The Barclay, the Oldest Continuously Operating Hotel in the City of Los Angeles Has Secrets Still To Keep... and new owners who want to put her to good use

Gentle reader,

Greetings from your friendly historic Los Angeles sightseeing tour company, now offering digital programming until we can again organize groups to gather and explore the city we love.

In 2018, we celebrated the return of two treasures of Downtown Los Angeles to useful service as residential buildings, when the Healthy Housing Foundation purchased the largely vacant King Edward and Baltimore hotels from developer Shomof Group.

Although a binding covenant requires the rooms in many old hotels be rented out to low-income tenants, and tens of thousands of people struggle to survive on the streets outside, our corrupt City Council does nothing to make property owners abide by the law. Empty hotels are more valuable in a large real estate portfolio than ones inhabited by poor people with tenants’ rights⁠—even if they never actually open up as the boutique hotels that are announced and obtain funding.

But real estate is a fickle thing, and eventually every note comes due. Two years after Relevant Group publicized their intention to turn the largely vacant Hotel Barclay into a boutique property, we’re delighted to announce that plans for the Skid Row landmark have changed for the better.

Today, Healthy Housing Foundation announced their purchase of the hotel, which will join ten other useful, historic residential buildings that the nonprofit has or is converting into safe, affordable rooms in which Angelenos can live.

The news of the Barclay’s pending return to useful community service tastes even sweeter following the indictment two days ago of political powerhouse Mark Ridley-Thomas on public corruption charges. Selfish “leaders” like MRT have diverted billions in tax revenue that were meant to help people experiencing homelessness to instead enrich their developer buddies, and the results are horribly apparent on the streets of our town.

But let’s leave Mark Ridley-Thomas in the past, where he belongs. Today, Los Angeles celebrates a new dawn for the nearly 125-year-old Barclay, designed by master architects Morgan and Walls, opened in January 1897 and known as the Van Nuys until 1929. While only a handful of rooms are presently occupied, it is the oldest continuously operating hotel in the city of Los Angeles, and a place that we love so much, it hurts.

We have been bringing tour groups into the Barclay since 2007, and enjoying the awed reaction of our guests as they take in the refined beauty of this early Los Angeles time capsule in the heart of Skid Row.

On the Raymond Chandler tour, we read a moody passage from The Little Sister describing how detective Philip Marlowe walks down the third floor corridor with its “smell of old carpet and furniture oil and the drab anonymity of a thousand shabby lives” to room 332, where he finds a man dead on the bed with an icepick in his brain. On the Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour, we talk about two guests who fell victim to serial killers inside the building, and some of the colorful weirdos who managed to visit without causing lasting harm.

Heather Gillespie has a thing or two to tell Nathan Marsak and Kelly Kuvo on an early Esotouric tour (photo: AP)

During our visits over the years, we got to know the staff, owners and some of the residents, a population that dwindled as tenants died or moved moved away and their rooms were not re-rented. One of these residents was a fascinating red-headed opera singer and chess shark named Heather Gillespie, who took great pleasure in having a captive audience and sharing her philosophy when asked. The last time we saw Heather, she told a group of private schoolgirls that she hoped they had a chance to live in an old hotel in the heart of the city one day like she had, because it would be a great adventure.

And then, in September 2016, we learned from Barclay management that Heather had disappeared. She walked away from the hotel one day leaving all her things in her room, and never came back. Everybody looked for her downtown, and other places where a vulnerable older person might end up, but she was just gone. We think about her all the time, and hope that she’s okay.

In February 2020, just before the world shut down, we spent a long day at the Barclay, filming our interviews for the Netflix series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. We get asked to participate in a lot of true crime programs, and usually decline because they’re so dumb and exploitative. We made an exception for this project. It was our hope that we could help steer the conversation around the fact that most of the Cecil’s 700 rooms have been held vacant for many years, and if they were rented, Canadian tourist Elisa Lam would not have had the misfortune to drown in the rooftop water tank. Although the Cecil remains empty, we’re thrilled that the Barclay will soon be full!

Over the years we have been all over the hotel, including working with Craig Sauer to document the lobby and basement tunnel system in 3-D, but there is still so much to see and to learn. Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to give a private tour to the new owners, highlighting some of the special features that tell the story of this remarkable building, and discovering some that were new to us. On the occasion of the Barclay’s sale, and in anticipation of our return with tour groups, let us share a few wonderful things.

On the Main Street side, there are a few storefronts that are occasionally used for filming, but have not been rented out for many years. The faux diner set was a location in our short documentary. Another storefront is a tiny shoe repair shop that appears to have been locked for the day about 25 years ago, and not touched since. It is well stocked with vintage replacement heels, wooden shoe stretchers, polishing machines, folk art and dust. We hope that if the shop is ever cleared out, that the time capsule is thoroughly documented. It is a strange and wonderful place.

On the Fourth Street side, there has been a bar attached to the hotel as long as any can remember. Most recently known as Bar 107, for its street address, the electrical panel in the basement still identifies it as The Score, a beloved gay and art world hang out. The back room with its dungeon wall decor may be remnant from that era.

Up on the roof, the artist Wild Life recently installed enormous black crows, who are keeping a gimlet eye on the behavior of the tiny humans on the streets below.

If you look up at the birds from the Main Street side, you’ll see the original hotel name in the coursework: Isaac Newton Van Nuys was the owner, and Milo M. Potter the proprietor. Van Nuys left his mark on the facade, and in the stained glass window in the lobby bearing his VN-flanked-by-seahorses-rampant crest. But Mr. Potter’s tenure proved more elusive…

…until our walk through with the new owners. As if in recognition of a sea change in the hotel’s place in Downtown Los Angeles, a staff member who we have known for many years, and who has shown us cool things about the building in the past, decided to show us the coolest thing of all.

The original safe survives! The size of a wardrobe, it is painted with the Van Nuys and Potter family names and a seagoing scene, and half of its compartments are still locked up tight. Raymond Chandler, who made nothing up, knew and we should have paid attention. In The Little Sister, he writes:

“Room 332, Van Nuys Hotel. Knock two quick ones and two slow ones. Not too loud. I got to have live action. How fast can you—”
“What is it you want me to keep?”
“That’ll wait till you get here. I said I was in a hurry.”
“What’s your name?”
“Just Room 332.”
“Thanks for the time,” I said. “Goodbye.”
“Hey. Wait a minute, dope. It’s nothing hot like you think. No ice. No emerald pendants. It just happens to be worth a lot of money to me—and nothing at all to anybody else.”
“The hotel has a safe.”
“Do you want to die poor, Marlowe?”
“Why not? Rockefeller did. Goodbye again.”
The voice changed. The furriness went out of it. It said sharply and swiftly: “How’s every little thing in Bay City?”
I didn’t speak. Just waited. There was a dim chuckle over the wire. “Thought that might interest you, Marlowe. Room 332 it is. Tramp on it friend. Make speed…”
It took me twenty-nine minutes to get to the Van Nuys Hotel.

And one day in the months to come, the old hotel will be alive again, and all the ghosts will have some company. We can’t wait to lead you inside and tell stories, and to hear some whoppers from the colorful Los Angeles characters who don’t know it yet, but will soon have found their home in the heart of the city.

Thanks Healthy Housing Foundation, for being the good guys in a city full of villains. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

We hope you’ll join us in virtually avoiding Downtown’s historic core this Sunday, when our latest immersive cultural history webinar airs live at 4pm. Our guests are Freewaytopia author Paul Haddad, photographer and educator Jeff Gates and Bunker Hill native son Gordon Pattison, and the webinar is called A Natural History of Los Angeles Freeways.

yours for Los Angeles,

Kim & Richard


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