A photo of the Afton Arms from the Hollywood Citizen, Jan. 25, 1925.
Built in 1925 and advertising itself as modern and up-to-date, filled with every convenience, the aristocratic Afton Arms offered stylish living for aspiring entertainers and striving businessmen. Located a few blocks away from motion picture studios, the Afton Arms appeared as a luscious fantasy designed for cinematic dreams.
During the 1920s, striking apartment complexes sprang up all over Hollywood and Los Angeles, offering gorgeous designs and and comfortable living to a growing middle class. They represented attainment of financial or career success, or at least the illusion of having it all. For those trying to achieve stardom in Hollywood, these residences suggested that they too, had arrived.
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The Afton Arms via Google Street View.
In 1924, shirt manufacturer Eli van Ronkel realized that constructing an apartment building in booming Hollywood offered a quick way to grow his wealth. Buying a large parcel of land at Afton Place and El Centro Avenue near Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street and the location of several motion picture studios, van Ronkel hired rising young architect Leland Bryant from San Francisco to design his Afton Arms investment. Bryant would go on to design such stunning Los Angeles apartment buildings as the Fontenoy, Sunset Towers and the Trianon.
Van Ronkel’s Afton Arms Realty Corporation pulled a permit June 25, 1924, for a three-story, reinforced concrete apartment building at 6141 Afton Place, which the permit noted would contain no store. The 110-room Class D building would feature 41 single and double apartments renting from $75 to $175 a month unfurnished.
The January 4, 1925, Los Angeles Times featured ads trumpeting the exclusive features of the lavish new building. Each Afton Arms unit featured Batchelder tiled bathrooms, radio connections, refrigeration, full-length cedar wardrobes and mirrors, porcelain showers, steel medicine cabinets, porcelain iron sinks, rubber tiled kitchens, twin Murphy beds, storerooms, French doors, and Napanee kitchen cabinets.
Photos of the Afton Arms in the Hollywood Citizen, Feb. 21, 1925.
The complex would include utilities like electricity and heat, janitor service, banquet room and ballroom, electric washing machines with with clothes drying patio, veranda and Moorish Court with fountain and shrubbery leading to individual entrances. Intended strictly for married couples, the ad declared, “It is not a transient apartment house.”
The February 21, 1925, Hollywood Citizen featured photographs of the soon to open Afton Arms, including dramatic shots of its regal entrance, stunning archway, landscaping, and gorgeous built in shelving. April ads in The Times included an exterior shot of the just opened building, which finally received its certificate of occupancy on May 16, 1925.
Thanks to its status as the hip, new residence, celebrities flocked to the Afton Arms. Dolores Del Rio and her husband moved into the structure just a few months after it opened when she immigrated from Mexico to the heart of Hollywood to boost her film career with independent director/producer Edwin Carewe. Carewe’s brother, screenwriter Finis Fox, resided at the regal residence in 1926, followed by actress Edna Marion a few years later. Cowboy star Ken Maynard bunked at regal building in 1930 and Laurel and Hardy nemesis Jimmy Finlayson knocked around the complex in 1932.
Over the years, the Afton Arms appeared to bring darkness and tragedy to many of its residents. Future “My Three Sons” actor William Demarest survived a tragic auto accident in 1927 when a car struck the one he was driving at 2nd and Beaudry, killing am aspiring starlet who also lived in the building. In 1930, a young man attempted suicide when his intended informed him she didn’t love him enough to marry him. A niece and nephew of Herman Fichtenberg, who died in the building, sued his widow when she received his full $250, 000 estate. Pvt. Joseph Williams lost his life in 1945 during World War II. Early Red Hot Chili Peppers member Hillel Slovak overdosed at the apartment house in June 1988.
Ownership seemed to turn over frequently as well. In 1936, the Ralf M. Walker estate purchased the Afton Arms for $120,000 plus five acres of the estate at 2400 Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills valued at $40,000 from the Calwis Investment Company, who perhaps gained ownership from van Ronkel during the Great Depression. Falling on hard times herself, Eliza Walker sold the building to A. B. Nahas and R. B. Quigley for $100,000, per the May 30, 1943, Los Angeles Times. Just three years later, Mr. and Mrs. John Pettis bought the building from Florence Ball for $250,000. By the 1970s, Allen Ginsberg (not the poet) owned the building.
In 1972, Hollywood character Gen. Hershey Bar took over management, changing the stately old complex’s name to the groovy Happy Malaga Castle. With its new hippy atmosphere, it rocked the Casbah. Art Kunkel supposedly published the Los Angeles Free Press in its Grand Ballroom in the countercultural 1960s and 1970s. Managers partied and left the property open to drug dealing and use. Police visits became as common as mail delivery.
New management in the late 1980s cleaned up the structure, restoring its former glory. Finally acknowledged for its beauty and style, Los Angeles named the Afton Arms Historic Cultural Monument No. 463 in November 1989.
A striking reminder of the roaring 1920s and Hollywood’s glamorous Golden Age, the Afton Arms stands proudly just blocks from where the town’s film industry saw its birth.