Hotel Cecil: Beyond the Lobby Doors

The Cecil Hotel sits at 640 South Main Street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. In a row of bland storefronts and graffiti-covered walls, this building stands out from the others. Its façade boasts a rich art-deco style—a luminescent bronze against today’s autumn sun. But to its left, a litter-filled parking lot provides a popular gathering place for the homeless. To its right stands a desolate glass building, empty but for a tossed plastic lawn chair and random piles of paper. Amongst all this, the terracotta edifice reaches high into the sky. At 14 stories, the Cecil is the second tallest structure on its block. Two long vertical signs that read “HOTEL CECIL” stretch along each side. At night, its vintage red neon light flickers at the busy metropolitis.

The hotel goes by an alternate name: Stay on Main. A newer gold and white marquee imprinted with a rounded, retro font lays atop the arched entrance. Two ornate marble columns stand on either side of the lobby double doors. The bronze, the marble, the antiquity of the hotel—it all leaves onlookers with an initial impression of luxury.

Inside, incandescent lights illuminate the building, making visible the brass tones underlying the polished marble floors. Crystal chandeliers hang from the high ceilings. Romanesque statues line the walls. Straight ahead, the concierge sits behind a desk, underneath a mezzanine that overlooks the entire hotel lobby. The mezzanine offers guests a place to relax or have a drink while they wait for their room. From here, they have the best view of the stained-glass ceiling. It is a simple pattern but a kaleidoscope of colors, lit by a set of crackling bulbs.

The hotel appears extravagant at first—a hidden gem in one of the most troubled districts of Los Angeles. But beyond the lobby, the Cecil is not all that it seems.

*

The Cecil opened to the public on December 20th, 1924. W.W. Paden and Associates commissioned its construction for $1,000,000 (about $14,040,000 today) and instilled hotelier William Banks Hanner as operator. Hanner had worked alongside architect Loy Lester Smith for almost a decade; the duo imagined a future where rich businessmen and tourists alike would be wandering down its hallways. In a city where the global entertainment and financial industry had started to take root, Hanner longed for this establishment to be a lodging facility that would contribute to its development. To fulfill his vision, Hanner demanded the best of everything—the Cecil would feature the highest standard of appearance and class for hotels of its time.

The job called for Smith. Smith envisioned a monument that would dominate the Los Angeles skyline. After graduating from Pomona College in Claremont, California, he designed three other buildings in the L.A. area. But the Cecil—he wanted it to be his greatest project yet. Smith planned the building in accordance with the city’s maximum allowable height of 150 feet, but height was not to be the Cecil’s only distinct factor. The interior would follow the Renaissance Revival style, with a return to classical features and Beaux Arts ideology.

On opening day, Hanner and Smith watched their visions unfold. Important men passed through the Cecil’s doors on their way to arranging business deals at the Spring Street Financial District. Wealthy vacationers rested at the hotel before heading down to Broadway Theater for a live musical. The Cecil’s name in bold font across local newspapers probably even lured in L.A. natives who sought a posh, temporary escape from their own lives. It saw an influx of guests, all engaging in the same luxurious lifestyle that the Cecil aimed to project.

The duo had succeeded. Within a year, the hotel became an economic headquarter and social outpost in a growing urban center.

Then, misfortune struck. What Hanner and other hoteliers did not foresee was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929. The world sank into the Great Depression and Los Angeles experienced one of the deepest plunges. Main Street became “Skid Row,” a place that would house thousands of unemployed individuals and families for the next thirty years. Law enforcement allowed crime to slip through the cracks, leading to an increase of burglars, robbers, and drug addicts. All these people lived right outside the Cecil’s doors.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the Cecil could not afford luxury anymore. Hanner swallowed his pride, dipped the nightly rates to an all-time low, and greeted the chaos outside the doors with open arms. Once a destination for the affluent and expendable, the Cecil became a permanent residence to cons, drug addicts, and those facing even worse fates. To survive, it took in whatever transient soul that passed through. The Cecil clung onto the little it had left.

The years crawled by. The depression ended. In the 1950s, Skid Row was in the middle of rehabilitation projects. The Cecil had endured through, even as the Los Angeles City Council tore down the decaying buildings that had multiplied over the decades. Against the decay and nuisance, the hotel stood tall. A future after the Great Depression had once appeared bleak, but now, the Cecil hoped for a strong recovery.

*

On the afternoon of October 21, 1954, a 47-year-old woman approached the Cecil’s front doors. She grabbed the brass handle and maneuvered through the opening in one swift motion. A single handbag swung from her arm.

As she crossed the threshold, a cold wind greeted her. Her shoes clicked across the marble floors, towards the receptionist ahead of her. They exchanged brief words in between the paperwork about what she planned to do during her stay. She sounded tense in her response. The woman paid for a single night and promised to check out the following morning. When asked to sign her name, she wrote, “Margaret Brown.”

Brown, a petite woman, possessed a charming smile. Her dark, curly hair settled around her shoulders. A pouf on top of her head obscured how short she really was, but she could not help the way her locks bounced and tangled all over. When Brown smiled, her eyes would slightly crinkle and her mouth would stretch across her face, so wide that one could not help but smile along with her. But on the day she checked into the Cecil, her smile did not appear genuine. She had tasked herself with a gloomy mission, one she had to accomplish alone.

The receptionist handed her the means of entrance to her room, a gold-tone metal key attached to a small loop. Brown closed her hand over it, feeling the nooks and crannies pushing back against her skin. She thanked the receptionist, bid her goodbyes, and headed in the direction of the elevator. While she waited, her thoughts churned. She kept going back and forth on her decision. Yes. No. Yes.

Cling! The sound of the elevator reaching ground floor interrupted her ponderings. She felt her mind float back into place as she stepped into the cab. With her determination settled, Brown hit the button for the seventh floor and watched the doors seal her into her decision.

The next day, Brown stood in front of the window inside her room, overlooking Main Street. From above, the people striding by on the sidewalk looked miniscule. If she could just be like them. But they were oblivious to her thoughts, to what she wanted to do. They had no idea of the darkness in her life. Fresh air filled the room when she opened the window. On the seventh floor, the air did not circulate well, leaving her room musky and humid. The warmth of the hotel felt like someone breathing down her neck, an added pressure to the hundreds of sensations that had already consumed her. She decided that she would be plagued by it no longer.

Brown took in a final breath, took a final step, then cascaded 70 feet down into the hotel marquee. Immediately, the heaviness she felt—gone.

Bystanders wavered in disbelief. Help!

Screams everywhere. Her blood smeared across the marquee, her bludgeoned body on the sidewalk. Her mission, accomplished.

Except Margaret Brown was not Margaret Brown. Authorities later found her real name to be Helen Gurnee, a woman from San Diego. She had traveled 124 miles to die under an alias. The Cecil absorbed the death of “Margaret Brown,” with the blood smeared across the marquee wiped away but forever embedded into its memory. The tragedy of Gurnee’s suicide reflected on the Cecil’s façade like an omniscient ghost. 

On November 19, 1931, W.K. Norton, a 46-year-old from Manhattan Beach, was found dead inside his room at the Cecil. He signed in as “James Willys of Chicago,” then hid in the solace of his room where he would take a fatal number of poisonous pills.

In July 1934, Louis D. Boden, at age 53, used a razor blade to slash his carotid artery in a Cecil hotel room. He left behind a note, admitting to a mental illness that arose from his former term as an Army Medical Corps sergeant.

In March 1937, a 25-year-old woman named Grace Magro jumped out of a Cecil ninth floor window, hitting a telephone pole in her fall. The wires coiled around her body, so that when she reached the ground, Magro’s skin was beaten blue from the impact.

On October 12, 1962, 27-year-old Pauline Otton shouted at the top of her lungs, enraged over a heated argument with her estranged husband. When he stepped out of the Cecil hotel room, she dove out of the ninth-floor window and plunged to her death. By chance, she landed on top of a 65-year-old pedestrian named George Gianni. Both were killed instantly.

On February 11, 1962, a woman by the name of Julia Moore climbed out of a Cecil eighth floor window and plummeted to her death in a second story interior light well. She left behind a bus ticket to St. Louis, 59 cents, and an Illinois bankbook.

Because of these various suicides and mysterious deaths, the Cecil could not move on—each death proved more painful than the last. The pain shattered any progress the hotel had made after the Great Depression. In reality, this depression lived on, and by the end of the 1950s, the Cecil became a low-end residence hotel, where the sad and disturbed felt right at home.

*

But Goldie Osgood did not fit these criteria.  

Regulars of Pershing Square called her “Pigeon Goldie.” Pigeon Goldie, 65 and a retired telephone operator, took up residence at the Cecil. She overstuffed her pockets with packets of bird seed each morning then headed down to Pershing Square, a ten-minute walk. She spent her time there feeding the meager pigeons. She sang to the birds—a sweet, melodic tune that whistled through the summer trees. If passersby followed the song, they would find Pigeon Goldie donning her distinct Dodgers baseball at the center of the park. The people of Los Angeles appreciated her kindness and unique reputation as the old bird lady of their town.

On June 4, 1964, the sun rose at 5:42 AM. From her window that faced east, she would have been able to see the sun peeping over the horizon if she had her curtains drawn. But Pigeon Goldie did not need the sun to wake up—she knew it was time to feed the birds. The winged creatures awoke early in the day, and besides, to get any rest in this noisy city seemed impossible. The day unfurled like any other. Pigeon Goldie fed her birds and visited a few friends. As the evening wound down, Pigeon Goldie returned to her hotel room. Exhausted, she took the elevator up to the seventh floor.

Just a few moments later, a man lugging telephone directories stepped out of the elevator on the seventh floor. The end of the night neared, and his eyes felt heavy. Just a few rounds of deliveries left, and he could end the day. He left a book outside each room, but when he reached this one, he found the door propped open. The man hesitated to enter, so he called into the room. Hello? No answer. His hand pushed the door wide open, revealing a scene of horror.

Only minutes had passed between Pigeon Goldie’s departure and this discovery. Her friends held onto each other for comfort, convulsed with sobs of disbelief. How could it be? Officers swarmed the front desk of the Cecil. Reporters lined up inside, flashing their bulbs at everything they could point at. Word spread: ‘Pigeon’ Goldie is Slain in her L.A. Hotel Room.

Her murderer, a vicious, cold killer. Pigeon Goldie laid beside her Dodgers cap in her final moment, inside the ransacked room. Her body mutilated and violated by her murderer. In Pigeon Goldie’s last night at the Cecil, she was strangled, raped, and stabbed. But her murderer did not stop there. A deep bruise around her neck revealed that the killer had choked her to death with a hotel hand towel. The news of her death rippled through the town and struck all who knew her. An innocent woman slain—and that woman was Pigeon Goldie, defender of Pershing Square. How could it be?

The next day, the sun rose but it felt as if the death of Pigeon Goldie had set the world back. Jean Rosenstein, a retired nurse, arose and went about her normal routine. But the thought of her friend tormented her every thought. Before the evening ended, she headed to Pershing Square, where Pigeon Goldie once roamed. The memory drove her to tears. She placed a flower down on the curbside and wiped her face. Hundreds of others would join Rosenstein in remembrance of Pigeon Goldie.

For weeks, detectives scoured the Cecil, searching for clues that might lead them to her killer. They ransacked the place day and night, sun up to sundown, but to no avail. The case went cold.

As subsequent winters passed, the Cecil fell down a darker hole. Travelers were too frightened to approach the hotel, let alone spend a night there. Its neglect became obvious. Management could not afford to pay fair wages for the staff, so they hired whoever would work for cheap rates. Sometimes thieves, sometimes the unknown. The Cecil was not tended to as in the past. Past the lobby doors, paint peeled off the walls and furniture stood chipped in odd places. The building had deteriorated in every corner. Spooky reports of suicides and a rumored ghost on the fourth floor warded off visitors—it seemed like the visions Hanner had on opening day for the Cecil were now nothing more than a distant memory.

*

Hoping to leave behind the memories of his hometown of El Paso, Texas, 24-year-old Richard Ramirez packed up his bags and headed to Southern California. He had a knack for sarcasm, high cheekbones, and irises so dark it blended into his pupils. Ramirez’s skin clung to his bones, as he would forget to eat when he divulged in weeklong drug binges or was too broke from his last cocaine run.

He arrived in Los Angeles the summer of 1985. Ramirez sought solace, recovering from his last run-in with the law. He needed a place to sleep that was close to the drugs his body craved every day but far from the eyes of authorities. The Cecil looked like the perfect place. Around the corner, he could pick up marijuana from the neighborhood drug dealer and select from the prostitutes roaming 8th Street. For $14 a night, Ramirez lived in a dingy bedroom on the 14th floor of the Cecil, free to do whatever he wished. Hotel clerks noticed his strange character. The man kept to himself and rarely conversed with others. But the staff did not question his behavior; they had seen worse people come through the Cecil. How could they have predicted what was to come?

Day in and day out, Ramirez strolled through the hotel lobby, across the marble floor, and up to his room. He favored khaki pants and simple button downs. His hair stuck to his face or clustered around his ears whenever he returned from the beating July sun. Temperatures reached 90 degrees or above daily, warm even for California natives.

Ramirez could feel the dark energy of the Cecil—this drew him to it. He knew that he could finally be himself in this place, and that the Cecil would protect him from the world outside. He thought about his own darkness, how his father beat him as a child, how he was the “other” in this universe. He moved to Los Angeles with a mission: for once, he would be the sole person in charge of his agency. Ramirez wanted everyone to feel his wrath.

He sat in his room that night, staring back at the red and yellow carpet. For what he was about to do, Ramirez needed to calm his nerves. He rolled a joint, lit the end of it, and took a deep hit, inhaling the scent of fresh cut grass, feeling the burn against his throat. The marijuana sank into his lungs, his muscles, his entire body. He blew out the smoke and let the white cloud float in his room. From outside the wooden door, the hotel maid could smell the pungent odor. Typical. Ramirez would leave the hallway reeking. She let out a deep sigh, knowing it would be pointless to tell him to stop. By now, the smell had slipped into every crevice, and what with Ramirez’s loud rock ‘n’ roll, she could hardly hear her own breathing. The maid moved on.

Ramirez left the room moments later, high on weed and cracked out on cocaine. His pupils were bloodshot, and his movements unsteady, though as usual no one questioned him. Ramirez took his customary route, down in the elevator and out the front doors. But his return to the Cecil later was so discreet that nobody saw him. He did not want to be seen. Prior to coming in, Ramirez had dumped his blood-soaked button-down shirt and khaki pants into the dumpster behind the Cecil. He snuck in through the back door, up the stairs, and safely tucked himself into bed. That night, he felt a release from the world. He and he alone had enacted the dominance that his father stole from him in the past.

It all happened outside its doors, but Ramirez would return each night and seek comfort under the Cecil’s roof. No one would look for him there. No one at the Cecil would say anything to authorities. There, he felt secure. The walls of his room guarded him from the people who could never understand what he was doing or thinking. The Cecil, a place that had been sickened by history, was just as convoluted as Ramirez. For more than three weeks, it housed a Satanist, rapist, and murderer—Richard Ramirez, the “Nightstalker.”

He had accomplished his mission, and Ramirez understood what his punishment might be. This did not dissuade him; in fact, it drove him on. Each violent act that went undetected prolonged the ignited flames of his rage. A sadistic man, he killed men, women, children—all at random—and with the closest weapon that he could find. These people often died in their own homes, helpless if they were bound and weakened if sexually assaulted. During his stay at the Cecil, Ramirez attacked six homes throughout Los Angeles County, each time returning to hide behind the walls of his hotel room. But paranoia began to seep into his mind. He thought people had caught on to what he was doing. In August of 1985, Ramirez packed his bags and said goodbye to the Cecil.

The fate he inflicted upon others eventually caught up with him. With help from the locals, authorities caught Ramirez two weeks after his departure from the hotel. A California jury convicted him on 13 counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder, 11 counts of sexual assault, and 14 counts of burglary. His sentence: death.

Big deal. Death always came with the territory.

*

So many years before, Hanner had imagined a place that would inspire people and spur their creativity, though not like Richard Ramirez. Now, the Nightstalker’s spirit survived, wrapping itself around the Cecil, a darkness that would never subside.  Until Fred Cordova came along.

To Cordova, not all was lost for the hotel. The suicides, the murders, and the serial killers—time healed all wounds. If he could reinvent the Cecil, its painful history would be erased. The optimism that Hanner once had on opening day reemerged in Cordova’s aspirations. Cordova made brave plans to take over the Cecil and turn back the pages in history to a time when the Cecil stood at the epicenter of Los Angeles. In 2007, Cordova purchased the property for $26,500,000. He knew that in a modernizing world, everyone wanted to make it big, and downtown Los Angeles was proving to be an optimal location. Cordova also knew the kind of reputation the Cecil had, so he devised a plan. The hotel would undergo major renovations and take on a new identity. It had a strict timeline, five years, and a strict budget, $7,000,000. At the end of this, the Cecil would no longer be the Cecil.

Cordova hoped to obliterate any remnant of the Cecil’s past by attracting a new age group. Instead of projecting the image of a high-end luxury hotel, he appealed to young travelers who had less to spend. In his renovations, the hotel became more hostel-like; most rooms did not have their own bathroom and offered little privacy. Guests who did not know each other could stay in a conjoined room for $39 a night. Cordova tore down the vintage marquee and replaced it with a bright, hip orange storefront. A small coffee shop called Marty, which offered free Wi-Fi, opened inside the lobby and started drawing in the low-budget university students. Colorful decorations shouted from behind the new glass fixtures of the façade. From the outside peering in, the Cecil looked unrecognizable.

A future. It felt like pressing the redo button for Cordova, to recreate the Cecil into Stay on Main. Cordova knew that the legacy of the building would live on, but he hoped that in time, Stay on Main could gain its own momentum. The ghosts pushed aside, the shadows illuminated, and a fresh page for history to write on. At first glance of this new Cecil, one could not fathom the trouble that used to lay beyond those doors.

*

This new place attracted people like Elisa Lam.

Lam pressed the circular button and waited for the old elevator to pick her up from the sixth floor of the Cecil. On the first day of February 2013, snowstorms tormented her hometown of Vancouver, Canada, but it was a breezy spring afternoon in Los Angeles. Warm air traveled down the lengthy hallways of the hotel, curled through the vents, and snaked around Lam’s toes as she stood in the hallway. She had donned a simple outfit: a red zippered sweatshirt over a grey T-shirt, black shorts, and black sandals. An outfit casual enough to lounge the day in—though Lam had no idea just how out of the ordinary her day would be.

The building dragged a metallic chamber up to its awaiting guest. As the elevator neared the sixth floor, the mechanical whirring and groaning of cables grew louder. But the whirring eventually slowed, and the sounds abated. The metal doors slid open and greeted Lam with an empty cab. The cab offered her a short moment of tranquility, something she desired during this Los Angeles escapade. Though she was only 21, Lam felt the weight of the world on her shoulders and a heaviness that she could not overcome. It showed under the bags of her eyes, the strain of her smile, and her disheveled hair that day.

She shuffled inside the elevator, where another control panel full of circular buttons awaited her. They were blurry and worn out from the pressure of hundreds of fingers hitting them each day. Lam could not make out the numbers. Her eyes skimmed over the panel, paying no attention to the lack of a 13th floor. She bent down to get herself eye-level with the panel, then pressed a series of buttons, and slid back into the far-right corner. The cool metal pressed back against her, soothing. She stared out into the hallway of mahogany walls, waiting for the elevator doors to close on the stream of light from the afternoon sun. But the rays continued to reflect off the black and white tile floor, dancing before her eyes. Seconds ticked by, and that familiar sense of paranoia began to creep up inside her. The panic, the anxiety—what she sought to escape, was there.

Perhaps it was a whisper of a voice or perhaps it was a thunderous boom, but in time, her patience withered away. A creeping anxiety coupled with an unrelenting curiosity tugged at her. She wondered what that something was outside of the lonely elevator cab. A something that came from the hallway. She inched away from the back wall, toward the open doors before her. What was it?

She stepped forward, checking left and right down the hallway. Nothing, it seemed… But she felt terrified. Her heart quickened. She pressed her back to the right wall of the cab, clasping her hands in front of her. Was something out there? Lam scooched into a crevice, making herself smaller, so that whoever or whatever was out there could not get to her.

But her curiosity stayed strong. Lam strode to the elevator doors again, this time, stopping to lean against the metallic silver frame. She peered into the hallway over her right shoulder. Took a step. Looked over her left shoulder. Took another step. Then she was completely out of the elevator cab, and though a full minute passed, the doors still did not close.

If someone was out there, they would have seen her by now. Where are they? The paranoia, even more present now. Her depression and bipolar personality disorder affected her at random moments most days, diminishing her capability to think, act, or feel. And in that moment, it came at her—the fear, the hysteria, the excessive uneasiness. Lam gripped the sides of her head, trying to contain it all. She re-entered the elevator cab and hastily pressed away at the control panel, some buttons more than once, then returned to the section of wall outside of the cab where she had been standing before. The doors remained open.

Something or someone had to have been there. Lam stood in the middle of the hallway, talking, conversing, engaging with an unknown. One hand moved up; another hand moved down. She motioned them around, waving with flat palms and outstretched fingers. Lam shifted her body forward, slightly bent, and rocked her heels back and forth.

There was a window in front of her, streaming the same ray of light from earlier that day. It felt so long ago, but only minutes had passed. Lam turned her body away from the window, sun, and warmth. And away from the elevator as she strolled down the hallway. That was the last time anyone ever saw her.

The doors slid shut two minutes later.

Lam’s spirit traveled down the pipes and through the faucets. She lived on people’s skin and in their foods—gone, but everywhere at once. Two weeks later, her body turned up inside the water tank on the Cecil’s roof. No one knew how she got there, only that her body had been decomposing all this time. Her existence, more penetrating to the Cecil than any other soul that it had encountered before. And suddenly, the souls resurfaced. A history that Cordova tried to bury, slashed across local newspapers again.

“The disturbing, gruesome past of the Cecil Hotel.”

“Hotel with corpse in water tank has notorious past.”

“American Horror Story: The Cecil Hotel.”

*

        Do you feel Margaret Brown’s anxiety crippling her when you stand in the hallway of the seventh floor? Can you hear Pigeon Goldie’s screams of pain echo through the vents? Do you feel the Nightstalker following you into your room, waiting for the chance to slash into you?

        The Cecil lives on.

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