IT’S LATE MORNING and the crisp of December has fallen away to a day that could well be mid-May anywhere else. A lush blue sky and tousled palms with fronds shimmering in the sun offer a Southern California that the rest of the nation envies with each Rose Parade.
So perhaps it is fitting that I am just a few miles south of the parade’s route along Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena’s Old Town, that developer’s wet dream and a commercial mecca for Hummer-driving new money — our culture’s current ideal.
I am a few miles south, but about six worlds away, at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel, a place where the ghosts of old money and class — and their way of distinguishing the individual — hang heavy in the air. There are only a handful of places of the caliber of the Ritz Huntington still standing in greater Los Angeles. It is in a class of its own.
The question now is, for how much longer?
The century-old hotel has been sold by the Los Angeles County Retirement Association to Langham Hotels International, which operates a small chain of luxury hotels around the globe, but only one in the United States. Langham’s parent company, the Hong Kong–based Great Eagle Holdings, has announced that the venerable Ritz Huntington will be quickly put to a $25 million renovation.
In the abstract, this might be seen as a benign development or even good news for an old hotel that perhaps could use a new coat of paint or some reinvigorated landscaping.
But in Southern California today, where the dust of fallen or gutted landmarks chokes the air as we embrace a shopping-center aesthetic, the sale of the storied Ritz Huntington to a foreign developer has the ominous tint of demolition — at least of the hotel’s character, if not the building.
It has less to do with Great Eagle Holdings and much more to do with us.
The recent fate of Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills speaks volumes. That vintage Tiki watering hole was closed suddenly, seemingly without warning (and apparently without a second thought), by corporate suits plotting the makeover of the Beverly Hilton. The looming destruction of the Ambassador Hotel’s fabled Cocoanut Grove — which the Los Angeles Unified School District had very publicly vowed to save in exchange for being allowed to dynamite the rest of the hotel where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated — is a smoldering example of the crass tradeoffs that are indulged when money, real estate and landmarks collide.
WHAT FUTURE CAN A CIVIC HEIRLOOM like the Hotel Figueroa look forward to in downtown L.A. today? As the power players’ shining new cathedral of L.A. Live — yet more restaurants and concert venues — rises just across Olympic Boulevard, the subtle 1920s grandeur of the “Hotel Fig,” with its rustic Moroccan interior and breezy Veranda Bar, may as well be on a deathwatch.
Up the street at the Biltmore, where I once parked cars as a valet a generation ago, I suspect the same pressures will come to bear. An old-world hotel is attempting to survive an era that’s characterized by people driving vehicles bigger than its rooms. So on this December day, I made the run along the Foothill Freeway to the Ritz Huntington from my home in leafy Claremont, to again soak up some of the hotel’s history and ponder why its immediate future, or imminent demise, matters as much as I think it does.
As I wind down Oak Knoll Avenue south of California Boulevard, one of the first anomalies (by today’s standards) that strikes me is that the Ritz Huntington rises on 23 acres amid a purely residential neighborhood, a finely manicured swath of real mansions and estates — not the garishly faux supersize build-outs that have spread like cancer on the Westside.
The hotel doesn’t draw curious foot traffic. It has been the destination for a century.
Reclining on the patio of The Bar at the hotel, I am afforded the sweep of the fine lawns and secluded cottages on one side, and the hotel’s vintage wood-paneled, carpeted watering hole on the other.
The Ritz Huntington has been a favorite place of mine to drink, write and simmer for years, and today reminds me why: There’s no one here. As I sit alone among nine empty tables on the patio and a deserted bar inside, this is where old-world service is strikingly noticeable. My drinks are ferried to me from the Terrace restaurant (which is open and packed) at the other end of the hotel.
Sure, The Bar may be closed (it technically opens at 2 p.m. on weekdays), but what does “closed” really mean when waiters, bartenders and even busboys are dispatched across the hotel grounds to serve a lone writer at an empty bar?
I ask for the day’s edition of The New York Times and a pack of Marlboro Lights, and they arrive. A pleasant breeze rattles the palms, but the air is absent of city noise, of any audible reminder of Southern California’s increasingly bad density woes.
Perhaps channeling a little of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, I come to realize that among the most sterling qualities of the Ritz Huntington, far beyond its secluded location and its blue-chip service, is that the hotel is truly alive with its own history — filling its rooms, balconies and lawns with so many stories to tell. These are not apparitions of the tabloid-driven, celebrity-name-dropping variety, but rather sublime intrigues that those who walk its halls are free to imagine and drink in.
Contrasted with the high-definition scenes of young Romans in their stupefied bliss on the rooftop at the Standard or at Skybar, the Ritz Huntington plays now like some jazz-infused black-and-white film, where the action is implied with little more than a smile and celebrity goes delightfully unnoticed among the hushed conversations around its tables and bars.
And that is important. That does matter.
Our era has seen the triumph of paper-thin wealth and the lemminglike stampede it has triggered to constantly buy or build something “new and bigger.” Like a window to our past, the very essence of the Ritz Huntington hearkens back to a less-frenetic, more-deliberate time. A little worn around the edges, perhaps, but it’s a century down the road and the Ritz Huntington still offers an air of grace.
And that, far more than the brick and mortar of the nearly 400-room hotel, is ultimately what is at stake when the Ritz Huntington becomes the Langham Huntington Spa & Resort next month.
AS THE AFTERNOON FADES into a still-pleasant evening, a waiter alerts me to a small cadre of suits and dresses sitting nearby. Turns out they are part of the advance team for Langham Hotels International, already arrived to smooth the transition.
I amble over and introduce myself, explain what I am working on and ask if I should be writing a plea for clemency from the new owners. Or should I set about drafting a eulogy for the Ritz Huntington following its execution by rebranding?
Ainslie Cheung, a stylish young Brit who is Langham’s director of public relations, offers an earnest reassurance that while the boutique chain of luxury hotels does indeed intend to pour millions of dollars into a still somewhat ethereal “upgrade,” the hotel’s character will remain sacrosanct.
At least, he’s pretty sure it will.
“The fact is that the heritage of the hotel factored into our desire to own it,” Cheung says. “It offers a timeless elegance that we are very keen to maintain. It reminds me a bit of an old, English country home. I can’t imagine we’d want to disturb that.”
As we have a nightcap and I listen to Cheung reflect on his first reactions to the hotel, I flirt with the notion that perhaps the Ritz Huntington got lucky when it was bought by an overseas firm.
That remains to be seen, with its fate in the hands of outsiders. But considering the meteoric ascent of the ugly American and his fetish for the overbuilt, overdone and overaggressive throughout Southern California these days, perhaps it is for the best.
Contact Mark Cromer at Mrcromer@aol.com.