The Cecil Hotel is the subject of a popular Netflix “Crime Scene” documentary. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Long before the Netflix noir documentary about 21-year-old Canadian tourist Elisa Lam’s sad end at the Cecil Hotel, the landmark building in Los Angeles had a storied and often gorey past.
“True-crime tourism” is a real phenomenon, and the hit series has prompted a spike in Google searches for “Is the Cecil Hotel reopening?,” “When can I stay at the Cecil Hotel?” and a wide array of related queries. A quick scan of recent headlines written in the throes of the Netflix-fueled frenzy might lead you to believe that the hotel is under renovation and slated to reopen very soon — the word “SOON” sometimes put in allcaps for emphasis.
The hotel has been closed since 2017. And, much like the documentary itself, the reopening rumors have been somewhat sensationalized.
“What made you think there are renovations going on?” asks Matthew Baron, president of New York-based Simon Baron Development, the firm that bought the Cecil Hotel in 2014 for $30 million and earmarked it for a capital improvement project. “I’m curious, where did you get that information?”
I tell Baron that dozens of recent articles — some by reputable outlets — cite ongoing renovations at the hotel and a reopening planned for later this year. Those stories were written by “people probably just Googling it,” he says. “I just hope nobody out there is telling people we’re renovating.”
Nearly a century after its beginnings, the building might be a bit worn but she is still a beauty. Built in 1924 by noted L.A. architect Loy Lester Smith, the 14-story Beaux Arts-style hotel’s central location near railway lines along L.A.’s South Main Street made it appealing to businessmen heading to the Spring Street Financial District as well as playgoers on their way to the Broadway Theater District, according to the developer’s successful application to have the hotel declared a Historic-Cultural Monument.
The historic facade features a recessed entry with a set of double doors and an arched transom, as well as an elaborate medley of ornamental quoins, cornices, columns and pilasters. There’s a balcony at the third story and a curved balconette at the fourth story. The property still has its two original, 70-foot tall blade signs that read “Hotel Cecil.”
On a scale of 1 to 10, interest in the Cecil Hotel is at about a 21 right now. “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” premiered on February 11 and quickly shot up to briefly hold the No. 1 spot on Netflix’s Top 10 chart. Despite falling to No. 10, it is still wildly popular two weeks on.
The four-part documentary frequently returns to an eerie video released by the L.A.P.D. in 2013. We see a girl in a hoodie walk into an empty hotel elevator and press nearly all the floor buttons. She then leans out and peers up and down the hallway, then hides in the elevator corner for a time before stepping out of the security camera’s view. There’s a sense something is terribly wrong. The security video is the last known sighting of Lam, who was a guest at the Cecil Hotel at the time. Nineteen days, her body was found in a water tank on the hotel’s roof.
Lam’s death was just one of many to befall the Cecil Hotel since its opening in 1927. From the 1920s through the 2010s, the hotel was the site of five suicides, 10 suspected suicides and two murders. Authorities ruled that Lam’s death was an accidental drowning.
Then there were the hotel’s other creepy connections. Like how, in 1947, Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia, supposedly visited the hotel bar the evening of her disappearance. She was later found in a vacant lot brutally murdered and cut in half. To this day, it remains one of L.A.’s most notorious unsolved murders. Consider, too, that Richard Ramirez lived at the Cecil Hotel during his Night Stalker killing spree in the 1980s.
In fairness, the notion of an impending Cecil Hotel reopening wasn’t a total fabrication by writers hoping to give readers what they wanted to be true. A grand renovation was definitely on the cards at one time, according to filings with the L.A. City Planning Department.
In late 2019, Simon Baron submitted an application detailing plans for “on-site sale and dispensing of a full-line of alcoholic beverages in conjunction with a 150,753 sq. ft. hotel with 299 in-room mini-bars, ground floor restaurant, lobby bar and roof top bar with 349 indoor seats and 312 outdoor seats. Hours of operation of the restaurant, lobby bar and roof top bar are from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., daily.”
And in December 2020, it was reported that the development firm had taken a $30 million mezzanine loan for the repositioning of the former Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. “The developer is redeveloping the historic hotel with 299 hotel rooms and 264 affordable units,” reported Real Estate Weekly.
But the pandemic ultimately put the kibosh on moving forward for the foreseeable future. “We put everything on hold last year back in March, so everything everything’s on hold,” says Baron. “So there’s no definitive plan. And there’s no definitive timeline.”
“We don’t have any comment on the plan or anything that’s happening with the property, and there’s no renovation,” says Baron definitively. “Right now, there’s nothing on the horizon.”
I watch trends in travel. Prior to working at Forbes, I was a longtime freelancer who contributed hundreds of articles to Conde Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, Travel +