Homes Fit For Heroes — The Sunset Pacific Motel (1964-2023)

As I write, the Sunset Pacific Motel — better known as “the Bates Motel” — is coming down. After sitting abandoned for over twenty years during which plans were made and hands were changed, it appears that the long-delayed Junction Gateway project is moving forward. Love it or (more likely) hate it — the Sunset Pacific Motel was an unlikely icon of East Hollywood‘s Sunset Junctions neighborhood and I thought that the occasion of its demise might be a reason to examine its colorful history.

The Sunset Pacific Motel opened in 1964 at 4301 West Sunset Boulevard. It replaced a five-room stucco home that had in earlier times been home to Kentucky-born sculptor and photographer Joseph Leland Roop, who died in Glendale in 1932. Although hardly an outstanding example of Googie architecture, the Sunset Pacific had a few nice Atomic Age touches to recommend it including its colorful mosaic tiles, a courtyard swimming pool, and a decidedly sign with a couple of electrons or planets hovering above its name. Rooms were reasonably priced — $6 a night (about $56 in today’s dollars) or $90 a month (about $850 today). Amenities included private bathrooms and televisions.

The Sunset Pacific Motel was owned by ‘s owners were Edward J. Eng and Frances Chan, who’d married one another in 1944. Eng was a multi-tasking businessmen. Not only did he run the motel, he used his office there to also ply his trade as an accountant and lawyer. His office at the motel also served as a sort of showcase for his collection of taxidermied corpses — trophies of his many hunting trips.

Frances Chan was born in Los Angeles and, as a teenaged beauty, was elected Miss China City in 1940. She also pursued a career in acting, appearing in Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case (1933), China (1943), Passport to Suez (1943), God Is My Co-Pilot (1945), and Samurai (1945). As was common Hollywood practice for Asian Americans, she was almost always uncredited for her work. In fact, it was only in 1944’s Black Magic (1944), in which she appeared as as… Frances Chan, the daughter Charlie Chan (Sydney Toler in disturbingly grotesque yellowface) that she finally received credit. Black Magic was filmed two blocks away at the studios of Monogram Pictures. After she married Eng, she stopped acting and bore five children — four daughters and one son.

Over time, tourists’ tastes changed and travelers began increasingly to shun independent motels like the Sunset-Pacific in favor of freeway and airport-adjacent chains. As was true with most small, independent motels, the Sunset Pacific became a popular choice for drug dealers, sex workers, and their clients. Nearby residents complained. Eng denied that anything untoward was going on his the motel but even if this were the case, it was looking decidedly worse for wear. Matters weren’t helped when the swimming pool was emptied of water and filled with concrete. In my experience, if you referred to it by its name, you were met with puzzled looks. It was only when you referred to it as the Bates Motel — both a reference to its location intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Bates Avenue — and Norman Bates‘s operation in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho — that peoples’ looks changed to expressions of recognition.

The Sunset Pacific, photographed by Luis Sinco in 2002.

In 2000, Eng was charged with charged with two dozen housing code violations at the motel. His operating license was revoked and the motel closed in March 2002. On 14 March 2004, Frances Chan fell down a staircase and died. Edward Eng died on 8 October 2008.

In the many years that followed, various plans for the motel were advanced and approved but for decades but there was little action. For more than two decades it stood — neglected, dingy, and graffitied — behind a fence topped with razor wire and hung with demolition notices and trespassing prohibitions. Even as the city bought motels and converted them into housing for the homeless, Sunset-Pacific’s 37 rooms remained empty, save the inevitable squatters. I noticed, yesterday, that its walls were in the process of coming down. When I returned today to take pictures, a couple of men reclined on the sidewalk — apparently its last lodgers.

Over the years, it was hard to keep up with what was happening behind the scenes as the motel stood empty and derelict. Shortly after it was closed, it was purchased by Balubhai and Sardaben Patel, who announced their intention to open a chain franchise there. Nothing happened. In 2006, then-owner Dana Hollister announced her intention to turn it into a boutique hotel. The Department of City Planning approved the renovation. Again, nothing happened. Invader, MearOne, Phantom, and Shepard Fairey turned it into a canvas for their street art. The rooms occasionally hosted rave-like art parties. The Board of Commissioners of the Department of Building and Safety voted to demolish the motel in 2009. Still, nothing happened. Sherman Oaks-based developers Frost/Chaddock then purchased it with the intention of replacing it, the adjacent auto shop, and a few small homes behind with a mixed-used property. Still Nothing happened.

ProjectionLA, from Creative Migration’s website

In 2015, my dear friend, Susannah Tantemsapya, and her non-profit Creative Migration worked with the City of Los Angeles, Institut Français, Cultural Services of the French Embassy, FLAX (France Los Angeles Exchange), and other organizations to make undertake a large art project. French artist Vincent Lamouroux coated it in a lime wash. They called the project, ProjectionLA. The striking whiteness — which extended to the towering Mexican fan palms — garnered attention from Libération, W Magazine, and The Guardian. It proved an irresistible backdrop for Instagrammers.

It proved equally irresistible for graffitists and taggers. White-ish paint was hastily slapped over the unauthorized art pieces… which then lured more graffitists and taggers… which were then sloppily painted over. Pretty quickly, the whole thing devolved into a gross, dingy eyesore. Susannah moved to Thailand and established Bangkok 1899 there in 2018. Eventually, even the Instagram hive-mind began to experience a die-off.

The Sunset Pacific Motel in its death throes

Then, in 2021, the City Planning Commission again approved Junction Gateway. According to plan, it will be a mixed-use building with four stories containing 108 residential units (including ten “very low income”), a fitness center, a restaurant, and two subterranean levels devoted to car storage (despite its immediate proximity to stops on Metro‘s 2 and 182 lines and Sunset4All!‘s planned protected bicycle lanes). And with that, the sun has set its last on this strange motel.

The homes behind the motel — with plenty of succulents that could be rescued by anyone sufficiently motivated

Support Eric Brightwell on Patreon

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and the 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject and/or guest in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAOffice Hours LiveSpectrum NewsEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m YoursNotebook on Cities and CultureKCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles.

You can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsiNaturalistInstagramMastodonMediumMubithe StoryGraph, and Twitter.

One thought on “Homes Fit For Heroes — The Sunset Pacific Motel (1964-2023)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s