High Rising — Visiting the Hotel Figueroa

High RisingLos Angeles is often characterized as an horizontal city, spread as it is across an area that could contain Boston, Cleveland, Manhattan, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San FranciscoSt. Louis, and several interchangeable college towns. Dodger Stadium‘s parking lot alone is larger than some principalities. Less often acknowledged is the fact that no city on Earth is as vertical either, stretching as it does from 3 meters below sea level in Wilmington to 1,547 meters above on Mount Lukens. However, only manufactured structures count (apparently) in considerations of a city’s verticality so with High Rising I’ll look at highrises and temporarily ignore the forest for the trees (or the range for the mountains).

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HOTEL FIGUEROA

Ad from the Hotel & Motel Red Book, 1965 (
Ad from the Hotel & Motel Red Book, 1965 (Courtesy of Elisabeth L. Uyeda, Los Angeles Revisited)

A couple of weeks ago some friends and I were invited by friends staying at the Hotel Figueroa to come come over and enjoy the pool. None of us ended up swimming — the pool area was overrun by a writhing group of dim young things; imagine The Wild One if the biker gangs were dressed fourteen-year-old Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus fan (or, if you’re a Gen Xer, Wham!). I ended up dividing my attention between beer, the building, and the Bieber bikers and for once in my life remained completely outside of the pool. I also used the opportunity to explore the hotel’s grounds and history.

Rear exterior of Hotel Figueroa, ca. 1940 (USC Digital Library)
Rear exterior of Hotel Figueroa, ca. 1940 (USC Digital Library)

Hotel Figueroa is located at 939 South Figueroa Street. It’s thirteen stories tall — the maximum number of stories allowed when it was constructed in 1925 (the thirteen story height limit was in place from 1904 to 1956). It’s located in a corner of Downtown now referred to as South Park (even though there’s already a 116-year-old neighborhood of that name located just three kilometers south in South Los Angeles’s Eastside).

Hotel interior, 1926 - Dick Whittington Studio Collection, (USC Digital Library)
Hotel interior, 1926 – Dick Whittington Studio Collection, (USC Digital Library)
Hotel interior, 1926 | Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Digital Library
Hotel interior, 1926 – Dick Whittington Studio Collection, (USC Digital Library)

Architects Stanton, Reed, and Hibbard in the Northern Italian Renaissance and Beaux Arts styles and features a lotta terra cotta. It was first home to the YMCA.

Carlos Almaraz, 'Sunset on the Fig', 1981, oil on canvas.
Carlos Almaraz, ‘Sunset on the Fig’, 1981, oil on canvas (Almaraz Family Collection)

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles was most visible for its Staples Center-facing thirteen-story ads for video games of films. Those were, until fairly recently, painted. Nowadays they use massive vinyl signs (a practice which I will ban if elected mayor).

The Veranda Bar and pool area
The Veranda Bar and pool area

In the back of the hotel there’s the aforementioned pool and a bar, The Veranda, which (no doubt because of the pool and its loose-limbed patrons) serves its drinks in plasticware. Our friends who were hotel guests said that the rooms were nice but as with most hotels, most of the charm is to be found in the public areas, including the basement.

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The hallway between the lobby and pool (temporarily turned into a massive subwoofer by the poolside DJ)
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The Moroccan soda machines
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The hash and “molly” den

When it opened in 1926, a writer at the Los Angeles Times described it as “an exclusive women’s hostelry” which was “financed, built and operated by and for femininity.” Designed as a safe haven for women a couple nonetheless ran afoul of some dastardly men. In June 1929, a radio operator William L. Tallman murdered his girlfriend Virginia Patty. In April 1950, Harry Gordon murdered Hallie Cecilia Oswald and scrawled messages in ballpoint pen on her bruised and nude corpse.

Hotel Figueroa postcard ()
Hotel Figueroa postcard (Courtesy of Elisabeth L. Uyeda, Los Angeles Revisited)

In 1951, the hotel was taken over by new owners who reduced the number of rooms from over 400 to 285 so that each room could have its own bathroom to accommodate hotel guests apparently unable to sleep peacefully without sharing their private quarters with toilets. In September, hotel guest Ray D. Bowen used one of the new private bathrooms to commit suicide in the bathtub.

Telephones -- sort of the olde tymey version of texting
Telephones — sort of the olde tymey version of texting

A man named Uno Thimansson bought the hotel in 1976 and gave it the Moroccan makeover that characterizes it today. However the current owners have announced that they’re planning to spend $30 million to restore the hotel’s Maghreb Mediterranean style to its original European Mediterranean one. There are no plans, apparently, to restore shared bathrooms.

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GETTING THERE: Hotel Figueroa is served by LADOT Commuter Express (491, 422, 423, 438, 442, 448, 493, 495, 497, 498, 499, and 534), LA DOT DASH (Downtown F), Metro (28, 66, 81, 92, 442, 460, Rapid 728, and the Silver Line), OCTA (701, 720, and 721), Foothill Transit (699), and Torrance Transit (Line 4).

The back of the hotel
The back of the hotel

FURTHER READING: “The Hotel Figueroa, and Figueroa Street Name Origins” (Los Angeles Revisited) and “The Figueroa Hotel: The Surprising Feminist Origins of a Sexy Downtown Staple” (Lost Landmarks)

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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