When the Beverly Hills Hotel opened in 1912, there was no Beverly Hills. Set halfway between downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific coast, the hotel would go on to spur the creation of one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves but, at first, it was surrounded only by wild grassland. Visiting the hotel at the time “was like going out into the countryside”, says Edward Mady, the hotel’s current general manager. “People never came out here.”
But the hotel, funded by property developers who wanted to attract potential residents to the area, did its job and within two years the area had sufficient population to be incorporated as an independent city. Today the hotel continues to be its de facto centre: and for some its influence goes still further. “Los Angeles is a large, city-like area surrounding the Beverly Hills Hotel,” said writer and commentator Fran Lebowitz.
To mark the centenary of the hotel’s opening, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission has named it Beverly Hills’ first Historic Landmark. At a commemoration party last week, singer Dionne Warwick was among guests toasting the hotel as the first phase of a major renovation project was unveiled. So far the lobby is the only area to have been completed but the Polo Lounge outdoor restaurant and bar, guest suites and pool area are also due to be refurbished.
The revamp has garnered much attention locally, not just because of the hotel’s role in Beverly Hills’ history but also because of its longstanding links with the area’s most celebrated industry. The Hollywood connections go back to the silent era, when stars such as Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin shot movies at the hotel. Howard Hughes, the film-maker turned billionaire industrialist, kept a bungalow there for many years while Irving Thalberg, the producer who led Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during Hollywood’s golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, “discovered” the Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller at the hotel pool, picking him for the starring role in Tarzan, the Ape Man in 1932.
Robert Evans, the former head of production at Paramount Pictures, also got his break by the hotel pool. He was spotted by Norma Shearer, Thalberg’s wife, to play her late husband in Man of a Thousand Faces, and used the role as a springboard into production.
The hotel remains a key haunt of Hollywood powerbrokers. “It’s Hollywood’s commissary,” says Mady.
Since 1987, the hotel, known for its distinctive pink façade and often referred to as the “Pink Palace”, has been part of the Dorchester Collection, owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, which consists of nine luxury hotels, including the nearby Hotel Bel-Air, the Dorchester in London and the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris.
It is treading carefully with the renovation project, aware that anything too dramatic could alarm loyal patrons, many of whom have associations with the hotel that go back generations. “We want to make sure that we remain true to what the hotel is about,” says Christopher Cowdray, chief executive of the Dorchester Collection. “But at the same time we have to move it forward. It was last renovated in 1995 and there’s been no major investment since then. It’s still in impeccable condition but we’re at a stage where part of it has become dated and needs to be refreshed.”
The company declines to comment on the budget for the revamp but it is clearly going to be costly. The once pink lobby has already been completely changed: the carpet has gone, replaced by limestone, giving it a lighter, more airy feel.
Adam Tihany, the interior designer and architect for the renovation, is known for his work designing Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental in London and Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. A long-time guest of the hotel, his brief, he says, is to refresh the property “without ruffling feathers”. The work will be completed in stages to avoid having to close. “I courted my wife here,” he says proudly. “I said, ‘You can’t let anyone else do [the renovation] ... they’ll screw it up’.”