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Ace DTLA: A Eulogy

Remembering one of our most favorite projects.


Ace DTLA: A Eulogy

When my dear friend and Ace Hotels founder Alex Calderwood first showed me the United Artists building in Dowtown LA sometime around 2011, I simply couldn’t believe it. It was as if he had unearthed an ancient temple or something. I had driven down that stretch of Broadway at least 100 times and I had never noticed the building. I’d seen the theatre, sure…but even that was a blur with all the other amazing theatre marquees on that street which had seen much better days.

Alex could smell an ‘upcoming’ anything from miles away. He had figured out that this area, which virtually everyone had ignored for close to 100 years, was the next best thing. The arts district nearby had started to show promise and he just knew it: an Ace on Broadway, with that amazing theatre in its pocket, would bring along cool shops and restaurants, the Ace tribe, and well…the world.

Making a hotel out of the giant mess in the building was more than a challenge, it was madness. But we didn’t need much convincing, in 15 years of friendship he had never led me stray, so Commune jumped in, holding hands with the Ace team and our eyes wide open.

The building and the theatre next door were originally commissioned by Mary Pickford for United Artists and completed in 1927, at the height of the most prosperous, hedonistic, and wild period in Los Angeles’ then short history. This was the last big party before the crash just a few years later. Mary had fallen in love with the cathedral in Segovia and asked the architect C. Howard Crane to use it as inspiration for the design of the theatre, and the building followed. The result was a mash up of styles definitive of that era in Hollywood, a little Gothic, a little Spanish Colonial…a fantasy.

And so that’s where it all started for us: Mary Pickford and 1927.

The tower had originally been designed as an office building for Gulf Western (UA’s business partner) and had never been renovated so everything (electrical, plumbing, millwork, elevators, HVAC…) had to come out. After the massive demo, a 14-story concrete bunker was left. The exterior was this frothy Spanish-Gothic thing, but the interior was a brilliant brutalist, minimalist shell, a blank canvas. Because of the window placement the rooms had to be what we call ‘efficient’, which is another word for tiny. The budget was better than the budget we’d had for the Ace in Palm Springs, but it was still tight. The best answer was to go modernist with the guest room interiors, and we immediately thought of Rudolf Schindler. A contemporary of Mary’s, partly responsible for everything that is modernist about LA. We were fans already and we dove deep, but ultimately, we didn’t have to go far, we found every design solution we needed right in West Hollywood in his famous residence built in 1922.

The narrative still needed a muse for the essence of Ace. We had filled our walls with photographic references, many of the wild bacchanals and the famous ‘flappers’ of the era. They certainly carried the irreverence and cool that personifies the brand. But looking at them, all we could think about was LA punks. We started putting images of them up and eventually you couldn’t tell the punks apart from the flappers and we made another connection. We had Mary (Pickford), we had Rudolf (Schindler) and we had Exene (Cervenka) and they were going to embody the project.

From the start, Alex said he wanted the hotel to be ‘by LA, for LA’. The project had to be, above all, local. And so, the last connection was made. We’d make everything here, if it couldn’t be made in LA then it had to be made in Southern California…we wouldn’t go farther than Mexico (in our eyes it was still California anyway).

The following three years were like a dream. Putting together the design, developing it, and building it, here in our own town, was like no other project we’ve done in our 20 years in business. We got to work with so many talented friends who made things beyond our imagination. Michael Schmidt made a chandelier with three miles of chain; Tanya Aguiniga made epic wall hangings with felt blankets; Alma Allen made so many pieces of furniture we lost count and he even cast bronze door handles; Mike Mills created the most ingenious artwork for all the guest rooms; Judson Studios did beautiful stained glass windows; Alia Penner designed pretty awnings for the rooftop bar; Adam Silverman made lanterns for a Coral Tree that was craned on top of the building; the late Robert Lewis, made glass sconces for the pool; Atelier de Troupe did all the interior light fixtures, I’m fairly sure the project put them on the map; Kevin Willis created a ceramic effigy in his likeness; the Haas Brothers devised the most amazing check-in desk, drew all over the walls and their mom, Emily, made a mother of pearl altar for the theatre. Such talent…THIS talent would never come together again.

The date for the opening was set for January 2014. Just two months before, in November, suddenly and without warning Alex died. It was a hard blow from which I still haven’t recovered. We went ahead and still celebrated the opening in a blur of exhaustion and grief, dedicating the project to him that day, and every day since.

This January, just 10 years later, Ace DTLA closed forever. Someone said to me it was bittersweet, but I fail to see the sweetness. To me it’s nothing but a painful loss for the community, for Ace, for Commune…for myself.

But I guess we have the memories, so many of them, aided by the beautiful photos by Spencer Lowell that we share here. He was able to document not only the result, but the ‘before’, providing the only record of the gargantuan effort involved in the transformation of a project like this one. What the photos don’t show is the sweat and the tears along the way, and most importantly the joy and the love a community of creative people invested in its making. You see, our projects for Ace don’t truly qualify as your average ‘commercial’ project. They’ve always been opportunities to make something wonderful together, it has never been about the money, there’s never really been that much of it. I believe that the endless list of artists and makers that have participated throughout the years simply joined us to be part of something great that in its own small way brings the world closer together.

Text by Roman Alonso
Photos by Spencer Lowell