Exploring the 1904 Leland Hotel, Skid Row's ghost building that's coming back from the dead
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 January, we blogged about the Leland, the latest in a series of illegally empty Skid Row hotels to be purchased by AIDS Healthcare’s Healthy Housing Foundation.
We’re big fans of HHF’s policy of buying these historic places and returning them to their proper use as modest homes for Angelenos with low incomes, chronic health problems and who are transitioning out of homelessness. Nothing gets demolished, it’s pretty quick, and the cost per unit is a fraction of ground-up construction. The fact that HHF also invests in restoring historic features and landmarking their buildings is just sweet icing on the cake.
Because we hate the harm it does to the buildings, businesses and communities we love, we write a lot in this newsletter about civic corruption. And with a Federal racketeering trial set to reveal the “staggering” degree to which Downtown Los Angeles land use votes became a hot commodity among overseas investors, we expect to write more about it.
But a huge part of what’s wrong in Los Angeles government is a sort of malicious incompetence, which can be every bit as harmful as blatant corruption. A city that doesn’t follow its own laws, staffed by people who don’t do their jobs or who do them selectively, creates a fertile field where evil can flourish and citizens feel powerless.
Because even though RICO-charged councilman Jose Huizar seems to have had no problem with it, it was never official city policy that a landlord like Izek Shomef could buy residency hotels full of poor people and empty them out. But when he did, the city and Huizar did nothing to stop him. A decade later, with tents lining the streets and filling our parks and the data showing the city can spend a fortune to accomplish almost nothing, it falls on a non-profit to clean up these derelict buildings the Federal government might have reimbursed the city for buying, if it only cared to try.
We’re so glad HHF cares. Because as much as we love cool old buildings, we love cool old Angelenos more. And every cheap room held off the market by a greedy investor is one less vulnerable person granted the dignity of a roof, running water and a door they can lock.
We can’t know how Los Angeles would be different if these rooms had been available to people who needed them, but we know it would be a kinder and more interesting city.
When we started giving tours around Downtown Los Angeles in 2005, it was easy to overlook the Leland Hotel, flanked by its more beautiful and celebrated neighbors the Baltimore and King Edward. But we were always aware of it as being full of tenants who patronized the King Eddy Saloon and the little markets and shops in this coral reef neighborhood between the New Downtown and the tougher parts of Skid Row.
And then, one day, most of the tenants on this block were gone. The little markets, shops and the King Eddy soon followed. We never saw a tumbleweed roll down the street, but that’s how it felt. And once it was boarded up, we started to pay attention to the Leland.
So when HHF was finally able to purchase the Leland, four years after Izek Shomof sold them the Baltimore and King Edward, the first thing we asked was if we could go inside and see what was left from its 118 years of history. We were warned that the rats were large and the place was a mess, but yes, we could.
And this is what we saw.
The Leland Hotel is larger than it looks from Fifth Street, extending deep into the Werdin Place alley, which is has cobblestones running its length.
There are 64 rooms above the vacant storefronts and a huge, multi-room basement. You can read our January blog post for the history of this useful building and its owner, C.M. (not G.M.) Hoff.
We gained access to the residential floors from the Baltimore Hotel, which long ago came under the same ownership and treated the smaller Leland as an annex. But where the Baltimore now hums with the sounds and smells of life, the Leland is a stark and desolate shell. Long halls are lined with doorways, each one leading to a barren single room. In some, the windows stand open, and pigeons have soiled the floors. It is four short blocks to Los Angeles City Hall.
Although we couldn’t find any permits for major work, the hotel appears to be frozen in the midst of a renovation, with walls messily sprayed white and some of the rooms sporting expensive new doors. But if there’s a story about how it came to be like this, the pigeons ain’t talking.
The views are best from the Fifth Street rooms, which look out through filthy windows onto John Parkinson’s 1906 King Edward Hotel. But a tenant craning their neck in the interior light well could catch a glimpse of the heart shaped neon roof sign on the Hart Brothers’ Rosslyn annex, half a block to the west. The whole heart would have been visible before Killifer Flammang architects added a floor to the Pershing Hotel in the Charnock Block a few years ago.
Before a wall was opened up providing access to the Baltimore Hotel elevator, the Leland tenants would enter off of Fifth Street and up this handsome central stair. Halls jut out from the landing at odd angles. Our late friend Robert, longtime manager at the Baltimore, said he thought the builder had been drunk.
We missed Robert terribly while walking through the Leland, certain he’d have stories about the characters who had lived here and about what the last owners had been doing to leave it in such a strange, unfinished state. Also, we ran up against a couple of locked doors for which only Robert had the keys!
But whatever work was done, the beautiful original fire escapes had been spared. When we leaned in close to admire one of the time worn rosettes, we found a trace of the original red enamel at the heart of the bloom. Skid Row Rose!
Back down at street level, we found the original hotel entry stairs, as photographed by motion picture art director Robert Luthardt around 1967. We didn’t think to tap the walls to see if they are real marble, or if this was a painted faux stone effect.
In spite of the whitewashing, bits of the past could still be made out: filthy penny tile with a square border that we bet will clean up nicely, the possibility of a glass lunette air flow transom above the door and labor saving dust corners on each stair riser.
With the hotel empty, we’d pinned our hopes on finding some artifacts in the huge basement. But there wasn’t much left after whatever Izek Shomof was trying to do with the place... at least not in the front part of the building. Those bare shelves and the thought of their contents going to the dump broke our hearts!
A huge hand painted sign leaned against the wall, and with a start we recognized it from the little wedding and quinceanera supply shop that had been across the street in the King Edward Hotel until 2013, when Cindy was displaced for a short lived BMX shop that immediately alienated the community by jumping bikes over homeless people. That storefront has been empty since 2017.
The basement continued deeper to the south, with no electric light, thick dust and hanging spiderwebs and the skittering of big rats. But in the filth and darkness, there were indeed some treasures!
Like this red and black wicker side table and fine art nouveau sideboard….
A Mission-style chair without a seat, a pebble glass door and stacks of pressed tin ceiling tiles….
Plus the remains of somebody’s classical record collection, an ancient strapped barrel falling to rot and the 1925 edition of one of our very favorite comic novellas, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos! (The rats aren’t fans, apparently.)
But the best thing left behind in the basement wasn’t old or rotten or covered in rat droppings. It was a wooden sided wheeled cart, obviously made by hand, which our guide told us had belonged to Robert. In memory of our departed friend, Richard pushed his well made cart once across the room. And it wasn’t just the dust that made us misty as we turned away to return to the Skid Row sunshine.
Soon, the Leland Hotel will be full of people once again. The old things left in the basement may find new life. The storefronts will get tenants and a new operator will take on the great responsibility of running what was, until recently, the longest continuously operating Skid Row bar.
And we want all of that to come, and soon. But from now on, we’ll always remember the Leland as it is today, dark and lonesome, with a cart that’s lost its owner, and locks that have lost their keys.
Psst… If you’d like to support our efforts to be the voice of places worth preserving, we have a tip jar and a subscriber edition of this newsletter. Or just share this link with other people who care.
yours for Los Angeles,
Kim & Richard
In the latest subscriber's edition of this newsletter—$10/month, cheap!—The Ghost of Harry Bergman's Roadside Museum on Highway 371: of provenance, weed murders, big lizards and the transformative effect of green glass shards lit by the sun.
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