The Last Resort

Pasadena’s legendary Ritz Carlton Huntington Hotel is sold and facing a developer’s makeover. Is it time to propose a toast; or read the Last Rites for another landmark that’s falling to the banality of our times?

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Photo by Kirsten Stewart

It’s late morning and the crisp of December has fallen away to a day that could well be mid-May anywhere else. A lush blue sky that’s tickled by tousled palms with fronds shimmering in the sun offers a postcard perfect Southern California that the rest of the nation has long learned to envy with each televised Rose Parade.

So perhaps it is fitting that I am just a few miles south of the parade’s route along Colorado Boulevard and Pasadena’s ‘Old Town,’ that once dead business district raised like Lazarus in a developer’s wet dream and transformed into a commercial Mecca for the Hummer-driving new money that stand as our culture’s ideal today.

I am a few miles south, but about six worlds away; at the Ritz Carlton Huntington Hotel, a place where the ghosts of old money and class—and its distinction of the individual—still hang heavy in the air. There are perhaps only a handful of places of the caliber of the Ritz Huntington that still stand in Greater Los Angeles, and it is arguably in a class of its own.

The question now is: for how much longer?

The century-old hotel has been sold by the Los Angeles County Retirement Association to Langham Hotels International, which operates a small chain of luxury hotels around the globe, but only one in the United States. Langham’s parent company, the Hong Kong-based Great Eagle Holdings, has announced the venerable Ritz Huntington will be quickly put to a $25 million renovation.

In the abstract, this might be mistaken as a benign development or even good news for an old hotel that perhaps could use a new coat of paint or some reinvigorated landscaping.

But in Southern California today, where the dust of fallen or gutted landmarks now chokes the air amid our consumer culture’s long march to an aesthetic of shopping center singularity, the sale of the storied Ritz Huntington to a foreign developer has the ominous tint of demolition; at least of the hotel’s character, if not the actual building.

It has less to do with Great Eagle Holdings and much more to do with us.

The recent fate of Trader Vics in Beverly Hills speaks volumes. That vintage tiki watering hole was closed suddenly without warning (and apparently without a second thought) by the corporate suits plotting the makeover of the Beverly Hilton. The looming destruction of the Ambassador Hotel’s fabled Coconut Grove—which the Los Angeles Unified School District had very publicly vowed to save in exchange for being allowed to dynamite the rest of the hotel where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated—is a smoldering example of the skullduggery that is indulged when money, real estate and landmarks collide.

Indeed, what future can a civic heirloom like the Hotel Figueroa look forward to in downtown today? As the power-players’ shining new cathedral of LA Live rises across Olympic Avenue, the subtle 1920s grandeur of the ‘Hotel Fig’s’ rustic Moroccan interior and its breezy Veranda Bar may as well be on a Death Watch.

Up the street at The Biltmore, where I once parked cars as a valet a generation ago, I suspect the same pressures will come to bear. An old world hotel attempting to survive an era that’s characterized by people driving SUVs bigger than its rooms.

It seems for the young money today, a turbo tub (with a capacity of seven) and floor-to-ceiling plasma screens (in the bathroom) are mandatory. Bling doesn’t just trump elegance with this crowd; it kills it.

So on this December day I made the run along the Foothill Freeway to the Ritz Huntington from my home in leafy Claremont, to again soak up some of the hotel’s history and ponder why its immediate future, or imminent demise, matters as much as I think it does.

Winding down Oak Knoll Drive south of California Avenue, one of the first anomalies (by today’s standards) that strikes me is that the Ritz Huntington rises amid a purely residential neighborhood, a finely manicured swath of real mansions and estates—not the garishly faux Super-Sized build-outs that have spread like cancer on the Westside.

The hotel doesn’t draw curious foot traffic. It has been the destination for a century.

Reclining on the patio of The Bar at the hotel, I am afforded the sweep of the fine lawns and secluded cottages on one side, and the hotel’s vintage wood-paneled, carpeted watering hole on the other.

The Ritz Huntington has been a favorite place of mine to drink, write and simmer for years and today reminds me why: there’s no one here. Alone among nine empty tables on the patio and a deserted bar inside, this is where old world service is strikingly noticeable: my drinks are ferried to me from The Terrace restaurant (which is open and packed) at the other end of the hotel.

Sure, The Bar may be closed (it technically opens at 2 p.m. on weekdays), but what does “closed” really mean when waiters, bartenders and even busboys are dispatched across the hotel grounds to serve a lone writer at an empty bar?

I ask for the day’s edition of the New York Times and a pack of Marlboro Lights and they arrive. A pleasant breeze rattles the palms, but the air is absent of city noise, of any audible reminder of Southern California’s density woes.

Perhaps channeling a little of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, I come to realize that among the most sterling qualities of the Ritz Huntington, far beyond its secluded location and its blue chip service, is that the hotel is truly alive with its own history—a rich exhale that fills its rooms, balconies and lawns with so many stories to tell. These are not apparitions of the tabloid-driven, celebrity name-dropping variety, but rather sublime intrigues that those who walk its halls are free to imagine and drink in.

Contrasted with the hi-definition carnality of the young Romans who leisure in a stupefied bliss on the rooftop at The Standard or at Skybar, the Ritz Huntington plays now like some jazz infused black and white film, where the action is inferred with little more than a smile and celebrity goes delightfully unnoticed among the hushed conversations around its tables and bars.

And that is important. That does matter.

For our era has been witness to the crass triumph of paper-thin wealth and the Lemming-like stampede it has triggered to constantly buy or build something ‘new and bigger’—to possess a deed of ownership in that most vulgar strain of the American Dream—and the payments are becoming increasingly grim.

Like a window to our past, the very essence of the Ritz Huntington harkens back to a less frenetic, more deliberate time. A little worn around the edges, perhaps, but a century down the road and the Ritz Huntington still offers an air of grace.

And that, far more than the brick and mortar of the nearly 400-room hotel, is ultimately what is at stake when the Ritz Huntington becomes the Langham Huntington Spa & Resort next month.

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As the afternoon fades into a still pleasant evening, a waiter alerts me to a small cadre of suits and dresses that are sitting nearby. Turns out they are part of the advance team for Langham Hotels International, already arrived at the Ritz Huntington to smooth the transition.

I amble over and introduce myself; explain what I am working on and ask whether I should be writing a plea for clemency from the new owners, or should I set about drafting a eulogy for the Ritz Huntington following its execution by re-branding?

Ainslie Cheung, a stylish young Brit who is Langham’s Director of Public Relations, offers an earnest reassurance that while the boutique chain of luxury hotels does indeed intend to pour millions of dollars into a still somewhat ethereal “upgrade”—the hotel’s character will remain sacrosanct.

At least he’s pretty sure it will.

“The fact is that the heritage of the hotel factored into our desire to own it,” Cheung said. “It offers a timeless elegance that we are very keen to maintain. It reminds me a bit of an old, English country home. I can’t imagine we’d want to disturb that.”

As we have a nightcap and I listen to Cheung reflect on his first reactions to the hotel, I am struck by the notion that perhaps the Ritz Huntington got lucky when it was bought by an overseas firm.

That remains to be seen.

But considering the meteoric ascendance of the Ugly American throughout Southern California these days, perhaps it is for the best.

This column was first published in the LA Weekly.