David A. Keeps visits L.A.'s Sunset Tower Hotel" name="description">
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Catherine Ledner The recently renovated Sunset Tower, an Art Deco landmark, in Los Angeles.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

He found what he was looking for in West Hollywood's aging Argyle Hotel. Although the property's over-the-top Deco-revival aesthetic was woefully outdated, Klein appreciated its iconic architecture and movie-colony mythology. In its heyday as the Sunset Tower, an apartment building with hotel services, it had been home to celebrity tenants including John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra. It was referenced in the 1975 film version of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, and was reportedly much favored by Howard Hughes. "Hughes lived in the penthouse for a time, and it was rumored that he owned about thirty apartments in the building, where he kept his mistresses," Klein says.

Fast-forward to the early eighties: the derelict building was slated for demolition, but was saved by the St. James Club, which poured $46 million into extensively redoing the place, furnishing it in pricey reproduction Deco (and not-so-Deco) pieces and a riot of patterned fabrics that obscured the architectural details of the rooms. It was "Joan Collins Dynasty-era Art Deco," says Paul Fortune, the hotel's current creative director. The new St. James was launched with great fanfare, but by 1994 it had been sold again, to an Asian investor, who gave it a new name, the Argyle, and not much else.

As for its present incarnation, Klein has spent $40 million acquiring and rehabilitating the Argyle, even restoring its original name: Sunset Tower. Despite its down-at-the-heels condition, it had, as they say in the trade, good bones.

It is hardly surprising that Klein chose to use a classic building in Los Angeles to put his personal imprint upon the swath cut by André Balazs (Chateau Marmont) and by Pomeranc. "After New York, Miami, and even Chicago, Los Angeles has some of the greatest examples of Art Deco in the United States," says Arnold Schwartzman, author of Deco Landmarks: Art Deco Gems of Los Angeles. The Sunset Tower, he adds, is one of the city's largest residential Art Deco buildings, distinguished by continuous columns of windows stretching the height of the building, and by its somewhat surreal exterior of cast-concrete horizontal friezes depicting "flora, fauna, and airplanes and zeppelins flying over what appear to be pagodas."

Gazing up, down, and out through thin floor-to-ceiling casements more than twice his six-foot-plus height, Klein says, "This is really the reason why I bought this building. You cannot build one like this anymore."

You cannot, apparently, rebuild one anymore, either. Because the Argyle was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and by the Historic Preservation Commission of  West Hollywood, any changes made to its exterior had to be vetted, even the paint color, which Fortune is petitioning to be Navajo white. Although preservationists could not control the direction the hotel interiors might take, Deco purists were initially concerned—even when Klein liquidated the lackluster fittings, which subsequently showed up on collector Web sites at vastly inflated prices. "The truth is," Klein says, "it was Hollywood-set Deco with weird, elaborate ten-foot-high urns, which I couldn't find in any book."

Klein wanted the interiors of the Sunset Tower to reflect the building's architecture and glamour without being a slave to it, which is where Fortune came in. It was Fortune's first hotel commission: Klein chose the man who had designed the former trend-resistant L.A. nightspot Les Deux Cafés for his distinct sensibility. Fortune's vision, "to restore the hotel to what it should be but never was," took five minutes to explain and two years to execute.

Designer Marc Yeber, one of the members of the preservation commission in West Hollywood, believes that the new public spaces refer to the past rather than re-create it. "You have to treat historic hotels like living, breathing entities," he says. "If you don't allow them to evolve, then they fall out of favor and their very existence becomes endangered."

From the intimate lobby to the sleek limestone entry flanked by display cases filled with Marc Jacobs bags, Fortune has created a low-key salon atmosphere. "It's turn-of-the-century," he explains, "but which century?There's a little Wiener Werkstätte, a little early Modernist, with a nod to the more classic mid century."

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