The Hotel 
Alexandria
Then & Now

by Bryant Arnett
(click on any image for a larger picture)

Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles circa 1919Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles circa 1999

c. 1919                                                                     c. 1999


 

When I returned to Los Angeles I stayed at the Alexandria Hotel on Fifth Street and Main, the swankiest hotel in town.  It was in the grand rococo style: marble columns and crystal chandeliers adorned the lobby, in the center of which was the fabulous "million dollar carpet" - the mecca of big movie deals - humorously so named also because of the quidnuncs and quasi promoters who stood about on it talking astronomical figures.

- Charlie Chaplin "My Autobiography"

About a year ago, I started a new commute to work that occasionally took me through some very old parts of downtown.  Driving and gazing up at the incredible ornate buildings, I remembered that Chaplin used to live in this part of town.  When I was 12, I was the biggest Charlie fan in the world.  Now, 25 years later I'm driving by the old Orpheum theater and I get the idea to read his autobiography again.   As I began to read through the chapters where the young Chaplin first arrived in Los Angeles, I get the crazy idea to visit some of the places he describes.

The first location that caught my interest was the old Keystone Studio in Edendale, California.   It turns out that the city of Edendale doesn't appear on any maps, so only slightly discouraged I turned my attention to another place that Chaplin seemed fond of, The Alexandria Hotel and Bar in downtown.  This is where he stayed occasionally during much of his early career.  He mentions it many times in his autobiography in a way that makes it sound like it was a nice place to hang out and have a beer.  He even mentions a "delightful impromptu" that occurred due to thin walls of adjoining rooms.  And of course, this was the location where United Artists Pictures was conceived.

As I headed up Main St. early one evening I anxiously counted down the street numbers looking for Fifth St., according to Chaplin's own directions.   When I  arrived at the corner of Fifth and Main I was completely shocked... No hotel!  I couldn't believe that the two locations I went searching for had apparently  been wiped off the earth.

I spent some more time reading the autobiography, but also wondering how I could best go about finding these "lost" places of history.  Then one day while driving to work, I happened to glance over at a post office near the south end of the Glendale freeway and saw a sign that said, "US Post Office - Edendale Station"  Wow!  I could hardly believe that I was driving right through Edendale every day (more on my Keystone Studios adventure here).  With this good bit of news, I decided to drive past Fifth and Main again and see if maybe I missed something there, too.   This time, however, I drove down Spring rather than up Main.  When I got to Fifth, suddenly, there before me was a 4 story tall sign that said "Alexandria Hotel."  It turns out that Charlie missed the location by a block!

I decided it would be best to keep on moving, since this was a crummy part of town, and a glance through the front doors into the lobby revealed bums and homeless people had replaced the quidnuncs and quasi promoters.  It's hard to imagine how an area can become so run down, when it used to be so vibrant and full of life.  Just a block off Broadway, around the corner from many great theaters and shopping areas, across the street from the original Stock Exchange, this must have seemed like the center of the universe.  Now, eighty years later, it's on the border of hell, a stone's throw from skid row.

So I continued on my way, glad to have found these locations, wondering what other places I might happen onto as I continued reading through the autobiography.  I decided to do an Internet search to find more info on Edendale or the Alexandria.  Instead I discovered a place that left me completely astonished... the Chaplin Film Locations Then & Now site.  This was like my dream site.  I couldn't believe that other people felt the same inexplicable tug toward these historical locations.  For days, I took detours from my normal commute to explore some of these places... the Sheraton Town House from City Lights, the Modern Times dream house, the Colorado Street bridge, etc.   I was so inspired that I even put together my own Then & Now web page for the Keystone Studio, and Jerre, the operator of the site, was kind enough to post it.

One day I decided that I should swing by the Alexandria Hotel and take a snapshot.  If I could just find an old picture of the building, maybe I could make an adventure out of this location as well.  So with camera in hand, I headed down Spring St. for a second time.  As I approached the Hotel, I was surprised to see a film crew next door filming a movie.  It was a major production, with the whole sidewalk and half the street blocked off.  There were people everywhere, including lots of police directing traffic and such.  This gave me the perfect opportunity to stop and poke my head into the Hotel, and not worry so much for my safety.

Alexandria Lobby  THENAlexandria Hotel lobby NOW

As it turned out, the inside of the hotel was not as bad as I had envisioned.  It was, however, much worse than it appears in this picture (scanned photographs have a way of hiding the bad stuff).  Everything was very run down and a lot of strange looking people were loitering around in the lobby.   I'm sure that I was probably the strangest of them all!  With my camera clicking and my inquires at the desk about the history of the hotel, the other folks in the lobby were probably more scared of me than I was of them.

It's hard to tell how much has changed since Charlie passed through here.  The marble columns and million dollar rug are gone, but there is an old roll-top desk behind a small "fence" that could very well be original (it's behind the fan at the right side of the photo) and there are other things that seem very old.  I'm sure the general shape and layout of the lobby is unchanged, and the front desk is obviously very old.  The restaurant is permanently closed, and the bar has been completely "remodeled" into an accurate definition of "sleezy dive" (it seems ironic that the bar has been renamed "Charlie O's".  Who the heck is Charlie O?). [Update: Since originally writing this story, I finally located a "then" photo of the lobby. It is hard to believe they could have changed the lobby so much. The entire second floor has been closed in! And, of course, the marble columns are long gone.]

I checked with the manager at the front desk to see if he knew anything about the history of the Hotel.  He didn't.  I asked if he had any old photos or information about it.  He didn't.  He suggested I check at the library.

I was fortunate to find a security guard who let me into the ballroom, the Palm Court.  When we walked in, he threw the lights on the "skylights" first.  The room took on an incredible eeriness.  When he clicked on the chandeliers, I recognized the distinctive arches and mirrors ( from another photo that is in Charlie's "My Life in Pictures"), but generally things don't line up.  I think there has been some major remodeling in this room.  There is a nice plaque at the entrance to the room designating it as a place of historical significance.

The Palm Court ballroom, circa1999The Palm Court ballroom, circa1919  ??

There wasn't much else to see, at least not without sneaking past several big NO TRESSPASSING signs, so I slipped out the side entrance, clicked off a single exterior snapshot, and made my getaway.  As I walked back past the movie set, I paused to watch the activity and people and actors working. The whole experience was remarkable.

There was only one problem, however, and that was how to locate a "Then" view of the exterior.  The first thing I did was to take the hotel manager's advice and check the library.  The gentleman at the History desk informed me that there was a month waiting list to view photos in the archive, and then the chances of finding one of that particular hotel were slim.  I was starting to get a strange feeling that the history of this hotel was fading into oblivion.

After a few days and a few more dead ends, I decided to just go ahead and write this Then & Now adventure, but without a Then & Now photograph comparison.   Then, by some incredible stroke of synchronicity, my wife noticed in the TV Guide that Bravo was going to be showing a documentary on the creation of United Artists.   She didn't even know about my crazy quest!    As I sat and watched the show, I gasped with amazement when they showed an exterior shot of the Hotel, and it matched my photo so closely.  I had to stop for a moment and ponder...   My journey was complete.  It was as though everything I had done was some sort of strange journey back in time.  In fact, I felt as though time were pulling me backward.  There is something funny about this whole Then & Now idea.  I think that when you stand in an exact location and experience that location, then look at a Chaplin scene shot in the exact same spot, from the exact same angle, where you can see clearly what has passed and what has survived, and you can share the same space, the same spatial location where you know precisely that something funny has occurred ---  you just can't help but laugh.  Thanks, Charlie.



Map to the Alexandria Hotel - Click for Yahoo Maps

Click the map to go to Yahoo Maps.

The hotel exterior and ballroom historical pictures above were captured from Bravo's "Biography: Star Power".


UPDATE! April 2001

I have added a "then" photo of the lobby which I found at the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) online photo database. What an incredible resource! When first I began looking for old photos of the hotel, I visited the actual LAPL but was told the only way to see the photos was to get on a waiting list that was months long. I don't know when they started the online database, but I sure am glad to find it.  Try doing a keyword search on "Alexandria Hotel." Several pages of images will come up. It is fantastic. Many thanks to Dave du Mars for originally pointing it out.


- Alexandria Hotel News -

Scene from "The X-Files"The Hotel has had some recent television appearances. Here is a scene from an episode of the X-Files where Agent Mulder runs directly in front of the Hotel as he searches for any sign of life on Earth. It's the episode with a genie that has a very bad attitude. The nice hedge on the sidewalk was replaced with the original garbage as soon as the shot was completed. I don't have a larger version of this picture, so please don't click it.

Also, the Hotel was used for the filming of a recent Hanson music video. The song is called "This Time Around."  There is also an MTV special on the making of the video which shows more of the Hotel. I have not seen the video myself, since I'm not much of a Hanson fan.

The Alexandria Haunted?  According to the book "Hollywood Haunted" by Laurie Jacobson and Marc Wanamaker, the hotel is haunted by a ghost dressed in black, wearing a large hat with a veil. Witnesses have reported that this apparition is neither solid nor transparent, but something in between. They have also felt a great sadness emanating from the spirit.

On a personal note, I want to say thanks to all those who have written me Twith info or words of encouragement. If I failed to respond, please forgive me. I fell offline for a while and have endured a number of hard drive crashes, etc.  Now that I am back up and running, please don't hesitate to write. Also, many thanks to Jerre for creating the  Chaplin Film Locations THEN & NOW website and for hosting my Chaplin pages.


This page was created by Bryant Arnett ©1999,©2001
first created: 3-12-99
last update: 4-24-1