In 1913, the Bryson Apartment Hotel was one of LA’s chicest places to live. Awash in “Italian marble, tile and and mahogany” with a lobby “lighted with chandeliers of cut glass,” it dripped with luxury. A center of social life for well-heeled Angelenos and visitors from out of state, the Wilshire Boulevard building was a popular venue for parties, receptions, teas, fundraisers, and other gatherings, and it was mentioned frequently in the pages of the Los Angeles Times.
Three decades later, the Wilshire Boulevard property was described as a faded relic with “fretted lanterns” and “too-blue carpet” in the hardboiled fiction of Raymond Chandler. What led to its decline into a world of fast-talking private eyes and duplicitous femmes fatales, and how did Chandler’s prose ultimately help keep it alive?
The Bryson Apartment Hotel had already been around for 30 years by the time The Lady in the Lake was published. Formally opened on February 15, 1913 by real estate developer Hugh W. Bryson in the then-booming Westlake district, the Frederick Noonan and Charles H. Kysor-designed building was billed as “the largest and finest structure of its kind west of New York”. The LA Times described the opening bash:
The formal opening of the new million-dollar Bryson apartment hotel at the corner of Wilshire boulevard and Rampart, was held last evening, the occasion taking the form of a St. Valentine’s ball. More than 600 guests, among them many of the society folk of the city, were in attendance, and the great ballroom on the tenth floor as well as the loggias, took on the appearance of fairyland.
The grounds, too, were highly touted. “The landscaping of the place constitutes one of its principal charms,” the LA Times gushed later that year. Set back from the street by more than 100 feet, it was noted for its fountains, “wide lawns, beautiful gardens and tennis courts.”
Baby palms were planted around the building, constructed around a central court, the front gates of which were flanked by two pairs of stone lions bearing heraldic shields. In addition to its 45- by 60-square foot ballroom, the rooftop boasted such common areas as a billiard room and glass-walled loggias.
Twenty-five years before cementing its noir bona fides in the The Lady in the Lake, the Bryson made its big-screen debut in A Film Johnnie, a 1914 comedy short starring Charlie Chaplin in which the building’s exterior stood in for the real-life Keystone Studios.
Five years later, it appeared in the Fox-Sunshine comedy short Money Talks starring vaudevillian-turned-film-star Mack Swain. As reported in the Wichita Beacon in February 1919, an aerial stunt featuring Swain’s co-star Bobby Dunn was filmed on the grounds.
By 1943, the Bryson had lost some of its luster. Enter Chandler, whose used it as a location in his Philip Marlowe novel The Lady in the Lake. Here’s the scene in which Marlowe arrives at the Bryson to question the femme fatale-esque beauty Adrienne Fromsett:
Twenty five minutes brought us to the Bryson Tower, a white stucco palace with fretted lanterns in the forecourt and tall date palms. The entrance was in an L, up marble steps, through a Moorish archway, and over a lobby that was too big and a carpet that was too blue. Blue Ali Baba oil jars were dotted around, big enough to keep tigers in. There was a desk and a night clerk with one of those moustaches that get stuck under your finger nail.”
The description suggests an outdated remnant of old-school luxury, a cold, cavernous space haunted by elderly elevator attendants and boasting “cool,” “quiet” hallways:
The corridor seemed a mile long. We came at last to a door with 716 on it in gilt numbers in a circle of gilt leaves. There was an ivory button beside the door… Miss Fromsett wore a quilted blue robe over her pajamas. On her feet were small tufted slippers with high heels. Her dark hair was fluffed out engagingly and the cold cream had been wiped from her face and just enough makeup applied.
We went past her into a narrow room with several handsome oval mirrors and gray period furniture upholstered in blue damask… She sat down on a slender love seat and leaned back and waited calmly for somebody to say something.
Chandler later co-wrote the screenplay for the 1944 film adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, in which the Bryson has often been said to appear. It didn’t, in fact, but the confusion is understandable.
Not only does the film boast the Chandler connection, the Bryson was bought by Indemnity star Fred MacMurray just two months following the film’s release. The purchase was briefly mentioned in the LA Times dated September 14, 1944.
That $600,000 purchase price is suggestive of the Bryson’s faltering reputation. More than 20 years earlier, it had been bought by hotelier John Hernan for a reported $900,000. Ten years before that, drug store magnate Frederick William Braun acquired it for $1.25 million.
But like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, MacMurray got the raw end of the deal. By 1949, he was pleading for a property assessment reduction from the Board of Equalization.
MacMurray retained ownership of the Bryson for several decades, but his efforts at turning its fortunes around failed. In February 1977, a bright spot appeared when the LA Times reported the building was undergoing a $350,000 facelift by new manager Don Bohler after years of deterioration:
“These facilities have not withstood the times and the 10th floor is now stripped and used for storage, only remnants of an ornate gilt frieze under the ceiling hinting at its former opulance [sic].”
In addition to a new exterior paint job, the interior was recarpeted, repainted, redraped, and partially refurnished. Bohler further claimed the 10th floor would soon be reconstructed into penthouse apartments. Referencing a 1920s-era brochure of the property, Bohler told the LA Times: “It’s true. On a clear day you can see Catalina.”
Yet the downward slide continued. In 1987, the Bryson had degenerated enough to play Faye Dunaway’s seedy apartment in Barfly, a film written by LA poet and author Charles Bukowski. By August 1988, as reported in the LA Times, the property was in bankruptcy proceedings. The following year, English travel writer Gavin Young toured “Raymond Chandler’s LA” for Australian newspaper The Age and found the building in a state of decayed grandeur:
“The friendly clerk said these days all the rooms were real cheap - $US675 ($A810) a month; full of students and senior citizens. ‘The marble-floored ballroom on the top floor was famous, I believe.’ He shook his head. ‘Now it’s nothing but a pigeon-loft.’”
While bad for the Bryson, the building’s neglected state was perfect for Stephen Frears. In preparation for his classic 1990 neo-noir The Grifters, the director was searching for a place to house John Cusack’s low-rent con artist Roy Dillon. Richard Davis, the film’s location manager and an avowed Chandler fan, pointed the filmmaker in the Bryson’s direction.
“I mentioned to [Frears], I said, you know, this location we’re gonna look at next was actually in Lady in the Lake,” he says. “So we drove down Commonwealth and made a left onto Wilshire, and there it was up on the hill: a brooding apartment building nestled among the palm trees.”
As portrayed in the film, the Bryson makes for a perfect homage to the LA noir of yesteryear with its dusty old-school interiors and glass-cage elevators. It evokes a decay even more advanced than what Chandler described in The Lady in the Lake, which was published only a decade or so after the building’s prime.
Nearly 50 years on, the Bryson looks in the film to be on its last legs: Its once-grand lobby now gloomy and crowded with old furniture.
While The Grifters showcased the Bryson’s exterior and common areas, Davis notes the apartments available to the production at the time were “too small” for their purposes (Dillon’s apartment was ultimately built on a soundstage). Size wasn’t an issue for Paul Thomas Anderson, who used the “narrow” suites of Chandler’s description for the apartment of suicide attempter-turned-homicide victim Sydney Barringer and his brawling parents in Magnolia.
Magnolia’s horrific opening is set in 1958, a time when the Bryson may well have housed a working-class family like the Barringers. As seen in the film, the interiors of the building are drab and neglected, with half-painted hallways and apartments far from the “elegantly finished and furnished” suites described in its early days.
“It was supposed to be a down apartment anyway, so the state of it actually helped us in certain ways,” says the film’s location manager Timothy Hillman. “We didn’t have to do anything to bring it down, we actually had to bring it up a little. The condition of the place actually appealed to us.”
According to Hillman, the building was in the midst of yet another facelift during production. “They had just done a lot of lead paint abatement,” he says. “And we had to go in with a hazmat company and do another $10,000 worth of HEPA [vacuuming] and wiping down to make sure there was no… lead paint in the air for the crew to go in.”
The facelift in question was the work of Los Angeles Housing Partnership, a nonprofit developer that secured tax credits and other funding in the late 1990s to restore the Bryson, which had been designated a Historic Cultural Monument in 1998, to its former glory. Following the project’s completion, 24 units were set aside for low-income families.
The property’s elegant past remains embedded in its classic architecture, with its “moulded concrete ornamentation,” marble steps, and majestic lobby. Seventy-five years later, the Beaux Arts-style building still stands at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Rampart boulevards.
“We stop out in front to talk about how the building figures in The Lady in the Lake and read that wonderful scene in the lobby,” says Kim Cooper, who co-founded tour company Esotouric. The company’s Raymond Chandler bus tour includes a stop at the Bryson.
The Bryson’s greatest legacy remains its association with Chandler, who in several deft, witty sentences brought it alive like no one before or since.
“He made the Bryson immortal,” says Cooper. Like Marlowe himself, the stucco palace endures.