Forty years in L.A.
Forty years in L.A.
James Bartlett

A Brief History of Downtown's Futuristic Bonaventure Hotel at 40

When it opened in 1976, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel was a big deal; talking to a cab driver recently, she recalled how her father had taken the whole family to see the opening ceremony. The Bonaventure was designed by architect John C. Portman to fit right in with a city that was looking to a space-age future.

When Christopher Nolan wanted a futuristic science lab for his 2014 film Interstellar, he chose the Bonaventure and barely had to change anything to make it look as if it belonged in the late 21st century. Strange Days, Alien Nation and even Buck Rogers in the 25th Century wanted it, too.

Inside you can really see what caught the eye of so many directors.

The Bonaventure Hotel's atrium
The Bonaventure Hotel's atrium
Courtesy Westin-Bonaventure

The atrium alone is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey: Endless confusing corridors, entryways and stairs lead up and around the first six floors, which other businesses (a brewery, luggage stores, a nail salon, a liquor/general store, hotel gym, spa, gift shop and a variety of eateries).

Then, around the central column is — yes — a running track like the one Dr. Frank Poole used on Discovery One, plus suspended pods of red leather booths, which make you feel as if you’re sitting in the air above the large water feature. Not the setting of your average business meeting.

From day one, the Bonaventure was a perennial favorite utopian paradise/dystopian nightmare, yet it’s managed to become a grudgingly loved part of the L.A. backlot.

Almost every weekend you’ll see car commercials shooting in the streets alongside the hotel, shiny new vehicles accelerating under the raised pedways that link to it, the early stages of a failed 1970s plan that nevertheless looks great to sell next year’s model.

In one of the most famous photos of the Bonaventure, it's in the background of an image of a DeLorean DMC-12, the stainless steel gull-wing car that John Z. DeLorean wanted to impress investors with in 1978. Using the hotel as a backdrop was an obvious fit, though of course the DeLorean crashed and burned by 1982, a few years before it was driven to immortality in Back to the Future.

The Bonaventure has hosted many award ceremonies and glittering functions — not unlike the shenanigans seen in Johnny Depp political thriller Nick of Time, which was filmed here — but it's been home to the sizzle of scandal, too.

Ironically, DeLorean met shady contacts here in relation to a possible company-saving $50 million drug deal (he was later arrested but cleared of all charges), and a few years earlier, in 1979, the hotel was the setting of a brutal double murder and dismemberment over a cocaine deal gone wrong. Bundled up in bags and suitcases, the body parts of the victims were smuggled out through the parking structure and dumped across town — valets have reported hearing screams when they’ve gone into certain parts of that underground area.

Even so, you’ll still find conventions aplenty at the Bonaventure today, and for years it's been the go-to for several airlines (pilots and the flowing-scarfed flight attendants of Korean Air often are here toting their carry-ons). It’s still a favorite for sports fans, and was for teams too — until Staples Center came along, at least.

Looking up!
Looking up!
James Bartlett

Dazzling in silver glass, the five-column, 367-foot-tall hotel looks like the lower stage of a galactic rocket, and the still record-breaking number of rooms (even if they are oddly shaped) offer ceiling-to-floor windows and unbeatable vistas.

A floor below the 35th-floor steakhouse is another retro gem, the BonaVista rotating lounge. One of few remaining operational ones in the USA, it offers perhaps the best view over L.A. – go at sunset and see the street lights switching on and, if you’re lucky, maybe a helicopter ora Goodyear blimp.

Those neon-trimmed outside elevators – eye-catching and ear-poppingly fast – were part of Blade Runner's imagined 2019 neo-noir city, and plaques celebrating some of the most famous movies shot here – True Lies, In the Line of Fire and, er, Forget Paris – are affixed to several of the elevators.

Also, for six nonconsecutive seasons, 1980s sitcom It’s a Living was based around people who worked at the restaurant here. The Bonaventure has been destroyed in disaster movies, but it still stands out among the monolithic skyscrapers that continue to spring up around it.

Not bad going for something that’s been in postmodern analysis for 40 years.

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