Los Angeles is a forgetful city. We are continually reinventing ourselves, rebranding and rebuilding. In this process of perpetual forward motion, buildings that once symbolized an architectural movement, civic pride, a neighborhood’s identity or an industry’s progress are often torn down, with little regard for their past importance. By looking at the history of the most famous of these forgotten buildings, we can learn not only about L.A.’s architectural past but its boundless, highly innovative — and disposable — future.
Paul de Longpre Mansion
In 1901, Daieda Wilcox, the elegant, cultured founder of what was then the upper-class rural village of Hollywood, attended an art exhibition in downtown Los Angeles, featuring the still-life paintings of the renowned French artist Paul de Longpre. Sensing a kindred spirit, she invited de Longpre to come live in her bucolic, garden-filled community. It was a brilliant move on the part of Wilcox. De Longpre’s three-story Mission Revival–style mansion, designed by Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois, and his exquisitely laid out 3 acres of lush gardens soon put Hollywood on the map. Thousands of tourists came on the Pacific Electric Rail, which stopped right in front of the estate, to visit the gardens and tour the art gallery and shops inside the de Longpre home. After Longpre's death in 1911, the property slowly fell into disrepair. It was already a relic of another time when it was demolished in 1927 to make way for the urban, metropolitan Hollywood we all know today.
This rambling, landmark hotel, built in 1902 at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, became the first Hollywood home of many of filmdom’s earliest stars. “The hotel was sort of Mission-Victorian in style, if such a combination is possible,” one writer remembered, “with a grab-bag of arches, balconies, turrets and cupolas, and a broad veranda. But many loved it and looked at it as a comforting home.” Industry pioneers including Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, Jesse Lasky, Constance Talmadge, John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino, Norma Shearer, Mae Murray and Gilbert Roland all stayed at the hotel, attending its legendary Thursday night dances and whiling away the hours on its wide porch. Long after its heady days were over, the Hollywood Hotel lingered on, a white elephant in a sea of modern office buildings and art deco movie palaces. It was finally torn down by developer C.E. Toberman in 1957. But the hotel lives on — it is said the stars on the Walk of Fame were inspired by the stars on the ceiling of its once-grand ballroom.
Garden of Allah
In 1927, the exotic and enterprising actress-producer Alla Nazimova, in need of a steady income after a series of professional flops, opened the Garden of Allah Hotel on the grounds of her grand estate off Sunset Boulevard. The hotel, which featured 25 Spanish-style bungalows, a much-used pool and all the booze a Prohibition-era rebel could dream up, soon became the byword for decadence and depravity in golden-era Hollywood. It was “a light-hearted and unrealistic place,” according to columnist Sheilah Graham. Movie stars including Humphrey Bogart, Vivien Leigh, Errol Flynn and Marlene Dietrich all stayed at the Garden, as did alcohol-soaked writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. “Nothing interrupted the continual tumult that was life at the Garden of Allah. Now and then the men in white came with a van and took somebody away, or bankruptcy or divorce or even jail claimed a participant,” one resident remembered. “Nobody paid any mind.” By 1959, the Garden had become shady instead of chic. It was torn down to make way for the Lytton Savings and Loan Bank. But the Garden didn’t die quietly. According to reports, “At the last party in August 1959, a man helped a woman, who was wearing an evening gown, out of the pool.”
The undisputed center of early Hollywood life, this stately, Wallace Neff–designed mock-Tudor mansion in Beverly Hills symbolized the rough-and-tumble entertainment industry’s unsubtle aspiration to be accepted by America’s cultural and social elite. It was the home of the silent era’s king and queen, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. These brilliant movie moguls and unabashed Anglophiles moved into Pickfair in 1919 and filled it with priceless collections from their world travels, as would befit any great English estate. An invitation to the couple’s elegant home meant you had made it, leading one columnist to muse that Pickfair was “a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House … and much more fun.” After the couple’s divorce in 1936, Mary Pickford lived in the home until she died in 1979. The mansion was soon bought by Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who then sold it to actress Pia Zadora. In 1990, to howls of protest, Zadora had Pickfair demolished. She recently claimed it was because the home was haunted by the ghost of a lover Fairbanks had scorned.
During its construction on a dirt road known as Wilshire Boulevard, this sprawling hostelry, designed by Myron Hunt (with later additions by Paul Williams), was hailed as “the most stupendous hotel project in the history of the United States.” When it opened in 1921, it quickly became the pride and joy of burgeoning L.A. For decades, the mammoth hotel — which boasted 1,200 rooms, 37 shops, a theater, golf course and bowling alley — hosted stars, dignitaries and ordinary tourists. The Ambassador also was home to the massive Cocoanut Grove, a jungle-themed nightclub that became world-famous due to its reputation as a big-band mecca and Hollywood hot spot. It also hosted several Oscars ceremonies. However, the magic of the Ambassador was shattered in the early morning hours of June 5, 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the Ambassador’s pantry after a rally. The declining Ambassador limped along until 1989, when it officially closed its doors. Despite a long, bitter fight to save the hotel, it was demolished in 2005 and 2006, and is now the site of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools.
Marion Davies Beach House
Construction started in 1926 on this white, Georgian Revival mansion of more than 100 rooms, which dominated the beachfront swath of Santa Monica known as Hollywood’s “Gold Coast.” Built by publisher William Randolph Hearst for his true love, movie star Marion Davies, the massive, William Flannery–designed home, often compared with Buckingham Palace, featured stunning interiors — including an entire 15th-century British tavern — ripped from historic European buildings. It became Hollywood’s unofficial summer club, with the charming Davies playing hostess to the multitudes. “There were 20 people to lunch, 40 were added in the afternoon to swim in the Venetian pool of white marble, which separated the house from the ocean, and 40 more were added for the buffet supper served on the porch overlooking the pool,” actress Louise Brooks recalled of a typical soirée. But World War II, infirmity and Hollywood’s move to Malibu silenced the party. Davies sold the estate in 1945. It was briefly a hotel before it was finally demolished in 1955, the stunning interiors stripped and auctioned off to the highest bidder. Today, the property is home to the Annenberg Community Beach House, built on the footprint of Davies' mansion. (The pool and a smaller guest house are still on the site.)
The Brown Derby
In 1926, Herman Somborn and Robert H. Cobb (inventor of the famed Cobb salad) opened their first Brown Derby restaurant at 3427 Wilshire Blvd. Due to their Hollywood connections (Somborn was the ex-husband of silent-screen goddess Gloria Swanson), the owners of the Brown Derby made it a social hot spot and eventually expanded to four L.A. locations. In 1937, the flagship restaurant moved to 3377 Wilshire Blvd., across from the Ambassador Hotel This new location, designed by Carl Jules Weyl — who would become a famous Hollywood art director — was whimsically built in the shape of a hat, making it an instant and eye-catching architectural landmark. A sign implored passing motorists to “Eat in the hat.” The iconic building was sold in 1975 and, despite public outrage and protest, eventually incorporated into a shopping center in 1980.
In 1929, the Richfield Oil Company moved into its new downtown headquarters, a 372-foot black terracotta and gold-leaf tower designed by L.A. architectural heavyweight Stiles O. Clements. An homage to oil — and its nickname “black gold” — this art deco masterpiece, with its large neon sign and 130-foot tower reminiscent of an oil derrick, was originally derided by architectural purists as a gaudy gimmick. However, it soon became a beloved L.A. landmark, a highly visible symbol of L.A.’s creativity and industry. Sadly, by the 1960s, its floor plan and services were seen as hopelessly out of date, an inefficient relic located on prime Flower Street property. It was demolished in 1969, the Arco Twin Towers (now City National Plaza) built in its place.
Pan Pacific Auditorium
Constructed in 1935 at the height of the Depression, this mammoth structure was built to hold an ambitious housing exposition sponsored by the Federal Housing Administration. Designed by the firm of Plummer, Wurdeman and Becket, the 100,000-square-foot public center was made unique by its streamline moderne façade, the height of chic during the travel-obsessed 1930s. For the next four decades, it was utilized as a theater, convention center, basketball arena and ice skating rink. The opening of the L.A. Convention Center in 1971 rendered the Pan Pacific virtually obsolete, and it closed a year later. The building quickly became a refuge for the homeless and an easy target of vandals. Conversations about what to do with the dilapidated building, considered a blight on the city, continued into the 1980s. In 1989, a massive fire destroyed the Pan Pacific, silencing the conversation once and for all. Today, the site is home to the Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center.
Gateway West Building
In the early 1960s, 20th Century Fox was in trouble. The studio was facing serious money troubles, in large part due to the filming of Cleopatra, which had cost the company an astounding $44 million. To offset its mounting losses, the studio planned to monetize its backlot by turning it into a new, state-of-the-art commerce center known as Century City. The Gateway West Office Building, designed by legendary L.A. architect Welton Becket, was Century City’s first completed building. The International Style skyscraper, with its gleaming aluminum façade, opened in 1963, heralding the start of a new, ultra-modern center of business activity in Los Angeles. It was torn down in 2015, to make way for the newly renovated Westfield Century City.