Downtown LA feels haunted—the towering Beaux Arts and Art Deco buildings conjure the lugubrious film-noir aura that the city could embrace as a much-needed counterbalance in this sunny and often homogenous place. And that hasn’t changed much despite the apparent push to tear it all down and build a bunch of Starbucks shops in its stead.
On Main Street is the establishment formerly and still intermittently known as The Cecil Hotel. It is one such grand, old Beaux Arts building, flanked now by preppy newcomers—an overpriced coffee shop peddling artisanal iced lattes for a whopping $9, a chic boutique pet groomer, high-priced lofts catering to the young and newly rich, and art galleries.
This neighborhood abuts the Fashion District. This is where young fashion and film people live and work—this is where they make it or break it.
But just a block away from this cluster of yuppie, in any direction, remain the working class and destitute sectors more indigenous to downtown LA. At night and sometimes in the day, this is a battleground, where newcomers with expendable incomes encounter the have-nots on the street.
The Cecil has also engaged in a rebranding effort: it’s now called the Stay on Main. Some of the old signage remains, but a new marquee bears the new name in a light, festive orange and light blue.
Whatever it’s called, the hotel remains physically stunning, imposing, and old-fashioned. It’s like Veronica Lake perched on the detective’s desk in a black and white movie.
It’s a film-noir feeling that could be tantamount to an identity for this city.
The Cecil’s past floated back to the surface in January 2013, when one of the guests at the hotel, Elisa Lam—a young Canadian visitor—went missing. Shortly after her disappearance, L.A. police released surveillance footage from the hotel elevator security camera in which she looked frantic. Weeks later, her corpse was found in the water canister on the roof of the hotel, upside-down and naked.
Chinese social media at the time—Lam was of Chinese ethnicity—speculated that she’d been haunted by other late former guests of the hotel. On the English-speaking internet, conspiracy theories that secret groups had something to do with Lam’s final days—like the mysterious “Invisible Light Agency” business that appeared to be located at the hotel on Google Maps—circulated like wildfire.
Coroners ruled the death an accident, but multiple theories of what may have happened persist. The popular consciousness is so intoxicated by stories—and speculation—of what transpired at the Cecil that the hotel is reported to have inspired Ryan Murphy’s television series American Horror Story: Hotel.
That’s because Lam wasn’t the only unfortunate guest at the Cecil. Elizabeth Short—dubbed in the sensationalistic journalism of the time as “The Black Dahlia,” is believed to have stayed at the hotel before her severed torso was found in a nearby dumpster in January 1947. The assailant had sawed a “Glasgow smile” onto her face, slashing her from ear to ear.
An elderly woman called “Pigeon” Goldie Osgood, known for feeding the birds in nearby Pershing Square, was found murdered in her room in 1964. As in the cases of Lam and Short, the perpetrator was never found.
There have been some apparent suicides at the hotel. In 1962, Pauline Otton, 27, plummeted from her ninth floor room, killing 65-year-old George Gianinni on the sidewalk below, the Los Angeles Times reported—police said Otton’s death was a suicide. And then there were two murderers who stayed there: Richard Ramirez, known as “the Night Stalker” was in residence in 1985. Jack Unterweger, the Austrian murder mystery author whose writings were found to have been inspired by his own real-life crimes, strangled three Angeleno sex workers to death with their own undergarments during his stay there in 1991.
So many films have emerged from this legacy, its conspiracy theories and these characters. This being Hollywood, it can feel unclear whether the deaths have inspired cinema or cinema has inspired the deaths.
In October, 2016, LA’s City Planning Department launched an investigation into whether the building merits historical landmark status. In their write-up of the hotel that opened the investigation, they revealed that what had made the building of interest to them was not the deaths, but rather the building’s architecture. The name on the application was not the new “Stay on Main;” it was still “the Hotel Cecil.”
Nowhere does the form mention the murders and murderers that have captivated so many creative minds, despite the fact that people keep going there to make YouTube videos of their “haunted” stays.
Like much of downtown LA—and the city more broadly—the history and culture are rich and often willfully ignored. There’s something there; it’s not necessarily the haunting of cinematic lore. It’s a film-noir feeling that could be tantamount to an identity for this city.
The handful of hotel guests approached by the reporter off the premises were foreign—Austrian, German and Russian. They described the accommodations as solid and were unaware of the establishment’s illustrious history.
After a moment of Googling, though, one guest from a small town in Germany, smiling and unfazed, described that history as “cool.”