The California Tourist Guide traveled to Los Angeles in Summer 2014, and one of our adventures there was exploring The Millennium Biltmore Hotel. Fresh from its 90th anniversary celebration the year before, we toured the hotel with a Los Angeles Conservancy guide, and we wholeheartedly give the experience our “two thumbs up” recommendation.
In fact, we strongly encourage you check out all the Conservancy’s tours if you enjoy learning about cultural history while experiencing architecturally interesting buildings and locales. And, what’s more, the tours are quite the bargain, too! Seriously, less than a lunch salad… so be sure to check them out as you learn about everything LA has to offer.
And if it’s been a while since you checked out downtown Los Angeles, it may be time for another visit. Quite a bit has changed!
When the Los Angeles Biltmore opened in 1923, it earned notoriety as “the largest hotel west of Chicago,” but its present-day location is probably best described as “nestled among giant skyscrapers across the street from downtown LA’s under-utilized Pershing Square park area.” (I know, not quite the same ring, huh?) In this photo you can see a view of the hotel as you approach from Pershing Square, although this is angled to accentuate the building’s exquisite Beaux Arts design…
…the back of the present-day Biltmore that used to be its entrance. (I hope that’s not too confusing!) In the photo below, you can see a slightly different perspective, showing two of the Biltmore’s three now-rear “wings,” but you can also see they’re now fronted with a 24-story tower, a 1984 addition that was constructed using the same “six brick mix” as the original building…
And you can also see how this “old downtown LA” turns into “new downtown LA” in a big-time hurry with the uniquely shaped U.S. Bank Tower (633 W. 5th Street) – California’s tallest building and the 11th tallest building in the nation (at this moment in 2014, at least) – rising in the background. This is a popular “establishing shot” for Los Angeles in film, and you may recognize this distinct building even if you’ve never visited the city. Both the ‘Independence Day’ and ‘2012’ apocalyptic films destroyed it, in fact, in an effort to capture your attention.
Across the street from the U.S. Bank Tower, you’ll see the only-slightly-less-behemoth Gas Company Tower which features a glassed-in, corner lobby that looks out onto the largest mural in downtown LA. (It’s one of the largest murals in the whole city, actually, which is saying something in a city known for murals.) Based on a smaller, multi-media work – “Dusk” by artist Frank Stella – the mural was created by four painters working under the direction of Joseph F. Sansone of Architectural Wallcoverings Installations, Inc. While appreciating how certain architectural details of the Gas Company Tower’s lobby complement the work upon the installation’s 1991 opening (the lobby’s channeled water effect and its lighting, for example), Stella predicted the work would last around 10 years. No doubt it’s lost luster over the ensuring 23 years, but it’s definitely still a looker.
And, speaking of art, let’s sample what the Millennium Biltmore has to offer in that regard, and let’s begin with a huge shout out to Italian artist Giovanni Smeraldi for the frescoes he created when the hotel was built in the 1920s.
And then another big shout out goes to Anthony Heinsbergen, Smeraldi’s apprentice during the original installation, who meticulously restored the frescoes in the 1980s. And, while we’re here, a shout out to Heinsbergen’s son, who continues a 21st century version of his father’s craft helping to revive “grand dame” buildings like the Biltmore and the city’s old movie palaces. To set the stage, here’s a shot of the Biltmore’s Main Galeria…
The magic of Smeraldi’s work shines here, and since my photos didn’t capture that as well as I’d hoped, I found an art+works flickr photostream here that does a much better job. It also highlights the property’s recurring “angel motif” – a nod to the City of Angels, of course, before it became the Los Angeles we know and love today.
The hotel Lobby, originally the Music Room, is located off the Galeria…
…but this Lobby iteration has only been around since the extensive ($135 million) 1984-87 restoration, which opened up the hotel’s Rendezvous Court where the lobby had been located previously to allow for a street entrance where valet parking could be offered. One of the hotel’s restaurants, named Smeraldi’s in recognition of the Italian artist’s contribution to the property, is presently located off the Rendezvous Court.
Back upstairs and near the Lobby area, it’s hard to believe that prior to 1986 the hotel’s Gallery Bar / Cognac Lounge was nothing more than a corridor accessing Grand Street, which they closed off…
…and warmed with a grand piano, celebrity photos for the walls and elaborate rare liquor displays, including one for Biltmore Bourbon, a specially-made house blend from the 1940s. The Gallery Bar connects to the Main Galeria…
My favorite part of this lovely space – and something we had an opportunity to experience “up close and personal” on the Sunday-afternoon tour when the lounge was closed in a way typical patrons may not be afforded – was this pair of wood-carved, gilded and painted murals in the Cognac Lounge…
Created around 1938 by artist Anthony B. Heinsbergen – who you may remember was artist Smeraldi’s apprentice during the hotel’s construction – the pair survives from an original set of four paintings that once hung in the hotel’s Gold Room. The other two were somehow lost (during the renovation, we assume), and Heinsbergen’s son lovingly restored his father’s art for this new installation. This may have been my favorite part of the whole tour, actually, but picking that is an easier-said-than-done sort of task.
Speaking of the Gold Room, a highlight of that split-level space (which was once a dining room for hotel’s most prestigious guests) is the hidden doorway to what’s believed to be a Prohibition-era liquor tunneled passageway…
It’s quite the room – with a gold cast-plaster ceiling, hand-oiled wood paneling and ornate mirrored windows – but not nearly as impressive as the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom. The enormous Austrian crystal chandeliers get your attention upon entry and immediately confirm you are, indeed, in the Crystal Ballroom. (This photo may not seem too impressive until you consider each chandelier is 12 feet in diameter.)
Again, my photos don’t do the Crystal Ballroom justice – the lighting is subdued on Sunday and there seemed to be sort of a “no makeup look” vibe going on in the building – which made it a really unique and fun experience. A simple online search will provide several “Crystal Ballroom photos” for your viewing pleasure.
The underground Biltmore Bowl facility, where the Academy Awards ceremonies were held way back when, was reportedly redone after a fire in the 1990s. That area wasn’t accessible to us; these gold gates guarded the down-escalator area…
…but there were other Galeria wall displays to enjoy, these two showcasing lavish table settings from some “event to remember” which I’ve obviously forgotten…
Wouldn’t you agree the best way to experience the LA Biltmore hotel – besides staying there, perhaps – is to join in on a Los Angeles Conservancy tour? At the same time, you’re supporting one of the city’s “good guys” – an institution devoted to education and advocacy efforts that preserve Los Angeles’ unique history.
The Conservancy’s work began in 1978, when the city’s Central Library (across the street from the Biltmore and another tour you might want to consider) was threatened with demolition, and a group of residents came together to protect it. Although the Biltmore was never in danger of being torn down (it was designated a Historical Cultural Landmark by the city in 1969, in fact), as one of LA’s best examples of Beaux Arts architecture it’s a perfect addition to the Conservancy’s wonderful roster of tours.
As mentioned earlier, the Millennium Biltmore tour begins in Pershing Square, quite near the corresponding stop on the METRO Red Line train and where, alternatively, parking is usually plentiful on Sundays when the tour is offered. Rest assured, there are lots more people and cars in the area on weekdays! Sunday is also a “wind-down day” for the hotel, where all but one restaurant was closed during my visit. Given the general Sunday quietude, though, this was totally understandable.
If you’re looking for a cool place to eat near the Biltmore, a trendy restaurant in the neighborhood that’s open on Sunday is Perch. A “rooftop bistro” on the historic Pershing Square Building, pictured on the right below…
…I suspect they may do a booming Sunday brunch business, so you may want to check out the reservation options for Perch in advance.
If you have time to wander around the area and enjoyed the movie ‘500 Days of Summer’ (set in LA), the Conservancy website offers this free ‘500 Days of Summer’ walking tour guide (pdf) that points out locations important to the production. (If by chance you’ve never seen the movie, you may want to check out ‘500 Days of Summer’ on Amazon before your trip. Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, it’s a fun movie that genuinely celebrates downtown Los Angeles.)
The Bradbury Building may not be accessible on Sunday, so if you end up coming back to the area sometime during the week – and there are lots of reasons you might want to do that: a Central Library and/or City Hall tour, for example – you may want to keep the Apertif Hour at Perch in mind (currently runs Monday through Friday, 4-6:00pm). It sure looks like fun to me! Can you tell it’s a neglected item on my recent Los Angeles Trip Ideas list? Like I always say, “All the more reason to return someday soon!”
First photo of Millennium Biltmore in Los Angeles by Eli Pousson via flickr (Creative Commons); remaining original photos LA Millennium Biltmore photos copyright 2014 Debi Kay Willis, California Tourist Guide.
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