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Siteseeing: Downtown Los Angeles

Murrye Bernard • Photography by Spencer Lowell and Benoit Linero • February 28, 2018

Photos: Recent Projects

It’s no secret that Downtown Los Angeles is on the precipice of a second golden age. The first occurred in the 1920s, when movie palaces lined Broadway and stately structures were built for banks, hotels, and department stores. But the rise of automobile culture isolated downtown, with freeways now forming its boundaries. As residents moved out, downtown devolved into a commuter business district while the homeless population of Skid Row skyrocketed.

Upon opening in 1999, the Staples Center breathed new life into the South Park district of downtown. Then the Standard hotel took a leap of faith in 2002, and others—both bigger and smaller brands—followed suit, one of the more recent (and notable) being the conversion of the 1927 United Artists building into the Ace Hotel. Now, there are close to 8,000 rooms planned, many rehabbing beautiful old buildings, including two hotels from sbe—an SLS and a Mondrian, part of the development of the tallest building in the western U.S.—a Soho House in the Arts District, and a Park Hyatt (the brand’s first West Coast property) with hotel and residences by Toronto firm Studio Munge. Residential towers are also on the rise—in fact, according to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, close to 10,000 units are under construction. At the same time, developers are clamoring to provide office space to support the burgeoning tech economy and other creative companies looking to move to the area. As a result, there is a continued building boom of amenities catering to those who live, work, and visit downtown for business (more than 800 new restaurants, bars, retail outlets, and other amenities opened between 2008 and 2016 alone), including a robust food scene, as well as the swell of new cultural institutions like the Broad museum and the Hauser & Wirth gallery in the storied Globe Mills complex, complete with exhibitions, a shop, and Manuela restaurant, a collaboration between local studios Creative Space and M. Winter Design.

One new hotel generating a lot of buzz is the 226-room Freehand, which opened last year. For its upscale take on the hostel (with both private and shared rooms), Sydell Group enlisted New York’s Roman and Williams to renovate the 1924 Commercial Exchange building into an urban interpretation of LA’s coastal vibe. It’s a seamlessly curated mix of American craftsmen-inspired furnishings and work by local artists, bright tapestries and textiles, greenery, and an earthy color palette.

A block away in the opulent Giannini Place, which was built in 1922 as the headquarters of the Bank of Italy, Sydell Group also recently opened the NoMad. Like the original New York property, the 241-room hotel features an F&B program helmed by chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara, as well as interiors from French architect Jacques Garcia. Where the Manhattan hotel skews more French-meets-New York bohemian, this property celebrates its history, “with a tension between classical Northern Italian and California” styles, says CEO Andrew Zobler. Neoclassical elements in the lobby—including ornate columns, a gold and blue Italianate coffered ceiling, and marble floors—have been restored, while the design team infused the series of salons with rich fabrics, floral patterns, custom trims and cords, striking archways, and well-thought-out accessories for a feel that’s grand yet intimate. That attention to detail continues in the guestrooms with custom furnishings and curated artwork, while the original basement bank vault now houses restrooms. Adds Zobler: “Part of the DNA of NoMad is relating to a great building, and you find great buildings in Downtown LA.”

Nearby, the Mayfair Hotel is undergoing a multimillion-dollar, three-phase redesign, which includes a new pooldeck and café, thanks to the handiwork of local firm Gulla Jónsdóttir Architecture & Design. Jónsdóttir will bring her signature modern and seductive touch to the historic 1920s property: guestrooms boast a sleek black and white palette, while the dramatic, Art Deco-inspired lobby features a soaring all-glass and black-iron latticed atrium and white vaulted ceilings that recall the golden age of Hollywood. “We reinterpreted the classical look of Downtown LA with a modern twist,” she points out.

Hotel Figueroa, located across from the Staples Center, will reopen this spring following a $55 million refresh that restored the 1926 building to its former Spanish Colonial splendor. Originally a women-only hostel for the YWCA, the building now offers 268 guestrooms with a cozy, residential vibe conceived by Santa Monica, California–based Studio Collective. Expect contemporary design elements that juxtapose original details, says Adam Goldstein, one of the firm’s partners: “An example of this is the historical, double-height lobby where our custom curvilinear, bronze, and walnut lobby bar lives under the warm glow of a restored original skylight. The two work together to make the lobby a warm and inviting space.”

Another former YWCA building constructed in 1924 on the historic Broadway corridor will become the 148-room Proper Hotel with an expected spring opening. With eclectic interiors by Kelly Wearstler, Proper will include two ground-floor restaurants and a rooftop pool and lounge. Along with an indoor swimming pool and a basketball court-turned-screening room, the fourth-floor library will feature original ceiling frescos.

Just across the street, the Hoxton will debut one of its first North American outposts (Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon are also in the works) at the end of the year, with 174 rooms in the 10-story 1920 Los Angeles Railway building that once housed garment manufacturers, a candy shop, a restaurant, and a grocery store. “We always look for great buildings, and [this one] was too good to pass up,” says Sharan Pasricha, founder and CEO of Ennismore, the Hoxton’s parent company. “We open in neighborhoods where we feel a real sense of creativity and community. We love to be surrounded by independent restaurants, bars, and homegrown boutiques and downtown is all about that.”

In terms of restaurants, slated to open this fall, City Market South is a mixed-use development in downtown’s Fashion District that is revitalizing a former wholesale produce market built in 1909 that is still owned by descendants of the co-op of multiethnic farmers that originally ran stalls there. Conceived by the downtown-based team of developer LENA Group and architecture firm HansonLA, City Market South converts eight concrete structures totaling 75,000 square feet into spaces for restaurants, bars, creative offices, and events complete with restored vaulted bow-truss ceilings and a large plaza for al fresco dining. This is the first phase in a 20-year effort to adapt the remainder of the expansive market.

Row DTLA in the Arts District of downtown is a similarly ambitious project that spans 30 acres at what was once the terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad, where six concrete warehouses and produce markets from the 1920s have been transformed. The design team of Rios Clementi Hale Studios (RCHS), reimagined the campus as an anti-mall, though it contains 100 stores, 15 restaurants, and a staggering 1.3 million square feet of creative office space decked out with plywood, metal panels, and exposed structural steel informed by the warehouses’ former function. (RCHS led the architecture, landscape architecture, and environmental graphic design for the project. Abramson Teiger Architects and Elysian Landscape also contributed.) “We’re mesmerized by these relics—beautiful old warehouses that were at one time considered utilitarian, but the construction has integrity and the spaces are unique,” says RCHS principal Sebastian Salvadó. “The scale and geometry of the alleys and streets make the complex feel like a small city, and we maintained that quality.”

“Downtown Los Angeles is one of the most unique markets in the world right now,” says Nicolo Rusconi, founder of BLVD Hospitality, a downtown-based real estate development, investment, and management firm with a portfolio that includes the Ace, Soho House, and the Hoxton. “Los Angeles is still establishing its cultural identity, and hospitality developers, investors, and operators are attracted to the opportunity to be a part of the curation and genesis of the identity of downtown.”