A Former Resident of DTLA's Barclay Hotel Chronicled its Grisly History

A Former Resident of DTLA's Barclay Hotel Chronicled its Grisly History
Photo by Gustavo Turner

First-time author J.M. Moore’s new nonfiction book, The History of the Barclay Hotel ($14.99, 433 Publishing), answers an interesting question: How does one chronicle the history of a building? Here she does it by writing about the people who have been there and gone over the course of years, decades or, in this case, over the course of a century. Since the subject of this book is the Barclay, one of those very old residential hotel buildings in downtown L.A. that was, at times, more a flophouse than an apartment building, the book is a glimpse at its seedy, scary, spooky, true-crime past, a little catalog of crimes, personalities both good and bad, accidents and disasters.

The Barclay still stands today, at the busy corner of Fourth and Main (“home to some of downtown’s highest-profile restaurants and art galleries,” to quote a city pamphlet), as she has since the year 1896. The Barclay is, in fact, the longest continuously operating hotel in Los Angeles (a low-income residential hotel, but still). For the record, the old building is still pretty spiffy-looking, at least from the outside, where you can see the numerals “18” and “96,” in green crushed stone, flanking either side of the front entrance, next to some small, hard-to-spot, surprisingly pretty, stained-glass windows of pastoral scenes that look out onto the street. The building was officially designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #288 in 1985; by way of perspective, 1896 was the same year that Main Street “horsecars” gave way to electric cars.

The Barclay’s downward slide appears to have started as early as the Depression of the 1930s (right around the time the name was changed from the Van Nuys Hotel to the Barclay), when local newspaper coverage of the crimes taking place therein made no bones about referring to both the hotel and its surrounding neighborhood as “seedy” elements in L.A.’s “tenderloin.” 

The 1890s were arguably the original golden age of DTLA, and the Van Nuys Hotel was one of many gigantic-for-the-era hotel buildings going up in that booming, restless time and place. Others were the Lankershim, the Rosslyn, the Baltimore, the Angelus, the Alexandria, the Hotel Westmoore, all “grand ladies” aiming to outdo one another in offering “luxury accommodations for the weary traveler” — and nearly all of them doomed to endure long, drawn-out periods of decline in the latter half of the 20th century. As the action seemed to head West, these once-proud establishments ended up catering to the down-and-out, to drunks and worse.

Author Moore outlines the beginning of the 160-room, six-floor structure’s birth, in a surprising first-person style that’s both disarmingly quaint and charming: “Although I am not a human being, I am simply just a building, I too have gone through the ups and downs of the living and I too want to be remembered.” One interesting claim to fame, mentioned here by Moore: The Van Nuys/Barclay Hotel was the first hotel to provide electricity and telephone service “to each and every room, a privilege that no other hotel offered at that time.”

Getting down to brass tacks, what would any old-L.A. book be without some good, juicy deaths and murders? Moore eases into the dark side of the bad old days at the Van Nuys/Barclay by noting that one of the dangers of the early years of newfangled electricity and primitive automation was, of all things, the possibility of calamitous elevator accidents. Occasionally these accidents happened, and some of them were horrifying. Moore recounts three fatalities that occurred prior to 1902 at the Van Nuys; buried in the past until now, they’re painful to read, the mental pictures they conjure up excruciating; trust me. One of the book’s vintage news clippings hints at the horror of these guillotine-like elevator deaths, which Moore then recounts in detail:

“DOWN AN ELEVATOR SHAFT – Frightful Death of a Van Nuys Hotel Waiter – HIS TERRIBLE INJURIES – The Accident Caused by a Frightened Boy’s Rash Act – Charles J. Gamble, Caught by the Moving Cage, Mangled, and Then Crushed by a Fearful Fall”

(That’s how they introduced news articles in 1897.) Moore’s summing up, “It must have been horrific,” is all I will quote here. After this, the chapter on vintage suicides is a breath of fresh air.

But first, a few murders: The Barclay’s decline in the post-Depression years seems to have reached its lowest, bleakest point during World War II, when one of the worst people to ever stay there for one grim night made his mark in 1944 by staining the carpet with a big pool of blood. Otto Steven Wilson was sometimes referred to as the L.A. Ripper. His crime was so vile and so sensationally gruesome that it made Time magazine, whose reporter described the case in hushed, Dashiell Hammett–like terms:

The shipyard barracks were quiet — too quiet — and on Sunday night rain drummed on the roof. Otto Stephen Wilson, 33, a fry cook in the yard commissary, looked at his face in the mirror. He could see why women smiled at him. With his black hair and neat mustache he resembled Robert Taylor, the actor. And women had no way of knowing what he was thinking, so secretly, when he smiled back at them. … He was restless tonight, and lonely. Suddenly he made up his mind to get drunk and stay drunk. Before he went out he put his safety razor in his pocket. … After two days his hand was unsteady. But even after he bought the butcher knife, nobody could tell what he was thinking …

Wilson, the hard-boiled narrator continued, picked up a woman named Virgie Lee Griffin who was married but “liked a good time.”

He held her arm, gallantly, as they crossed the street in the rain and dark to the old Barclay Hotel. … When he hit her she fell across the bed. He choked her until she stopped breathing; then pulled her to the floor. …Then he knelt, knife in hand …

Comparisons to the carnage of Jack the Ripper were well-deserved.

To the cops, the small room looked like a slaughterhouse. Moore fills in an interesting bit of info here: Wilson was recently divorced and “his wife said that he had a thirst for blood and … he slashed her buttocks with a razor and licked the blood as he apologized to her for his actions ….” Wilson sucked up his well-deserved execution in San Quentin’s gas chamber in 1946, and, as they used to say in those days, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

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The book jumps ahead three decades to an even lower slump in the Barclay’s long life (slow death?) during the seedy, sideburned 1970s and the notorious case of L.A.’s “Skid Row Slasher.” This was a local slimeball who cut up homeless men along Skid Row. Like, how low can you get? The Barclay was the scene of one of his murders; the Slasher is currently in prison.

In a chapter titled “Ill-Fated Guests," Ms. Moore’s neat catalog of pre-WWI-era hotel deaths, one stands out as interesting: a Canadian named W. Arthur Phipps, who never left his suite even once in eight years. Died in 1911, from cirrhosis of the liver. A millionaire, which back then meant a lot. “His wife, many years his junior, is released from a virtual prison, for Major Phipps never permitted her to leave their apartments. Major Phipps was obsessed with the idea that the Black Hand was after him,” wrote the newspapers. (The Black Hand was the old pre-Mafia based in New York.)

From reading Moore’s book, there appears to have been an upswing in the Barclay’s fortunes and its, uh, vibe, at least for a time a few years back. One of the positive charms of this book is Moore's own frankly affectionate, first-person recounting of the seven years when she lived at the Barclay, in a room with a fire escape that she had spiffed up to turn into a cozy little nest, one that was walkable to her nearby bank job. (It’s called L.A. bliss, folks, and it comes in many forms.)

In her moving-to-L.A. chapter, Moore recalls saying good riddance to a period of misery living in an unnamed Dallas-adjacent town (“I was living in Texas and detesting every minute of it”) and recounts, on arriving here, one off-putting night in a much seedier “hotel” near the Barclay that spooked her away: “I was approached by a man who discreetly let me know that he was selling crack cocaine ….” (Well at least he was discreet about it!)

A charmless room: “The bedding looked like it was from the 1930s ….”

Came she then unto the Barclay one fine autumnal day in 2005, walking in and taking note of the “beauty” of the lobby: “It had a high cathedral ceiling … and picture windows accented with stained glass window paneling…” But, to quote William Burroughs, “The evil is there waiting”; in one online interview Moore mentioned being warned, by horrified friends, that there had “once been a mutilation” there. She pressed on, moved in and wrote this fun little book anyway.

At 169 pages this is a quick read, and you may end up hungry for more details on some of the juicier topics that Moore touches on, but you could consider Barclay Hotel both a go-to guide for further research and a short love letter to intrepid downtown living. It’s also a novel idea, or an idea for a novel; one gets the feeling that, with enough tightly focused internet searches and some footwork, this type of treatment could apply to any number of historic, tired old haunts. Moore says she’s thinking of taking on other, targeted locations, and Barclay Hotel is  a good “maiden attempt” at a new kind of localized urban archaeology. So: the more, the better.

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