high mural on the building’s rear exterior created by U.K.-based muralist Bella Gomez. The mural overlooks the outdoor pool that is rumored to have been shaped like a coffin to bury the patriarchy. Inside, the hallway leading out to the pool acts as the onsite Featured Artist Series Exhibit, which showcases a different female artist every year.
The annual featured artist also decorates a room—the “Artist Suite”—in a theme of the artist’s choice. Another room that upholds the hotel’s feminist legacy is the “H.E.R. Suite,” which comes outfitted with women-owned beauty and health products, such as Dieux Skin, OSEA Malibu, and Parachute.
As a YWCA from the mid-1920s to the 1950s, Hotel Figueroa acted as a hub for progressive women, hosting political events and meetings for female-led organizations like the Women’s International League. The hotel maintains its social conscience today by holding press conferences and political rallies against sexism and racism.
But feminist past aside, the 268-room hotel also attracts guests for its diverse dining offerings, which include refined Mediterranean Italian cuisine at Sparrow, globally inspired healthy fare at Cafe Fig, and botanical-infused cocktails served poolside at La Casita.
Book Now: From $191 per night, expedia.com
Like its neighbor—the Downtown L.A. Proper across the street—the Hoxton exemplifies Beaux-Arts architecture with its terra-cotta detailing and grand doorways. Built in 1922 as the Los Angeles Transit Building, the hotel celebrates its original art deco charm through the use of bold colors, geometric patterns, and plush, inviting furniture. While the hotel was unable to salvage the 456 original windows, it worked with local artisans to restore the facade and much of the original marble was retained.
Since completing the building’s restoration in October of 2019, the 10-story, 174-room hotel has been welcoming guests to experience the British brand’s chic hospitality. Sibling Rival café serves pastries and coffee on the ground floor, but the main attraction here is Cabra Los Angeles on the rooftop, where esteemed chef Stefanie Izard serves creative Peruvian fare.
Book Now: From $249 per night, expedia.com
Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles
A block away from the Hoxton, you’ll find one of the earliest hotel revivals in recent years—the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles, which finished its restoration of the United Artists Theatre in 2014. Representing the ambitious architectural attitude and Hollywood excess of the 1920s, the hotel illustrates a collection of design references—from the Spanish Gothic style to Parisian modernism to Viennese cafés.
Despite its storied near-century of use, much of the building was restored, like the stained glass windows and original murals depicting the Golden Age of cinema. What wasn’t maintained was recreated, such as the new carpet inspired by the previous mezzanine ceiling and an art deco ticket booth modeled after the original. You’ll find nods to the 1920s not only in the public spaces but also in the 182 guest rooms. Artwork by Mike Mills highlights news events from 1927, the year the United Artists Theatre was built.
The Ace Hotel’s former life as the United Artists Theatre is what sets it apart today—the fully restored, 1,600-seat theater is available for concerts, premieres, and performances. With its thousands of tiny mirrors glimmering in the vaulted ceiling and ornately decorated open balcony, it’s certainly not your average hotel event space.
Cinematic views are also available upstairs on the rooftop, where cocktails and light fare are served next to the dipping pool. Don’t miss the vegetable-forward brunch at the hotel’s newest dining addition, Loam, located next to the lobby.
Book Now: From $249 per night, expedia.com
A speakeasy scene is reborn
Hotels aren’t the only businesses leading downtown L.A.’s resurgence. Many of the area’s hippest hangouts are set in historic buildings too, like the Soho Warehouse, a members-only club housed in a former industrial building completed in 1916. Opening its doors in October 2019, the 80,000-square-foot space, with 48 bedrooms and a rooftop pool, represents the largest West Coast Soho House and the first to offer accommodations.
Perhaps one of the oldest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture is Grand Central Market, which has been in operation since 1917 but, like much of downtown, has only really gained popularity in the last decade with trendy eateries like boba shop–inspired Moon Rabbit attracting a crowd.
For a more low-key experience reminiscent of the Prohibition era, the Edison bar is set in L.A.’s first private power plant, which opened in 1931, while the Wyman Bar is located in the Bradbury Building built in 1893.
But few building revivals compare to the 1927 Tower Theatre, which was recently transformed by Apple into its flagship store. It is Apple’s most significant restoration project to date. Visitors are greeted upon entry by an impressive arched stairway flanked by marble Corinthian columns. A few steps further and the Apple products on display pale in comparison to the main auditorium in which they’re displayed—embellished arches soar above the original balconies accented with restored bronze.
If the restoration of the Tower Theatre is any indication of what’s to come, we can’t wait for what’s next for the ongoing rebirth of downtown L.A., one hundred years on.
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