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Los Angeles in Buildings #6: the Biltmore Hotel

The Biltmore Hotel stands as one of the many answers Los Angeles has proposed, throughout nearly its entire history, to the question of what, exactly, it needs to finally become a “real city.” The list of required elements has expanded, and occasionally contracted, over time, but even putting aside all those strangely persistent Baudrillardian anxieties about whether it rates as a genuine place or some kind of postmodern accretion of simulacra, Angelenos seem never to have a definitive answer about whether Los Angeles has, quite literally, the right stuff.

At the moment, the city’s deficiencies in public transit and public space in general look like the ones to address; back in the second half of the century, it strove for real-city status primarily by building art museums, concert halls, and other high-profile cultural venues. But during and after Los Angeles’ initial population boom at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the city needed to worry less about reality than capacity, a need that demanded the construction of hotels. After the opening of the Pico House in 1870, an extravagant hostelry by the standards of the time and place, the importance of capacity gave way to that of luxury. By the 1920s, anyone looking across the continent to New York for a model of the real city (as many did, and quite a few still do) would have believed that Los Angeles couldn’t possibly enter the world class without a grand downtown hotel: not just a place for high-status visitors, but a reassuringly opulent icon for Angelenos themselves.

Unsurprisingly, as David Rieff writes in “Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World,” the job of designing the Biltmore went to a New York office, Schultze and Weaver, “a firm noted for its uncanny ability to ape the style of the great Spanish colonial architects like Churriguera while at the same time modifying them to suit the requirements of the Jazz Age.” The money, some $10 million of it, came arranged by banker Joseph Sartori, who, according to California historian Kevin Starr, “organized the six-hundred-stockholder syndicate behind the Biltmore whose leadership — Harry Chandler, Marco Hellman, Henry M. Robinson, Lee Phillips — proceeded from the same social groupings which had secured water from Owens Valley in 1913 and were about to improve the port.” Rieff describes projects of this kind as “less the work of individual entrepreneurs than the collective undertakings of the business establishment, and the amorphous Mediterraneanism of their design was an integral part of the selling of Los Angeles.”

Read the whole thing at KCET.