The battle to save the 1921 Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard was one of the largest in the Conservancy's history, and its loss was one of the greatest.
The Conservancy worked for nearly twenty years to prevent the demolition of the Ambassador Hotel. Ultimately, for many reasons, the complex was demolished in 2005-2006 and replaced with a Los Angeles Unified School District campus.
Opened in 1921 and designed by Myron Hunt, with later renovations by Paul Williams, the Ambassador Hotel was one of Los Angeles’ defining historic sites. It was the catalyst for development of the entire Wilshire Boulevard corridor, which had been a dirt road before the Ambassador opened. It was also home to the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Los Angeles’ premier night spot for decades; host to six Oscar ceremonies and to every U.S. President from Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon; and the site of the tragic assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
The hotel closed in 1989 and went through a succession of owners and potential owners. In 2001, LAUSD purchased the property and announced its intent to build three schools on the site for the Wilshire Center-Koreatown community, one of the densest and underserved areas in the District.
The Los Angeles Conservancy spent the next three years demonstrating how LAUSD could feasibly reuse the hotel building as part of the new campus, or build the campus elsewhere on the site and adapt the main building as affordable housing and services for the surrounding community. LAUSD rejected all of these proposals.
In November 2004, the Conservancy and seven other organizations filed litigation challenging LAUSD’s plans to demolish the hotel. The lawsuit challenged the adequacy of the final environmental impact report in exploring alternatives to demolition or providing enforceable mitigation measures. LAUSD convinced the court otherwise, leading to a settlement that created a Historic Schools Investment Fund with $4.9 million in funding from LAUSD. The Ambassador Hotel was demolished between October 2005 and January 2006.
As mitigation for the hotel’s demolition, LAUSD agreed to retain and reuse the former Cocoanut Grove; the hotel’s former coffee shop, designed by renowned architect Paul R. Williams; and the pantry behind the hotel’s Embassy Ballroom, the site of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.
The District changed course regarding all of these promises, leading to new litigation by the Conservancy in October 2007. This litigation ended in January 2008 with a settlement in which LAUSD would contribute an additional $4 million to the Historic Schools Investment Fund.
Despite our best efforts, press accounts included a fair amount of misinformation about the preservation aspect of the issue and our involvement. Without belaboring the point or rehashing the issue, we do want to clarify some information for the record:
1. We wanted a school on the site. In many cases, the issue is still being framed as a choice between historic preservation and the use of the site as a much-needed school. To the contrary, it wasn’t an "either-or" situation. We strongly advocated adapting the hotel building for use as a school, which we think would have provided kids with an even better learning environment by allowing them to touch history as they learned it. When the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) rejected our plan for using the hotel building as a school, we returned with a new plan that would have built small learning communities around the hotel building, adapting the building instead for use as affordable housing and community services. That plan was also rejected outright.
2. The new campus is not historic. Make no mistake: there is no meaningful preservation on the site. The porte cochere and one wall of the Cocoanut Grove were retained; the rest is replicated. The campus interprets the site's history but does not preserve it.
3. Preservation did not cause cost overruns or schedule delays. We were very mindful of the need to provide a school as soon as possible, which was one of the reasons we chose not to pursue further litigation when it became clear we wouldn't prevail. Nor was the approved plan part of a compromise between LAUSD and preservationists. We didn't compromise on the Ambassador Hotel; we lost. Whatever "preservation measures" LAUSD undertook were entirely self-imposed and did not amount to actual preservation.