The Villa Carlotta apartment building is a romantic Hollywood fantasy come true: it was built in 1926 by Elinor Ince, the widow of early studio head Thomas Ince, who died somewhat mysteriously in 1924 after a party on William Randolph Hearst's yacht. (Hearst is rumored to have helped finance the project out of guilt; his long-time mistress Marion Davies lived in the building for a time, as did gossip columnist and yacht guest Louella Parsons.)
Architect Arthur Harvey designed a "flamboyant Churrigueresque" building on the corner of Franklin and Tamarind in Hollywood's Franklin Village, filled with hand-painted and hand-carved details, and outfitted with the most luxurious amenities of the day, including soundproofing and central refrigeration. Over the decades, as Hollywood became dirty and neglected, the paint on the beams at the Villa Carlotta faded and a more lowkey set of artists, musicians, actors, and others moved in, making the place their own, painting and decorating and creating a close-knit community, subletting as they left for film shoots or tours, under what was for years a laissez faire management and with rents kept low by the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance.
But the Red Line subway and a campaign of redevelopment have made Hollywood fashionable again and the Villa Carlotta sold last year to a company called CGI Properties, which plans to turn the building into a hotel. For nearly a year now, they've been emptying out the apartments and planning a $2.4-million renovation that CGI founder Adrian Goldstein will create "the grand dame of real estate" in the neighborhood and "an alternative" to the flashy W Hotel nearby. (Since the area is not zoned for a hotel, they'll have to get a conditional use permit from the city allowing it to operate.) CGI is anxious to get started and will present its plans to the city's Cultural Heritage Commission tomorrow, but some of the building's few remaining tenants, already skeptical of the company's intentions, are nervous that the work will erase too much of the Villa Carlotta's history.
When CGI bought the building last August, a press release from the company said that they would "reposition the property as luxury long-term rentals appealing to individuals seeking an authentic Hollywood experience," with "a number of fully furnished, extended stay apartments catering to the executive engaged in the entertainment, Internet and technology business." Tenants say that they were told the same, and that they'd be able to continue living in their apartments as work was done on empty units (a strict new management company was brought in in 2013—subletters and other scofflaws were evicted, security cameras were strung up, and the building was more than half-empty when CGI took over). But Goldstein says that "there was never a plan that would've allowed the tenants to stay." The standard, short-term-stay hotel has been the plan "for quite some time now."
In December, CGI formally invoked a California law called the Ellis Act that allows landlords to evict tenants from rent-stabilized apartments so long as they take the entire building off of the rental market (Ellis has been credited as the engine of San Francisco's hypergentrification over the last few years and has been on the rise in Los Angeles since the end of the recession); since last winter, CGI has been buying renters out one by one and, in May, it began eviction proceedings for some of the few remaining tenants. Goldstein says the company has been generous in its buyout offers, offering "three to four times" what's required under the law, and that "there's a million and one other apartments in the community … in gorgeous architectural buildings." Two tenants who have left the building both told Curbed that taking the buyout was just like giving up, cheaper for them than the time and energy they were spending fighting eviction.
Today there are five apartments left occupied in the Villa Carlotta. The tenants in three of the units qualify for extensions under Ellis that will let them stay until December (given to the elderly or disabled); the other two have begun to fight their evictions in court, with the help of a friend and a family member who happen to be lawyers and have taken on the cases essentially pro bono. Tenants who have both left and stayed are skeptical that CGI actually intends to open a hotel; several people said they believed that was a feint made only to support its Ellis Act evictions.
Goldstein says CGI intends to reopen the Villa Carlotta as a hotel offering "a bohemian experience" in line with its Franklin Village neighborhood, a shady few blocks known for Birds, a friendly localsy beer and chicken restaurant; UCB's tiny black box theater; and the Scientology Celebrity Centre, originally known as the Château Élysée, which was designed by Arthur Harvey for Elinor Ince a few years after the construction of the Villa Carlotta. No operator has been selected to run the hotel, but Goldstein imagines something "like a Chateau Marmont, where people can come and be catered to" (and where rooms start at $435). He says a hotel will open the Villa Carlotta to the public—"If someone wants to walk by and have a coffee in the courtyard and read a newspaper, they'll have that ability"—but right now it's just "boarded up and it's crumbling to pieces."
The remaining tenants say the Villa Carlotta is still a very pleasant place to live, except that security has been tightened and maintenance has been put off as CGI prepares for its renovation—they say the heat was out for weeks during a cold snap last winter, and that at one point an elevator was left out-of-order for days. Goldstein wouldn't comment on those complaints, except to say that "This is a beautiful, historic, landmark building that should be in the public domain …. We have one or two tenants preventing us from renovating the building for a better good for the community."
CGI is still moving forward though. Since they intend to begin renovations while there are still tenants living in the building, they've worked with the city's Housing and Community Investment Department to create a Tenant Habitability Plan, their strategy for accommodating tenants and keeping them safe while work is underway. According to the THP, the work will be significant—the Carlotta has asbestos, mold, and lead that will all have to be dealt with; all common areas, from the roof to the halls to the lobby, will be renovated; the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems will all be upgraded; new lighting will be installed; apartment doors will be replaced; floors, stair railings, and ceiling details will be painted and refinished.
The approved THP says CGI can start work on August 1, but first they will need permits from the LA Department of Building & Safety, which, because the Villa Carlotta is a city landmark, means they'll need approval from the Office of Historic Resources. While the city's landmarking ordinance protects building exteriors and prevents demolition, interior preservation is subject to the judgment of the OHR's Historic Preservation Architect and, when necessary, its appointed Cultural Heritage Commission.
The Villa Carlotta was landmarked in 1984 in response to an application submitted by a tenant. The application says that "Individuality of apartments appears to have been paramount to the design" and describes the drama of the details:
Arched windows and entry ways, lavishly detailed hand painted friezes that adorn carved ceiling beams and carved stair railings, as well as wall medallions make up only a part of the highly ornate features of the buildings. The low-relief carvings, highlighted arches, columns, windows surrounds, cornices, and parapets exemplify the unique features of the Spanish Churrigueresque style. Wrought iron balconies, alone with parepetal fire escapes, grace the outside of the building.
CGI has never remodeled a historic building like this (although Goldstein mentioned the makeover of a 1976 building in Westwood as one precursor), but Goldstein says "our objective is to preserve history, not destroy it."
The company has already remodeled one unit as a model. OHR's Historic Preservation Architect, Lambert Giessinger, inspected that apartment in June and sent an email to the company's architects and preservation consultants (obtained by Curbed) that suggests that the work was a little destructive. In a 13-point list, Giessinger instructs the architects to reuse the Carlotta's original built-ins, rather than replacing them with new cabinetry as in the model unit, to "Develop a plan for more limited rehabilitation and repair work in the existing, in-tact kitchens," and to "rethink the extent of bathroom reconfiguration." Some Carlotta units have rectangular openings for Murphy beds, and CGI apparently intends to create similar alcoves in the units that don't have them; Giessinger writes that the model unit has an arched opening instead of a square, which "seems out of character with the building." According to the email, CGI also used linoleum in the kitchen, despite specifying tile (which Giessinger calls "an appropriate change") and added dark brown outlets (which he say look "oddly institutional").
CGI says it will follow the Office of Historic Resources' recommendations and the company will present new plans to the Cultural Heritage Commission at a 9 am hearing tomorrow morning. But the CHC won't actually vote on the plan—they intend to leave final approvals to Giessinger. Carlotta tenant Sylvie Shain plans to speak at the meeting tomorrow, asking the higher authority of the CHC to get involved and create specific requirements for which features must be preserved in the renovation (she's also started a letter-writing campaign); that'd also mean more opportunities for public feedback on the renovations.
Shain is anxious to slow the work down before renovations have been made that are impossible to undo. CGI is anxious to get their approvals and move ahead to "create something stunning," as Goldstein says. "What is the point of obstructing us? I don't get it," he asks about the few remaining residents at the Villa Carlotta, but there's one thing CGI is taking its time on: that conditional use permit that'll be required if they want to open a hotel in the building. Goldstein says that "Right now we're trying to take a low profile until the building is empty, and then we're going to get the [permit]."
· Rumormongering at Villa Carlotta, Where Studios Fit Grand Pianos [Curbed LA]
· Legendary Villa Carlotta Complex Getting Hollywood Makeover [Curbed LA]
· New Owners of Hollywood's Historic Villa Carlotta Just Gave All Tenants Christmas Week Evictions [Curbed LA]