Our Prizes: the Biltmore Hotel Tour

By David J. Barboza,

The Biltmore’s east facade as seen from Pershing Square. Author’s photo.

We get really excited when you share historic place suggestions with SurveyLA through our newest website, MyHistoricLA.org. Although spreading knowledge about the places that have shaped the history of Los Angeles is in some sense its own reward, we thought we’d throw in some less abstract rewards as well to sweeten the deal. Currently we have two prizes available in the MyHistoricLA Rewards Store available to anyone who earns 300 participation points (while supplies last!): a Downtown Los Angeles Walking Tour and a Tour of Proposed Historic-Cultural Monuments with the LA Cultural Heritage Commission. I recently decided to try out one of our own incentives by taking a tour of downtown’s Biltmore Hotel (LA Historic Cultural Monument #60, at 506 S. Grand Avenue). The downtown walking tours are docent-led by members of the Los Angeles Conservancy. In addition to the Biltmore tour there is a tour of Brodway’s Historic Theater and Commercial District and a Modern Skyline Tour among others.

The Biltmore Tour began with a rendezvous in Pershing Square, right across the street from the hotel’s historic Olive Street entrance. Our guide was Greg Figueroa, who did a terrific job from start to finish. Right off the bat we got some background information on the Biltmore. It was designed in the Beaux Arts style by architects Schultz and Weaver and opened in 1923. The construction cost was $10 million, which was quite a sum at the time (about $135 million in 2012 dollars). Greg pointed out that it was built on the site of a former church and drove the point home by pulling out his notebook full of historical photos as he would many more times throughout the tour. The whole building was designed to echo the components of a classical column: base, shaft and capital. The site plan (overhead view) resembles a capital “E”, which was useful for fresh air in the days before air conditioning and gives guests lots of interesting views. Near the entrance on Olive, there were quite a few interesting engravings on the front facade, from the LA City Seal to a likeness of Christopher Columbus.

A photo of a large framed photograph of the 1937 Academy Awards, held at the Biltmore. Author’s photo.

The Biltmore opened to great fanfare, and the celebrities were out in force to usher the grand building in. Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille and Douglas Fairbanks were in attendance. The Biltmore’s connection with the film industry doesn’t stop there. It regularly hosted the Academy Awards in the 1930s. Many other famous people have paid visits to the Biltmore over the years, including eight presidents and the Beatles.

Despite the glamour of its early years, the Biltmore has gone though some rough patches. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, business became spottier. The repeal of Prohibition (1933) helped and GIs regularly visited the hotel during World War II. In the 1950s and 60s the Biltmore struggled along with many other parts of Downtown. It was eventually bought in 1976 for less than $6 million and rehabbed in a way that was sensitive to its historic features. The investors were able to flip the hotel for over $200 million in the 1980s, at which point a tower of parking and office space was added to the northwest corner of the property. This addition was done with an eye to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for additions to historic resources, namely that the aesthetics should be compatible and that the addition can be removed without damaging the original building.

The Biltmore’s interior design is quite stunning. Photos can convey it much better than words:

The signs of the zodiac are visible on this decorative element. Author’s photo.

A section of elaborately coffered ceiling. Author’s photo.

One of the Biltmore’s many ballrooms. Author’s photo.

A relief sculpture. Author’s photo.

The Biltmore tour was truly grand and of course, a tour like this could be yours for participating at MyHistoricLA.org. But don’t delay, supplies are limited!

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