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What If . . . 

the Ambassador Hotel could be saved as a school

Thursday, Jun 26 2003
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The fabled Ambassador Hotel — site of the RFK assassination and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub — stands as an unlikely survivor. No one in power wanted to save it, not recent mayors, not the local councilman, not the school district, not the property’s owners.

Donald Trump, to name one, intended to erect the world’s tallest building on that site, until a real estate slump and the school district trumped The Donald’s ambition. L.A. Unified, in turn, wanted to build a badly needed school and stumbled repeatedly, despite outlasting Trump. Its proposed Ambassador project was the original Belmont-style debacle, and it’s dragged on even longer, since the mid-1980s.

All the while, the shuttered, tattered hotel remained perilously in place. Last week, L.A. Unified unveiled its environmental-impact report for an Ambassador school project, which means that, at last, something has got to give.

School-district officials are moving fast forward with plans to build a high school, a middle school and possibly an elementary school on the 24-acre site. Converting the hotel, while also preserving historic features, would add as much as $96 million to the cost, totaling a whopping $381.9 million, including the cost of land and past false starts. The school district is not inclined to put up the extra preservation money. No school-bond money has been set aside for this purpose because $96 million could build at least 1,800 classroom seats elsewhere.

“The hotel has got to go,” outgoing City Councilman Nate Holden told the Weekly. It’s hard to argue with him from a narrow, fiscally prudent point of view. For Holden and others, the shut-down hotel has been a millstone for Wilshire Boulevard, which hits dead space at the Ambassador’s silent frontage. Nor is Holden enamored of a high school, because it also could break up the commercial strip, while adding potentially unruly high schoolers into a bad-for-business mix.

But even for supporters of a school, the hotel complex is no one’s remote idea of a proper school building. The Ambassador was completed in 1921, before earthquake-safety standards. It was insulated with asbestos. And its timeworn rooms are, obviously, not sized as classrooms. It would have to be rewired for telephones, let alone the Internet.

 

And yet the property’s unlikely endurance creates the most tantalizing array of what-ifs.

What if high school students could peruse stacks of books in a school library built into the real Embassy Ballroom, where Robert F. Kennedy gave his victory speech after the 1968 California primary, moments before Sirhan Sirhan fatally shot him as he walked through the hotel’s pantry . . . ?

What if this pantry were restored as part of a museum — just like the Texas School Book Depository, from which John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas? Or the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. died? And students could get to this museum between classes.

What if live music could echo again in the Cocoanut Grove, that seminal Hollywood watering hole where the early Oscars got handed out, where black entertainers crossed over to enthrall privileged whites, where a young Joan Crawford danced the Charleston cheered on by Pola Negri, who, along with her pet leopard, lived in an Ambassador Hotel bungalow with Rudolph Valentino? Barbra Streisand made her West Coast debut here; Judy Garland staged a comeback. This time, student musicians could be the headliners, and those stepping forward to accept awards could be the school’s top scholars.

What if these students could study the hotel complex’s architecture — from three historically important periods — by walking around looking at it . . . ?

What if the grounds, formerly a resort for presidents, foreign emperors and the nation’s elite, could become recreation space for high school athletes, grade-schoolers and even neighborhood parents wheeling in toddlers strapped into strollers . . . ?

There’s probably no threatened site in Los Angeles more historically important than the Ambassador. “We think the Ambassador is of national significance as the assassination site of Robert Kennedy and as one of the most noted sites in Hollywood history,” said L.A. Conservancy executive director Linda Dishman. “It’s one of the buildings that people across the country associate with Los Angeles.” Litigation to save the building is “not our first choice, but we are prepared if it comes to that.”

Lawsuits and other maneuvers could delay school construction and drive up costs. The Conservancy could not, however, ultimately halt demolition. Nor does the Conservancy have $96 million in pocket. But it is exploring financial options. Some dollars could come from state park-bond funds, which can be used for historic preservation. State Senator Gil Cedillo (D–Los Angeles) is exploring this and other possibilities.

The current school-district administration has gone to some expense to avoid conflict over the Ambassador. For one thing, it hired a development firm with experience in historic preservation and prepared five alternative plans for the site. Though the least expensive option is complete demolition, the preservation alternative remains on the table. Yet another option provides for commercial development along the Wilshire Boulevard periphery.

“We’ve deliberately not arrived at conclusions,” said schools superintendent Roy Romer. At the same time, “We have an obligation to spend our money as economically as possible,” he said at a media briefing. “I believe the value of historic preservation should come with dollars . . . The primary responsibility the district has is to build seats.” Romer anticipates settling the issue by October, after public hearings and deliberations.

The need for school seats is so dire that the Ambassador site’s proposed 4,371 seats could be filled with students from within a four-block radius. Most of these children are either bused out of their neighborhood or they attend overcrowded campuses.

Because of funding and crowding pressures, the Conservancy worries about an institutional bias against preservation, as being too “outside the box.” Dishman thinks the school district has vastly overestimated preservation costs while underestimating financial benefits from the preserved building, which is larger than what would be needed for the school. “In the cost analysis, there is no economic value given to additional space that could be used in lots of ways. And no credit is given to the value of what education could be in the historic hotel.”

But school-board member David Tokofsky understands. “We can save the historic elements of the Ambassador Hotel and we must,” he said in a statement. “As a former U.S. history teacher, I cannot stand idly by while the school district considers erasing actual physical American history.”

This sort of assertiveness is not habitual Tokofsky fare, who more typically plays the role of fiscal watchdog — obstructing projects or policies he opposes, sometimes in hindsight, well after key decisions have been made. Here, he could embrace a difficult opportunity to exert upfront leadership, especially when it comes to using his office as a bully pulpit to establish spending priorities and perhaps to attract outside money.

“We cannot educate for the future by destroying our past,” said Tokofsky. A solid point, but L.A. Unified is prepared to do just that unless other forces counter with the right combination of funding and leadership.

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