Los Angeles' sweeping, 19-story Century Plaza Hotel hails from a era of Golden Age Hollywood luxury, when Elizabeth Taylor was paid the modern equivalent of $53 million to appear in the title role of the 1963 film Cleopatra.
While the film was a box-office hit, its gigantic budget nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, prompting them to sell a 180-acre backlot to a developer to make some fast cash. That land is now Century City, home to the lavish headquarters of entertainment companies and A-list law firms, as well as the Century Plaza Hotel.
The hotel, designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, embodies the glamour of the film industry, both in Hollywood’s Golden Age and today -- it has played host to presidents, A-list stars and movie premiers. That’s why, when it was threatened with demolition in 2008 to make way for two new mixed-use condo and hotel towers, a public outcry from preservationists and a spot on the National Trust’s 2009 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places encouraged the hotel's owners, Next Century Associates, and project developers to look for a viable alternative.
“The owner of the property was incredibly courageous in their willingness to explore alternatives to demolition, and finally, to make the project work while keeping the historic structure in place,” says Leo Marmol, the managing principal of Los Angeles-based Marmol Radziner Architects.
While two brand-new 46-story towers are, in fact, being built, they will sit behind the existing hotel. A retail shopping center and landscaped outdoor public space are being included in the development as well. Marmol Radziner will handle the preservation aspects of the project; the hotel's exterior appearance will remain the same, and will be restored in some areas.
“The architect [Pei Cobb Freed] designed the towers in response to the hotel -- the shape, the configuration is very responsible to the graceful curve of the historic hotel,” Marmol says. “The original view of that hotel is unimpaired by the towers.”
While the project’s start date is uncertain at this point, it’s a clear preservation and adaptive-reuse success at a time when midcentury buildings aren’t always seen as historically important or worth preserving. As Marmol points out, the interests of economic development and historic preservation don’t always have to be mutually exclusive.
“Those interests are not at odds when the developer and the city want to come together to solve problems,” he says. “Certainly I think it’s a beautiful building, but more importantly, it's an example of success through a willingness to work together -- that’s where this project is unique.”
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