L.A. | The dark side of deco


The land of allegedly eternal sunshine and big screen fantasy has an architectural heritage that is deceptively sinister. Simon Gage digs deep into the shadows cast by L.A. art deco

L.A. art deco

Shangri-La hotel | Picture: Nicholas Alan Cope

Los Angeles deserves everything it gets. The whole car/freeway thing is horrible, the sun doesn’t shine half as often as they make out and most of the city’s waitresses need to be taken to a corner of the parking lot and slapped, Hollywood style: yes, we love that your mixed-race child, named Gandy after “that Indian guy”, is finally getting to know his father but can we just get olive oil on this salad and not syrup and ask you to otherwise step away from the table?

But even if they do worship the new (or “the next” at any rate) and would pave any remaining corner of paradise to put up a parking lot (rich coming from Joni Mitchell, poet laureate of car use), there is history in L.A. A rich architectural history from back when they had a sense of themselves as the sleazes they were, before the European modernists pitched up with their glass boxes that, quite apart from their stark beauty and weightlessness, could be thrown up for a fraction of what it would cost to build a, you know, real building. That architectural history was Deco. L.A. Deco.

Part monument, part film scenery, L.A. art deco is everything California is not: weighty, hefty, scary and dark, blocking out all that pesky west coast sunshine. They are buildings where a girl could sit up on a high stool at a bar and maybe get discovered and then sold into prostitution, Black Dahlia-style, before she ever saw the inside of a movie studio. She might even get cut clean in half. It’s bleak, threatening and, in this willfully cheery environment, delicious.

Tacky and crappy and stuck together with eyelash glue, it’s not the kind of place you’d see a wannabe starlet on the make

Take the Sunset Tower Hotel up there on Sunset Boulevard between old folks home-turned-hangout for British journalists putting on fake English accents, The Standard, and The Mondrian, where ghetto superstar dreams come true and girls will dance with their bikini tops down for the price of a cocktail, which, as exchange rates go, is not as good as it sounds.

Built in 1929 by Leland A. Bryant, the Sunset Tower is a great lump. A radio. A cake. Earthquake-proof – a quality that is visible to the naked eye – it started its career as an apartment block where, according to Truman Capote, “every scandal that ever happened happened”. And who can doubt it when world-class sluts like Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Frank Sinatra had apartments there? Bugsy Segal’s apartment (now the bar) doubled as a gambling den while Howard Hughes kept multiple flats for his multiple mistresses, many of whom must have been sharing elevator rides without a clue. Of any description.

Sunset Tower Hotel | Picture: Travis Conklin

Sunset Tower Hotel | Picture: Travis Conklin

Having gone through the bad times, the Sunset Tower has now settled into Hollywood retro: vaguely mid-century, heavy-wooded and dark, though by no means as tacky as the retro thing they have going on at the Beverly Hills Hotel: movie stars – no matter what they turn up in on red carpets – have never really been known for their taste. Well, they are basically hustlers with money, why would they?

Down at the Musso & Frank Grill (the oldest restaurant in Hollywood, with some of the oldest waiters in Hollywood), they’re still serving up the same stodgy stuff they turned out back in the 20s when writers and movie stars were feeling each other up under the tables. It’s dark, seemingly windowless, with red velvet pretty much everywhere. The rest rooms are nowhere you’d want to rest for long, but it does seem authentic.

It’s authentic like the really rather lovely Grauman’s Chinese Theatre up the block, all spikey Gothic-meets-Deco. This may be one of the tawdriest stretches on the west coast (yes, there are Hollywood stars in the pavement, but they’re covered with a patina of filth), but the fakery and afrontery of a building like this is a purely American phenomenon. Then there’s the less celebrated Egyptian Theatre, built in 1922 and host to the world’s first ever movie premiere (Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks), now revamped and sort of ruined as the American Cinemateque.

The thing with Hollywood Deco is you have to get to it before the restorers do. Like the Formosa up the wrong end of Santa Monica Boulevard, where the Black Dahlia used to swing her legs at the bar – along with Marilyn and Marlon and anyone who was anyone in Hollywood and quite a few people who were no one at all. You can probably still see the scuff marks. Tacky and crappy and stuck together with eyelash glue, it’s not the kind of place you’d see a wannabe starlet on the make (or on the game) in this day and age. She’d have her nipples showing up at Sky Bar at the Mondrian.

Los Angeles – say it with a hard “g” like Angelica Houston in The Grifters and it sounds instantly smarter

But when those big-name, hot-shot, Hollywood movie stars weren’t doing drugs, having sex and drinking each other under tables in Hollywood, they were getting the hell out of there so that they could do the exact same things but maybe with a sea-breeze. Which is where the Shangri-La Hotel in Santa Monica came in.

Now restored – but actually fairly un-aggressively – The Shangri-La is the sort of late 30s Deco that really good British council estates of the 40s and 50s were based on: vaguely ocean linerish to look at, it has horizontal metal-framed windows, designed to let minimal light into the restaurant, concrete stairwells, the sort of white paintwork that (in the northern European climate anyway) peels immediately. This is where the fast set – up to and including Madonna and Sean Penn – ran amok, though the $30-odd million spent on it has got rid of most of the stains.

Los Angeles (say it with a hard “g” like Angelica Houston in The Grifters and it sounds instantly smarter) might not be the first place you think of when it comes to architecture and history and the stinking undergarments of previous eras. But back when that whole Hollywood scene was a sex-offending, mainlining, murderous rock – ruled by the Mob and the corrupt LAPD – which wanted no light shining under it at all, that rock was designed in L.A. Deco style. It was dark and twisted, weird and just a little wonderful. And it was exactly what L.A. deserved. C


Simon Gage is a celebrity journalist, founder of The Soho Collective and oversees Jake, the gay networking group