July 11, 2018

Photo Essay: Farewell to The Breakers Hotel As We Know It

In typical fashion, when I heard The Sky Room at the top of the former Breakers Hotel was closing—perhaps for two years, perhaps forever—I hightailed it down to Long Beach to check it out before it was too late.

The former hotel had already been more or less inaccessible to the public since it had converted into senior housing in 1990.

But as 2015, even the seniors had been kicked out—and upon my visit in April this year, the letters spelling "RETIREMENT COMMUNITY"had been stripped off the front entryway.

At first, it seemed like a good thing. Developers had signed up to return this oceanfront landmark to its original purpose.

So, I set out to document the "before," thinking I'd post a photo essay sometime in 2020 once it was completed and I could include some "after" shots.

But I don't think anybody was prepared for the gutting of the interior that would ensue—or the estate sale of historical artifacts to include everything from antique hair dryer chairs to original bannisters.

So, in light of the physical history we're losing this week—with bits and pieces going to individual collectors and profiteers rather than remaining in situ or being transferred to an archive or publicly accessible cultural institution—here's some of what I glimpsed that day.

The Sky Room had a dedicated entrance down a driveway on the west wing of the building, a means of entry that circumvented the front door...

...but also gave a taste of the majesty of this 1926 luxury resort that had somehow managed to survive the Great Depression and the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

In 1938, Conrad Hilton rescued it out of bankruptcy—marking the start of the hotel's "glory years"—and opened the Sky Room, a celebrity magnet if there ever was one.

And it remained a popular gathering spot throughout Hilton's tenure, despite having been used for some harbor defense during World War II.

Despite Walker & Eisen's "ultra-Spanish" design of the rest of the hotel and a bried stint as a Polynesian paradise, the Sky Room returned to an Art Deco/Gatsby sort of flair upon the 1986-7 renovation—a style it continued to retain 80 years after its original opening.

But its recent closure should come as no surprise to anyone who knows a bit of the topsy-turvy history of The Breakers—which has been converted back and forth between a hotel and retirement home more than once over the years.

Yet somehow, some intriguing architectural details seem to have remained throughout the property changing hands time and again.

That is, until now.

At least the waterfront view will be in tact, at least for the time being. But the planters on the patio are for sale.

Maybe the vintage mail chutes are, too.

After dining in the Sky Room and getting an eyeful at the top of Breakers, I decided to head down—first to the individual accommodations, which really had nothing left in them, and next to what had become the seniors' dining area.

There were still hints of its former elegance...

...and peekaboo moments of long-gone luster...

...but mostly, all that remained was a cafeteria.

Down on the ground level was a different matter—though the so-called Crystal Room was largely vacant, it had held onto its piano...

...a piece or two of non-original furniture...

...some chandeliers that appear to be of an older vintage than the crystal ones added in the 1980s...

...and the restored plaster ceiling.

It feels like a shame because this is the hotel whose illuminated "B" helped a lost Charles Lindbergh land his plane in Long Beach in 1928—and where Elizabeth Taylor spent her wedding night with her first husband, "Nicky" Hilton (Conrad Sr.'s son), in 1950.

But for its brief stints of popularity, it always seems to have been under-appreciated.

Will erasing traces of the octagenarian's history change that?

I guess we'll find out in a couple of years. 

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