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Los Angeles' Famed Ambassador Hotel Awaits Uncertain Fate - 2004-09-08

There's a bit of a battle brewing in the city of Los Angeles, California over the fate of a single building. This building isn't a church or seat of government, but rather a landmark in the history of the city: the Ambassador Hotel. World famous authors, Hollywood stars, dignitaries and presidents from Herbert Hoover in the 1920s to Richard Nixon in the 1950s all visited or stayed at the Ambassador. And then in 1968, while walking through the hotel's pantry, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated. That perhaps was the beginning of the end of the Ambassador Hotel, with its doors finally closing in 1989. Since then, the hotel and its eight hectares of prime real estate have been in limbo, but soon its fate will be decided.

In the middle of this mostly high rise landscape of Los Angeles, the wooden sign seems out of place. It is reminiscent of those sometimes seen on a rural highway beckoning tourists to visit a roadside attraction. "Film the Ambassador" it reads. The famed hotel that once entertained Hollywood's elite is now herself an aged character actor, still booked nearly 52 weeks a year, not by guests but film crews.

Except for the production crews that move hurriedly in and out of one of the bungalows or lounge in director's chairs under the trees, the hotel is still. It is a quietness that suggests a longtime vacancy.

There are overgrown weeds, broken tiles and fissured stucco, but the camera is forgiving. All it sees is the ambiance and architecture of other eras.

Six academy award ceremonies were held at the hotel's nightclub, the Coconut Grove. When they weren't handing out Oscars, Hollywood came here to dance and dine under fake palm trees.

"Fake coconuts, fake monkeys but lots of foliage, so one could hide at the Coconut Grove," said Dale Olson, longtime entertainment publicist. Mr. Olson was a young reporter for the Hollywood trade magazine, Variety, covering the Coconut Grove from 1959 to 1966.

"It was the days of Lana Turner, Tyrone Power, the romantic kind of movie stars," he said. "Errol Flynn was always there with a new young girl. Virtually everyone came at one time or another"

Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Junior, an A-list of Hollywood elite.

The original seven-story Myron Hunt Hotel was built in 1921. In the 1940s, architect Paul Williams added bungalows. All have stood defiant to developer's blueprints. In 1989, billionaire Donald Trump wanted to build a skyscraper on the site, at about the same time the Los Angeles Unified School District said it needed the property.

After years of legal arguments, the school district took ownership of the Ambassador Hotel in 2001 and now plans to build three schools on the site. What has not been decided is whether the historic building will be preserved or torn down as part of the plan.

"The Ambassador is one of Los Angeles' most defining sights it should not be demolished," said Ken Bernstein.

Ken Bernstein is Director of Preservation for the Los Angeles Conservancy, which is urging the school district to restore rather than raze the historic hotel, by using it as a centerpiece for its planned school campus. "To be able to have that continuity between past present and future and the entertainment history of this site inspiring future theatre and performing arts students, that's a remarkable opportunity that should not be passed up," he said.

The school board has been presented with five blueprints, ranging from partial to complete demolition. Glenn Gritzner, special assistant to the school superintendent, says new construction would save the school district approximately $100 million.

"We have 3,800 kids, students, every day bused out of this neighborhood," he said. "We're trying to balance our need to provide schools in the most crowded neighborhood in the district along with the fact that this is a very significant historical site." Most historical sites offer tours. On ours, we are accompanied by representatives on both sides of the issue.

There is much at stake here. There's been a lot of media attention and interest in the fate of the Ambassador, even by some Hollywood powerbrokers.

"Oh my God! Well this is taking me back!," exclaimed actress Diane Keaton.

It was the 1950s when a very young Diane Keaton snuck into the Coconut Grove with her Dad.

"I got up on the stage and I sang. I don't know if you remember this song, Que Sera Sera - the Doris Day song? Pathetic? for me it was a life-defining moment," she said.

The actress has signed on as a board member of the Los Angeles Conservancy in support of preserving the hotel or its re-use as a school.

"This is a great memorial to our past," Diane Keaton said. "The film community has to become more active about things like this. Saving all these significant buildings that have the stamp of the history of Los Angeles and there's big history here. Let's go see some more!"

The Conservancy's Ken Bernstein leads us to the hotel lobby.

Some of the original furniture is still here, along with a fountain, columns, chandeliers and the same hotel registration desk where Dustin Hoffman checked in, in the 1967 film The Graduate.

Past the lobby you enter the doors of the Embassy Ballroom, a future library in the Conservancy's eyes, within a backdrop of history.

"This is the stage from which Bobby Kennedy made his victory speech in the 1968 California primary," Mr. Bernstein said.

Paul Schrade was with his friend Bobby Kennedy that night.

"One of the most important memories I have [is] when Bob came into the pantry while we were getting ready for a press conference," he said. "Bob stopped at that point and there were two guys from the kitchen and he shook hands with them. And we turned, and the shooting started. I didn't know I was shot, I went out immediately. I got hit in the head."

But to Paul Schrade, that painful moment doesn't need to be preserved with a building. He now heads the "RFK through 12 Community Task Force," which is calling upon the school district to tear down the hotel and bungalows and build new schools as quickly as possible.

"If I know Robert Kennedy, he would want that building, that hotel, torn down and good schools put there," said Paul Schrade. "Students are not going to get the best education possible in a hotel that's going to be dismantled and rebuilt as this massive structure."

The school board is expected to make its decision regarding the property any day now. Until then, the film and TV crews continue to work here.

And so does Peggy Propps. She's been here for more than 40 years as the hotel's accountant. Her office is just off the lobby. One of the hotel's adopted cats sits on her desk. She knows time is running out for what she calls her second home, that soon she'll be leaving this office for the last time.

"It's going to be sad, very very sad, but you know things have to make way for progress, you know," said Peggy Propps. "Yes, that's it."