Note: This post’s a long one, so grab your favourite beverage before reading it!
Where Everyone Else Stayed: The Westin Bonaventure
Everyone else on the Canadian Developer and Platform Evangelism team at Microsoft had made their L.A. hotel arrangements for last week’s Professional Developer Conference well in advance. They all stayed at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, a well-appointed, if tacky and too-eighties-for-its-own-good local landmark located in the financial district, an area now considered to be the “downtown” part of Los Angeles:
While they were there, they were treated to a little bit of Hollywood in action. The hotel bar Suede — where we all had some nice mojitos on Wednesday night — was being used as a location for the nerd-unwittingly-turned-spy TV series Chuck:
(Suede “felt” a bit new. A little Googling revealed that it opened in July.)
Where I Stayed: The Cecil Hotel
If you were to turn the clock back sixty or so years, the area considered to be “downtown” would be about a mile east of the Bonaventure. It’s not as shiny as the financial district, nor are the buildings as new, but it more than makes up for it with character. It’s full of the old buildings that Jane Jacobs praised as the birthplaces of new ideas and it had a vibe that reminded me of Accordion City’s Queen and Spadina area (especially since it also has a garment district nearby).
Through this area runs historic Main Street, and at the corner of Main Street and Seventh is the Cecil Hotel (if you pay attention to its newer, gold and white marquee sign) or Hotel Cecil (if you pay attention to its older, red and white vertical signs).
I didn’t pick the Cecil. American Express, who does the travel arrangements for Microsoft Canada, did. All the conference hotels — one of which was the Westin Bonaventure — were booked solid, so I asked the agent booking my flight and hotel to try and find something with a reasonable distance of the hotel.
Here’s a shot I took of the Cecil at night. I love old hotel neon signs:
And here’s the entrance, which looks the way grand hotels do in old black-and-white films. It’s flanked by a couple of establishments attached to the hotel: Stay, Marty and Tuck, which feature more modern signage and which I’ll talk about later.
As with the front entrance, the lobby is done up very nicely in brass, gold-tone and marble (yes, it’s probably “particle marble”, but in a city that boasts fake everything, it’s real enough).
You could set a film noir scene in this lobby, perhaps with a 1940s starlet or “Daddy Warbucks”-style tycoon.
Here’s a picture of the stairway leading to the mezzanine overlooking the lobby and the concierge.
Looking up from the lobby, you can see this backlit stained-glass ceiling.
A Minor Glitch
I got to the front desk and gave the attendant my name. He typed on the computer and said “Room with bath, two twin beds?”
“No,” I replied, and pulled out my printed reservation. “King bed.”
“Haven’t got one available,” he said, and started typing. “Will a queen do?”
“Yes it will.”
Some people I know tend to get worked up over minor glitches like this. I don’t, and especially when I’m travelling alone. (If I’m travelling with the Ginger Ninja, I do my best to make her comfy).
I signed in and was handed an old-school key on a diamond-shaped fob. An actual, mechanical key, as opposed to a magnetic or punched card.
How charmingly retro, I thought. Let the other guys on the team stay at the bland Bonaventure. This place has character.
Of course, that was before I went upstairs to my room.
A Sign of Trouble
My first warning was this sign, which was mounted over the elevators:
“NO VISITORS ALLOWED UPSTAIRS,” the sign read in large letters. In smaller letters beneath it, it read “For your protection all guests please show key upon request — Management.”
This is to be expected in a hotel in a “recovering neighbourhood”. Usually these hotels have elevators that require you to use the keycard for your room to activate them. This sort of measure keeps the riff-raff out and discourages hooker booty calls. It’s not a sure indicator that the hotel is a hole; it just says that the hotel has a history of being a flophouse, just like Toronto’s flophouses-turned-see-and-be-seen destinations, the Gladstone and Drake hotels.
Here’s what I saw as soon as I got out of the elevator:
There were still traces of the lobby in the faux-marble floor tiles, but the rest of the architecture had gone seriously downmarket. It may be true that a fresh coat of paint will cover a multitude of sins, but not when the paint is cheap and sloppily applied. And not when the walls have been repeatedly patched.
By the way, those signs on the doors in the photo above? They’re not room numbers; they’re signs indicating that they’re either common showers or bathrooms:
It dawned on me: the guy at the front desk didn’t just say “one room”, but “one room with bath.” I wasn’t going to have to use these shared toilets and showers, but it wasn’t time to breathe a sigh of relief just yet.
At least the hallway bathrooms and showers were clean. I’ve seen worse at hostels, but at least they had the decency to set some expectations and admit that they were hostels. I’ve seen worse at one hotel, but it was in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and I was in my twenties and trying to stretch my meager, then very-wimpy-next-to-the-U.S.-dollar money.
I continued down the hallway, which had changed colours from badly-applied cheap blue paint to sloppily-rolled discount tan paint…
There were still signs of the hotel’s former glory in the floor mosaics that appeared every now and again along the hallway:
Near the end of the hall right by my room was combination bathroom/toilet. This was as far as I could open the door — the toilet blocks its way and prevents it from swinging open any further.
Finally, I reached my room, number 1107. Queen-size bed my ass:
Maybe they meant “Queen-sized bed with a twenty percent margin of error”. I gave the mattress a poke; not much “give”, but I’ve slept on worse. I wonder what I would’ve seen if I’d hit it with one of those special “CSI” flashlights.
Here’s the room’s air conditioning system.
Luckily it was late October; at that time of year, a fan and open window are just fine in L.A.. Had it been August, the room would’ve been a sauna.
Here’s the heating unit for winter months: some kind of wall-mounted plate with a switch. I decided not to give it a test.
The closet had an ironing board but lacked an iron; instead it had a weird chemical smell. Certain that the smell would lovingly attach itself to my clothes, I opted to live out of my suitcase instead.
And Now, the Bathroom
It was time to check out the bathroom. Although the wife would never have approved, it was serviceable:
Make note of the shower curtain rod. The rod and curtain are what demarcate the shower area from the rest of the bathroom:
And yup, that’s the shower drain in the floor opposite the toilet:
That’s right, at the Cecil Hotel, you no longer have to choose between showering and pooping!
Actually, that’s not true. The shower nozzle is angled away from the toilet and towards the back wall. Even if it weren’t, the water pressure isn’t sufficient to reach the toilet. You still have to choose.
Needless to say, I didn’t bother to even ask if there was wifi in the room.
That’s It, I’m Outta Here
“I’m with Microsoft,” I told the concierge at the Westin Bonaventure, “but I wasn’t able to book until the last minute and I’m, er, less than satisfied with my current hotel.”
“Where are you staying?”
“On Main Street?”
“That’s the one.”
“Holy sh–” said the attendant, catching himself in mid-curse. “I mean, wow.”
“Don’t worry about the swearing, I’m pretty casual. Can you hook me up with a room? Some last-minute cancellation?”
“Let me see,” he said as he typed on a keyboard. “I’m afraid we don’t have anything available until Friday night.”
Unfortunately, I was flying out Friday at noon.
He even tried calling a couple of other hotels in the area, but they were booked solid.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’ve stayed in hostels and worse places than the Cecil. Only once or twice, and when I was young and not bankrolled by a Fortune 500 company. I’ll live.”
“You know, there is one half-decent room in the Cecil, but I don’t think it’s what you’re looking for. Besides, it’s booked for the next couple of weeks.”
“What room is that?”
Two doors to the left of the Cecil’s main entrance, but still contained within the building was an entrance labelled “Stay”. Inside was what looked like a waiting room decked in orange and white with large statues of labrador retrievers.
Upon closer inspection of a printout taped to the window, I discovered that it was some kind of “Stay” was a hotel-themed art installation:
Stay has arrived in downtown Los Angeles, offering travelers an exciting, youthful lodging alternative. Stay is a boutique hotel/youth hostel hybrid created for the savvy, modern traveler by designers Catherine Coan and Amy Price in conjunction with Lanting Hotel Group, Inc. (“LHG”). In celebration of its arrival, Stay will display live hotel guests living 24 hours per day in two model hotel rooms that we have created in street-level storefront windows, fully visible from Main Street. Initially, these guests – Ashley, Alicia, Toby, Zac and Casey – will be on display until November 15, 2008, although the promotion may be extended for an indefinite period of time.
The best room in the hotel, it would seem, is an art installation.
Stay’s rooms were just left of its entrance, and as advertised, they were hotel rooms with a big storefront window as one of its walls:
Here’s a closer look at that room:
Here’s an even closer look:
Here’s the other room, with one of the occupants getting made up for Hallowe’en. And look! Bunk beds!
If you’re curious and want to find out more about Stay, they (as one might suspect) have a blog.
More Lobby Enhancements
While wandering about the lobby, I noticed a couple of places that were perpetually closed and under construction. On one side of the lobby was a place called Marty:
According to the L.A. downtown blog Angelenic, Marty was supposed to be open on October 15th. However, as is the way with most restaurants, they’d already missed the deadline for the announced grand opening.
It’s a crying shame that it wasn’t open; it might have been a better place to hang out than my room.
On the other side of the lobby was a still-under-construction restaurant called “Tuck”, which promoted itself as a place to get good comfort food:
There was also an art gallery called “Arty” and a large empty alcove in the lobby that was going to be transformed into a bar called “Nip” (presumably to match “Tuck”).
My Check-Out Experience
The Cecil provides a phone that is a direct line to L.A. Yellow Cab. Having gotten familiar with the lag between the time you call for a cab and the time it arrived at the Cecil from back-and-forth trips to the Convention Center, I decided to call for a cab first and then check out.
As I waited on the line, I got to listen in on a conversation between a hotel manager and a security guard on one side and a one-legged guy in a wheelchair on the other side.
“Until we get that mess in your room cleaned up,” said the manager, “I can’t let you back into your room.”
“Hey, asshole, it was like that when I got there!” spat One-Legged Wheelchair Guy.
I made my way to the front desk and handed back my key.
“I’d like to check out, please,” I said.
“Sure,” said the woman at the counter. She typed at her keyboard and moments later, she said “All done! Thank you for staying at the Cecil Hotel.”
I waited for a moment before asking for a receipt.
“I’m afraid we can’t give you a receipt. Your price is confidential because you booked through a third party.”
I paused out of sheer incredulity before replying “You realize that the amount won’t be a secret once it appears on my credit card bill, right?”
“I’m sorry sir, that’s hotel policy.”
At that point, I saw my cab pull up at the front door.
“Forget it. I’ll get the receipt from the travel agency. You might want to work on the service and the rooms here,” I said, and made my way to the cab, making mental notes for this blog entry along the way.
The Short-Term Verdict
If you’re inspired by the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane and want to have a weekend of kinky gumshoe role-playing, the Cecil’s gorgeous lobby and oldie-von-moldie rooms will make the perfect (and inexpensive) backdrop for your activities. You can even get a nice suit and matching hat in the garment district a few blocks south.
(Strangely enough, I did some Googling while writing this post and found an article that suggests that Raymond Chandler modelled the shabby hotel in his short story Nevada Gas after the Cecil.)
If you’re on a budget and are willing to stay in a place whose room standards are closer to a hostel than a hotel, the Cecil might suit your needs. You can save even more money if you take a room without its own bathroom. It’s also a reasonable walk from places like the Convention Center, Staples Center and the financial district, and there’s a Metro station close by.
If you’re a business traveller or are looking for something that’s at least on par with a Ramada Inn, look elsewhere. There’s no air conditioning, the rooms are lacking in amenities, my college dorm bed had a better mattress and the in-room bathroom (if it has one) would fail the Wife Test — the rooms are about as clean as you can get them without some much-needed renovating.
The clientele at the Cecil were a mixed bag. Some were obviously students who were pribably travelling on a budget. These students weren’t that short on funds; they had laptops and iPhones. Others appeared to be businesspeople; I had brief conversations with a few and they were all along the lines of “You got suckered too, huh?” Finally, there was the hard-luck crowd who ran the gamut from the “Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness” type to the “Looks like I picked the wrong day to stop doing crystal meth” sort.
What do other people who’ve stayed at the Cecil have to say?
- On TripAdvisor, 20 out of the 38 user-submitted reviews rated the Cecil Hotel at 2 out of 5 or lower.
- User reviewers at Expedia gave the Cecil a 2.2 out of 5 rating.
- The average rating for the Cecil on Yelp was 1.5 out of 5. One reviewer said “Cecil Hotel is where dreams go to die.”
- People involved with grisly murders have given the Cecil a thumbs-up: Richard Ramirez, Jack Unterweger and Elizabeth “Black Dahlia” Short have all stayed there.
I plan to have some words with American Express’ travel booking service this week.
The Longer-Term Verdict
You’re probably wondering what I’m implying with the title of this article, A Dump with a Future.
As craptacular as the non-lobby areas of the hotel are, it’s got considerable potential. For starters, there’s that gorgeous lobby.
It’s got a prime location in a neighbourhood that looks like it’s undergoing some gentrification; the stores popping up in the area along with the area’s designation as the “Gallery District” suggest an area similar to Toronto’s West Queen West area. It was a sad crack zone in the previous decade, and today it’s the hippest part of town. The two hotels in the area, the Drake and the Gladstone were once notorious flophouses to some of the smelliest humans alive; now they’re in-demand boutique hotels popular with both locals and tourists alike.
If the Cecil can get its cafe, bar and restaurant open and filled with area hipsters (who currently go to the nearby Golden Gopher, a hip dive bar not far from the hotel) it’ll become a place that locals will want to frequent. If they can get it together and give the rooms a proper reno, it could become a boutique hotel along the lines of the Drake and the Gladstone.
But for now, my recommendation is to steer clear of the Cecil. A dump with a future is still a dump.