April 21, 2018

Breathing New Life Into the Eyesores of Downtown LA (Updated for 2022)

[Last updated 12/11/22 10:19 PM PT—The NoMad Hotel closed in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Hotel Per La opened in its place in 2022. For photos inside the redesigned hotel, click here.]

They say that the "greenest" building is one that's already been built.

Because no matter how high of a LEED standard a new structure adheres to, the environmental impact of building it from scratch is far greater than reusing an extant one that might be less energy efficient.

Besides, when it comes to interior design—at least in LA—everything old is new again.

Why build something new, just to make it look old? (See also: all of our  newly constructed "Art Deco" and "speakeasy"-style bars and nightclubs.)

And yet so many buildings stand vacant for so long (something that's particularly painful when you see so many homeless camped out outside of them, in a time when we're experiencing a major housing shortage).

The Giannini Building, for example, had become an eyesore at the corner of Olive and 7th Street in Downtown Los Angeles, standing vacant for nearly two decades.

Formerly the Bank of Italy headquarters (named after its founder, Amadeo Giannini), the palatial, 12-story high-rise was dedicated in 1923 and opened to much fanfare—thanks in no small part to the neoclassical design by Morgan, Walls & Clements. At the time, Bank of Italy was the largest bank in the West (and would become Bank of America in 1930).

Its founder pioneered the idea that banking was for regular folk and not just the rich. So, the bank pursued potential customers whose banking potential had been heretofore underestimated—namely, women and children—to fill its 12,000 safety deposit boxes.

The main vault door is one of the only significant features of the opulent bank building that remains.

Weighing 50 tons, it now protects a small lounge area...

...and the public restrooms.

Upstairs, the former offices had already been gutted, leaving little of historical value to be preserved when the Sydell Group took over the building (with some help from billionaire investor Ron Burkle) and renovated it into the NoMad Hotel Los Angeles.

The rooms have been outfitted with vintage-inspired furnishings and decor (as have the public areas like the lobby and the Mezzanine restaurant). [Ed: Not sure how the Hotel Per La's rooms differ from the NoMad.] However, unlike Giannini's original vision for it, this building is no longer for ordinary people with just a little bit of money to sock away. Rooms start at $280/night ($320/night if you want the nice bathtub) and go as high as $800/night for a corner suite.

The rooftop bar has just opened up to the public...

...though the pool is still reserved for guests of the hotel.

Besides the sweeping views of Downtown LA, the rooftop also offers a little bit of Italy in the form of Orcus, god of the underworld. The statue at the far end of the pool is a replica of one found in the  16th century "sacred grove," Sacro Bosco, in northern Italy.

Up there, you can also get a good look at the Italiante cornice...

...which, though original to the building, also underwent some recent restoration work (as did the terra-cotta panels on the building exterior, some of which had to be replaced).

The Sydell Group wasn't satisfied with reinvigorating just one historic DTLA building by converting it into a fancy hotel—it also set its sights on yet another infamous eyesore, the Commercial Exchange Building.

Built in 1924, it, too, had stood vacant and languishing for 20 or so years...

...despite having a rich history, a solid architectural pedigree, and one of the tallest neon blade signs in LA.

Designed by Walker & Eisen (known also for their work on the Taft Building in Hollywood, the Fine Arts Building, the Oviatt Building, and Hotel Normandie), the 13-story, Beaux Arts-style building actually retained a lot of its original character, despite its extended vacancy.

A lot of original decorative features had been boarded up over the years...

...and were revealed when restoration work (which frequently means excavation) began.

And those original decorative features at the storefront level—particularly a long-hidden medallion over a doorway—were retained as the Commercial Exchange Building transformed into the Freehand Hotel.

In fact, according to preservation guidelines, they had to be saved—and, unlike its neighbor a block away, the interior of the Commercial Exchange Building was largely intact.

That means you'll see original coffered ceilings and marble stairways... well as more original tile, which has been seamlessly integrated with new design motifs.

Upstairs, the former offices—including one once occupied by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs—have been converted into either traditional hotel rooms or shared, bunk-style hostel rooms.

Unlike the NoMad, the Freehand does welcome a more cost-conscious customer—particularly international travelers.

And while the Freehand embraces the style of "Old Downtown," it also brings the experience of staying there into the 21st century—with a mural that was painted by the art collective Cyrcle and that's only visible from certain guest rooms.

Anyone, however, is welcome to dine or drink at one of the Freehand's many establishments, both in the lobby (at the Exchange Restaurant) and on the roof (at Broken Shaker).

As with the NoMad, the pool is for hotel/hostel guests only, but the view is for everybody.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Biggest Department Store in the West, Subdivided
Photo Essay: The Hotel Californian Neon Comes Back Home
Photo Essay: Farmers and Merchants, the Old Bank with Big Plans

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