"Are you ready to sign your life away?"
That's what the receptionist asked the day I checked into the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. I would say I was taken aback—were this not among the most cursed addresses in America, the site of shocking murders and untold suicides, the erstwhile home of junkies, prostitutes, sex offenders, and serial killers.
Over the decades, the Cecil's history had grown so dark and sinister that by February 2013, it seemed to have infected the hotel's very infrastructure: The water ran a bilious shade of black before turning clear and even then had a pungent, tangy taste to it.
For days, guests said nothing; after all, this was a near-century-old structure in the heart of Skid Row. Then, on February 19, following a rash of complaints to the front desk, a maintenance worker named Santiago Lopez was sent to inspect the rooftop water tanks. There, in one of four eight-foot-tall cisterns, he discovered the naked, bloated body of a young woman, her skin marbled and visibly decomposing. "I noticed the hatch to the main water tank was open and looked inside and saw an Asian woman lying face-up in the water," Lopez recalled in court documents.
"There was a surveillance video that went around two years ago that showed a girl getting into an elevator in a hotel that was said to be haunted. She was never seen again."
The body belonged to 21-year-old Elisa Lam, a Canadian student who had checked into the Cecil on January 26 and was last seen alive in a grainy elevator video from January 31. In it, Lam, who had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, steps into the elevator alone, appearing agitated. She shifts from foot to foot, dances a spastic two-step, and ultimately disappears off-camera before the doors silently slide shut behind her.
After Lam's parents reported her missing, cops and cadaver dogs searched all 15 floors of the hotel—including the rooftop—and found nothing: At the time, nobody thought to look in the cisterns. And so guests drank and bathed in the water contaminated by Lam's corpse for as long as 19 days.
It is still unclear how the young woman made it to the roof undetected, let alone into the tank; to do so would have required disabling the alarm system. Maybe she found her own way up, on a manic mission divorced from reality. Or perhaps she just chatted up the wrong drifter in a neighborhood full of them. Her cell phone was never recovered. The coroner would ultimately rule her death an accident.
The stranger-than-fiction circumstances surrounding Lam's disappearance—along with the Cecil's gruesome history—have proved irresistible to Hollywood. It was only a matter of time before corpses began turning up in water towers on TV shows from Castle to How to Get Away With Murder and in screenplays peddling the 21st-century equivalent of Psycho's shower scene.
Most prominently, the Cecil served as inspiration for the latest installment of Ryan Murphy's critically acclaimed anthology series American Horror Story: Hotel.
"There was a surveillance video that went around two years ago that showed a girl getting into an elevator in a hotel that was said to be haunted," Murphy said at an August press conference announcing the new season. "She was never seen again." By October, fans were making pilgrimages to the Cecil, smartphones in hand, snapping outré selfies in the lobby of the #murderhotel.
As a result of all this attention, the Cecil suddenly finds itself at the unlikely intersection of L.A. noir, Hollywood glamour, social-media mania, and the relentless march of gentrification. In an era in which formerly off-limits neighborhoods everywhere from Berlin to Brooklyn are being transformed into shiny hipster playgrounds, a prewar hotel in the heart of newly hot downtown L.A. would seem to be a surefire road to riches.
That's the plan, anyway, admits the Cecil's deep-pocketed new owner, Richard Born, a Queens native who purchased the hotel in 2014 for $30 million and whose portfolio of New York City properties includes The Mercer , the Maritime, the Bowery, the Greenwich, The Ludlow , and the Jane—a former fleabag with a clientele nearly as star-crossed as the Cecil's.
If you've stayed someplace cool in New York, Born is probably at least partly responsible—for both the property and the gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood. Now he's aiming to do the same with the Cecil, establishing a West Coast beachhead for his ongoing experiment in urban renewal.
In fact, history teaches us, it's not so easy for hotels to shake their dark pasts. Opened in 1884, New York's iconic Chelsea Hotel has been home to Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and Charles Bukowski, to name but a few. It was also Dylan Thomas' home when he drank himself into an early grave in 1953, and where Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in 1978.
It is currently being restored and renovated, much to the chagrin of the hotel's old-timers, but its Sid-and-Nancy story line is certain to remain part and parcel of the Chelsea's darkly glamorous allure. Similarly, at Chateau Marmont, bragging rights come with the key to Bungalow 3, where John Belushi OD'd in 1982.
At the Cecil, however, Born is seeking to turn the page on the grisly past and usher in a chic new era, one free of the low-rent notoriety that has clung to the hotel as stubbornly as the mural that dominates its beige-brick façade, against a peeling, blood-red background.
"We've taken over some pretty spooky buildings in New York," Born says. "I built The Bowery Hotel next to the Salvation Army shelter and across from a New York City–run methadone clinic, and it didn't scare us off," he says, scoffing at the idea that Skid Row's scruffiness might keep guests away. "People today say, 'Oh, the Bowery Hotel—what a chichi neighborhood.' Well, it wasn't that way a dozen years ago."
Born seems similarly untroubled by Hollywood's current obsession with all things Cecil. "The TV show doesn't change anything," he says. Besides, Born's grand rebranding won't happen for another two years. (The Cecil currently operates as a 600-room budget hotel called Stay on Main.)
"American Horror Story," he says, "will have been forgotten by that point." The hotelier William Banks Hanner built the Cecil in 1924 as a destination for traveling businessmen and tourists, with an opulent marble lobby, potted palms, and alabaster statuary. It wasn't a bad plan—several similar hotels had opened elsewhere downtown—but Hanner's timing was terrible: Within five years, the United States would sink into the Great Depression and bustling Main Street would begin its swift decline into Skid Row, with as many as 10,000 homeless people living within a four-mile radius.
In response, the then-700-room Cecil was gradually transformed into single-room-occupancy housing for transients: Drug use and prostitution were rampant, and the bodies began piling up. Murders and overdoses were not uncommon, and several women leaped to their death from the windows of the upper floors—one killing a passerby in the process. It is even said that the Black Dahlia—a.k.a. Elizabeth Short, whose naked body was found cleaved in half in Leimert Park in 1947—had downed her final drink at the hotel bar.
By the summer of 1985, the Cecil was home to the man who would become its most notorious guest: Richard Ramirez, an avowed Satanist later dubbed the Night Stalker, whose two-year killing spree took the lives of at least 13 people throughout the Los Angeles area.
According to legend, Ramirez would return to the hotel from his latest crime scene, strip off his blood-drenched clothes in the alley out back, and climb the stairs to his room naked or in his underwear, somehow raising no alarms. Apparently, what happened at the Cecil stayed at the Cecil.
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