Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Knickerbocker Hotel – a Survivor

Hollywood_Knickerbocker_Hotel
The Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel in an undated photo from the Security Pacific Collection, housed at the Los Angeles Public Library.


A little run-down today, the Knickerbocker Hotel at 1714 Ivar has survived scandal and notoriety to endure as one of Hollywood’s grand old hotels from the booming 1920s. Beginning life under another name, the Apartment Hotel stood as one of Hollywood’s grandest residences in its heyday.

Though known today as the Knickerbocker, the structure actually started life under the name Security Apartments. After a home was moved from the lot in early 1923, construction began on the project. The Los Angeles Times reported August 29, 1923, that B.E. Harrison and E.A. Powell, managers for the Hollywood-Own-Your-Own Company Inc. announced the day before that architect E.M. Frazier had drawn up plans for the Italian Renaissance-style building, with Richardson Building and Engineering Co. to serve as contractors.

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Knickerbocker Hotel Google Street View
The Knickerbocker Hotel via Google Street View.


Plans indicated that the 10-story, reinforced concrete, Class A structure would contain more than 170 apartments, divided into two rooms each, and cost more than $1.5 million from purchase through completion. The First Mortgage Co. issued a bond sale of $900,000 to begin construction, expected to take 10 months.

The Security Apartments would feature up-to-date and special features including automatic electric refrigerators, electric heat, electric ranges, vacuum cleaning service, Murphy beds, fireproof wall safes, soundproof apartments, tiled baths, telephones, radio connections, maid service, separate sheltered automobile entry, entertainment rooms, lobbies, Italian garden with sheltered arcade, roof garden with sun parlors, and four high-speed passenger elevators. An early form of co-op apartment, owners would own not only their own residence, but a part of the whole complex. Intended for upscale residents, costs ranged from $6,000 to $30,000 per unit.

Construction began on digging the pit for the building’s frame, and managers flooded newspapers with ads promoting the luxurious property, now 12 stories. Owners could live in their units or lease them to others in what ads called “the Biltmore of Hollywood.”

The August 3, 1924, Los Angeles Times featured a photo of the construction, stating that the property would include 172 apartments consisting of 81 singles, 55 doubles, and 36 triples. The William Simpson Construction Co. now served as contractor. The building now featured red brick and white art stone on the exterior, and the interior would include hardwood and white enamel finishings. Unfortunately, work slowed as money troubles hit the project, with elevators not ordered until June 1925.

Dancer above the Knickerbocker Hotel
Betty Fox, wearing a Super Circus banner, performs a stunt on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel to advertise the circus in an April 5, 1962, photo from the Valley Times, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library. The photo was “edited for publication.”


On October 13, 1925, the original permit for the sale of securities was revoked by the State Corporation Department “on the grounds that there were irregularities in complying with some of the restrictions of the permit.” The Holliver Holding Co. had applied to take over the project. Even without completing the project or having residents, owners listed the project in the city directory from 1926 to 1928 under the name Security Apartments.

Legal proceedings took years, but on February 19, 1927, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Frank F. Collier ruled that a bond lien took priority over a mechanic’s lien. Court proceedings stated that the first construction company completed seven stories of the project, with half of the bonds employed in construction. Work stopped for months before another group took over the project to complete it. When this group attempted to refinance it after the original bond total ran out, banks refused to issue money, claiming default on the principal and interest of the original bond issue.

A new group secured a deposit of $887,000 of the bonds and proceeded to foreclose to take over, but the group that had finished the building filed suit. The judge decided to appoint someone to sell the property and hopefully receive enough money to cover the lien and to provide equity to those who completed it.

On November 29, 1928, Frank R. Strong, Walter R. Wheat, Elwood Riggs, and others purchased the building and grounds, with costs for this and remodeling expected to cost $2.65 million. The group would spend $200,000 to quickly remodel the structure, and spend $250,000 with Barker Brothers for furnishings. They would operate under the name Knickerbocker Apartment Hotel, hoping to receive a certificate of occupancy March 1, 1929, with the intention of it becoming “one of the finest apartment hotels in the West.” The building now contained 444 rooms and was considered the largest project of its kind in Los Angeles at the time.

Knickerbocker_Hotel_front_entrance
The entrance to the Knickerbocker Hotel in an undated image from the Security Pacific Collection, housed at the Los Angeles Public Library.


Architect/general contractor John M. Cooper Co. on behalf of owner The Cromwell, Inc. pulled permits on January 26 to update the building. In particular, they would connect the two buildings by constructing a new section between the two wings, with a wall at the rear to form a new lobby. This new section would feature two bachelor apartments on each floor and allow passage from one building to the other.

In April, new owners under the name Knickerbocker Inc. operated the building. They pulled permits to turn the basement into a garage, remove partitions and install plumbing for a new kitchen in the south wing along with canopies on the exterior. In 1931, a new rooftop sign would be constructed as well.

Once opened in July 1929, the Knickerbocker served as Hollywood’s new in-spot to hold meetings and throw parties, as well as serving as a high-class residence. Publicists and other entertainment professionals opened offices in the structure. The Screen Writers Guild and other early guilds threw rallies and meetings at the hotel, and a flower shop operated in the lobby.

Papers reported in 1931 that former silent stars Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki resided there after returning from overseas and the East Coast. Actress Jacqueline Saunders lived there for a short time before her furnishings and items were auctioned in September 1932. The Hollywood Reporter’s gossip column even included a squib stating, “what ex-blonde film star has such a yen for the gigolos connected with the Knickerbocker Hotel here that her husband is now up to his neck in tango lessons?”

Knickerbocker Hotel
The interior of the Knickerbocker Hotel in an undated image from the Security Pacific Collection, housed at the Los Angeles Public Library.


Jackie Coogan and his wife, Betty Grable, hosted an elaborate birthday party for Coogan with 200 guests in January 1936, and later that fall threw a costume party for 80. Mickey Rooney put together an eight piece-band to perform in the renowned Lido Room of the hotel in January 1937, performing occasionally. That winter, radio station KMTR even broadcast a daily show from the hotel.

Over the next few decades, the hotel remained a magnet for celebrities, good and bad. On October 31, 1936, Mrs. Harry Houdini held her last seance to try to contact her famed husband, magician Harry Houdini. Actress Frances Farmer would be arrested in her room January 13, 1943, after missing an appointment with her probation officer. Character actor Charles Grapewin and wife would be robbed of $2,250 worth of paintings from their apartment on October 2, 1945. Resident Alfono Bedoya, 36, would suffer a mild stroke while visiting the Mayan Theatre on September 9, 1949.

Though fewer in number, celebrities enjoyed their time at the hotel as well. Hoagy Carmichael hung out in the Lido Room with musician buddies in 1948. Joe DiMaggio would stay at the hotel when visiting Marilyn Monroe before they married, and Elvis Presley would reside there while shooting “Love Me Tender.” The TV show “This Is Your Life” surprised film comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Room 205 on December 1, 1954, recording a show highlighting their careers. Other TV shows and films captured glimpses of the Knickerbocker as well, such as the film “711 Ocean Drive,” and the TV shows “Mission Impossible” and “Mannix.”

Knickerbocker Hotel, interior

The interior of the Knickerbocker Hotel in an undated image from the Security Pacific Collection, housed at the Los Angeles Public Library.


Alterations continued over the years trying to keep the hotel up to date. In October 1939, four apartments were removed to be converted into service rooms, including maid and waitresses’ restroom and locker room, men’s locker room, a public/private dining room, and public restrooms. Architects Paul R. Williams and Stiles Clements would supervise minor alterations in the 1950s. In 1952, the apartments were converted into hotel rooms, and in 1955, a pool was added.

Sadly, the Knickerbocker earned more fame as the site of tragedy and notoriety, with several deaths occurring on the property. On May 8, 1937, school teacher Helen Parker of Ojai committed suicide by jumping out of her eighth-floor window, leaving a note for her husband which stated, “Harry: Please forgive me for lying about coming to buy new clothes.” John Hix, 36, writer for the internationally popular column “Strange as It Seems,” fell against a parked car in front of the hotel on June 6, 1944, dying at home of heart attack the next day.

Director D.W. Griffith suffered a cerebral hemorrhage July 23, 1948 while telling stories in the Knickerbocker bar, collapsing in the hotel lobby and dying on the way to the hospital. On November 15, 1962, troubled costume designer Irene Lentz, known professionally as Irene, checked herself into the hotel before committing suicide. Former resident William Frawley, famed comedian known as Fred Mertz on the “I Love Lucy” show, suffered a heart attack outside the Knickerbocker on March 3, 1966, dying in the lobby a short time later.

After World War II, the area around Hollywood and Vine began slowly declining and the former luxurious residence was turned into a hotel. By the 1960s, the Knickerbocker was merely a shadow of its former glorious self, languishing in decrepit circumstances. In 1970, the building was converted into senior housing and remains apartments to this day.

While now a fading diva, the Knickerbocker Hotel still possesses a remarkable history in the development of Hollywood and the intersection of Hollywood and Vine.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Architecture, Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory, Preservation and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Knickerbocker Hotel – a Survivor

  1. suzanne a. stone says:

    Thank you for elaborating on a great Hollywood landmark. Alfonso Bedoya? That’s the name of the actor who played “Gold Hat” who has the “stinking badges” speech in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but the age may be off by a few years. Perhaps it is the same man, so actors lie about their ages, too? Bedoya died in 1957 in his early 50s.

    Like

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