The Millennium Biltmore Hotel: The Story of an L.A. Icon

The Galleria at Millennium Biltmore Hotel
The Galleria | Photo courtesy of Millennium Biltmore Hotel

It's hard to remember that just past the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles was a small city known more for its oil reserves, orange groves and great expanses of land than anything else. There was little here outside incredible year-round weather, and that is what lured the first film production companies away from the East Coast. Initially, they came on a part-time basis to avoid the cold winter months, but stayed full-time soon after. L.A. quickly became the center of the industry and experienced a population boom. Even so, it was still very young in the eyes of the rest of the country. At a time when this area was still evolving and finding its identity, the arrival of the opulent Millennium Biltmore Hotel in 1923 was a "statement to the rest of the world that Los Angeles had arrived as an American metropolis." Its impact was undeniable and its grandeur would become an integral part of the history of our city.

Opening gala at the Millennium Biltmore (1923)
Opening gala (1923) | Photo courtesy of Millennium Biltmore

Originally opened as the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel on Oct. 1, 1923, the celebrations began almost immediately on a scale that few had ever seen. The following evening, 3,000 people poured into the hotel for a party that included Hollywood luminaries like studio head Jack Warner, Cecil B. DeMille, Mary Pickford and then-starlet Myrna Loy. It was such an elaborate affair that guests were served a seven-course dinner and serenaded by seven orchestras across the hotel's Galleria and glittering ballrooms. And, with a slightly surreal touch that seems straight out of the movies, the symphony of music was accented by singing canaries.

This was far from the only elegant event at the Biltmore. At this point in the city's history, Downtown Los Angeles was the center of its entertainment and the theater district was still thriving along Broadway. Much of the social scene of the 1920s was at the Biltmore, including the era's most glamorous stars, from Gloria Swanson to Theda Bara. Even in this time of Prohibition, the hotel's Gold Room acted as a speakeasy complete with a hidden door to help revelers avoid the police (and often the press and paparazzi) with an escape onto Olive Street. The door is still there - it connects to a room that has a wooden counter top, coat hooks and bathroom - though the exit on Olive has been sealed in brick. The Presidential Suite - a spacious room that has seen six U. S. presidents, royalty, and notorious gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone - still has a recessed spot to hide liquor, which remained illegal in most of L.A. until 1933.

The Galleria at the Millennium Biltmore stands in for the Chevrolet lobby in the “Mad Men” Season 6 episode, “For Immediate Release.”
The Galleria at the Millennium Biltmore stands in for the Chevrolet lobby in the “Mad Men” Season 6 episode, “For Immediate Release.” | Photo courtesy of “Mad Men,” Facebook

From the beginning, the Biltmore was a backdrop for Hollywood in more ways than one, and the hotel is heavily intertwined with that history. Within its first year, it was already a shooting location for DeMille's 1924 film Triumph. It would continue to offer itself for scenes in film, particularly those trying to capture the polish of the past, such as Ocean's 11 (1960), The Sting (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Bugsy (1991) as well as television's Mad Men.

Because of its elegance, the hotel was a favorite place to meet and be merry in the 1920s and 30s. Whether it was stars going out on the town or studios throwing a big bash, the Biltmore was the place to be. Even the party for the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now known as the TCL Chinese Theatre), located across town in Hollywood, was held here. In fact, many of the most important moments of Hollywood history have happened at the Biltmore. In 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was born at a gathering in the hotel's Crystal Ballroom. Legend has it that MGM's great production designer Cedric Gibbons even sketched the first Oscar statue on one of the hotel's linen napkins.

Walt Disney and Shirley Temple at the 1939 Oscars
Walt Disney and Shirley Temple at the 1939 Oscars | Photo courtesy of Millennium Biltmore Hotel

It seems only appropriate then that the actual Oscar ceremony would be held here. After a couple of years at the Roosevelt (1929) and Ambassador (1930) hotels, the Academy Awards came to the Biltmore. It took place in the Biltmore Bowl, a ballroom that was added to the original hotel in 1928 and its grandest - approximately a third wider and longer than the others and could hold some 1,000 guests. The Oscars would return in 1935-39 and 1941-42. As a result, the number of stars who stepped through its doors is staggering. Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, and Gary Cooper all won their Oscars here. So did Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine, Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert. The Biltmore is where It Happened One Night (1934) set a record by sweeping the Oscars' top honors - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress. Claudette was so convinced she wouldn't win that she went to Union Station to board a train and had to be brought back to the Biltmore to accept her award. These are just some of the stories from those glory days. For anyone who loves film of the 1920s and 30s, the Biltmore is sacred ground.

Once you see the Biltmore, you will understand why it was - and still is - so revered. It is a work of art in and of itself. John McEntee Bowman, the founder of the hotel, wanted the best of the best from the very beginning. He already had great success with hotels in New York and exotic locales like Cuba, and saw the future of Los Angeles. Bowman hired the architecture firm of Schultze & Weaver, which also designed the exclusive Jonathan Club in Downtown L.A., to build his masterpiece. The man responsible for the decorative artistry inside the hotel is Italian genius Giovanni Battista Smeraldi, who was renowned for his work on two of the most famous buildings in the world - the White House and the Vatican - when he was commissioned to work on the Biltmore.

Rendezvous Court at Millennium Biltmore
Rendezvous Court at Millennium Biltmore | Photo courtesy of Frank Hsu Flickr

With inspiration from the Italian and Spanish Renaissance everywhere you look, the hotel's three towers stretch above the ballrooms below to give its guests a view of Pershing Square across the street. With more than 1,000 rooms when it was built, and each with its own bathroom (pure luxury at the time), it was the "largest and grandest" hotel west of Chicago. The original lobby, now called the Rendezvous Court, reminds you of a Spanish cathedral.  It’s three stories high with travertine walls and arches that intersect with a vaulted ceiling. Two bronze light fixtures imported from Italy hang between the ceiling's ribs. There are elaborate carvings wherever you look, and the room is finished with paint that’s accented in 24-karat gold. It's hard not to think of all the people who walked through this grand room and swept up its double staircase to reach the rest of the hotel. This kind of welcome makes you understand why the Biltmore was known as the "Host of the Coast."

Crystal Ballroom at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel
The Crystal Ballroom at Millennium Biltmore Hotel | Photo courtesy of Michael Chen, Flickr

Past the stairs and elevators, one first enters the Galleria, a 350-foot long hall that is as spectacular as the grand rooms it connects. The best known of these rooms is the Crystal Ballroom. It was simply called "The Ballroom" when it was built, then changed to the "Blue Room" before being named after its two signature Austrian crystal chandeliers. They're so delicate that staff climb up to clean them (rather than having them drop down) and then must do so in sections "like an onion." The lights, which give the room a soft glow, are at the center of a concave-domed ceiling covered in a single canvas hand-painted by Smeraldi. This is only the beginning of the grandeur. All around the room, cream columns stand between balconies and French doors. Three great windows stand at the top of the room and almost reach the ceiling. It can seat 700 people, but the Biltmore's Tiffany Room is right next door and can open up even more space for the main Ballroom.

The Emerald Room at Millennium Biltmore Hotel
The Emerald Room at Millennium Biltmore Hotel | Photo by Kimberly Truhler

The Emerald Room is very different and reminds one of a hunting lodge. Its ceiling looks like it is built of beams of dark wood (apparently almost everything is made of plaster) and it's painted with many animal motifs, including different dogs between each of the columns, which seems like something of a wink from Smeraldi. Like the Crystal, the Emerald Room’s name evolved over the years. It was once used as the main "Dining Room" for the Biltmore and then later was renamed the "Renaissance Room" before coming to its current moniker. One of the Emerald Room's claims to fame is that it was Lyndon B. Johnson's war room during the 1960 Democratic National Convention, which was held at the hotel. Likewise, the Music Room - now the working lobby of the hotel - was the war room for Johnson's opponent and the future president, John F. Kennedy. One can imagine pages running frantically between the campaigns, including Adlai Stevenson in the hotel's Gold Room, during that historic convention.

The Gold Room at Millennium Biltmore Hotel
The Gold Room at Millennium Biltmore Hotel | Photo by Kimberly Truhler

The Gold Room has another connection to a very important player in the Biltmore's 90+ year history. One of its owners, the colorful Baron Long, started as a "small-time bad boy to a major player in night clubs, hotels and horse racing." He was a partner in Agua Caliente, a luxury gaming resort in Tijuana where the elite went to stay and play without limits during the Prohibition era. This is where a young Margarita Cansino - later known to the world as Rita Hayworth - was first discovered while dancing there with her father. Frequent guests of Agua Caliente included Louis B. Mayer, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson.

Following the Repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the country was free to drink again. Long bought the Biltmore and brought his party to Downtown Los Angeles. He even added hints of Agua Caliente in the Biltmore. What was once known as the "Palm Room" was redecorated and renamed the Gold Room after the room at his Mexican gaming resort where million-dollar bets were placed. The Biltmore's Gold Room quickly became the premier place for evening drinks.

You feel every bit of this history as you walk through the hotel and it still blows you away with its opulence. It was described as "luxury heaped upon luxury" by the Los Angeles Times when it was built and none of that has changed. It seems like a dream to stay there, especially with its original indoor pool and steam room, and will be even more so when room renovations are completed in 2016.

Gallery Bar and Cognac Room at the Millennium Biltmore
Gallery Bar and Cognac Room | Photo courtesy of Millennium Biltmore, Facebook

Even if you don't check in, a visit is still a must. There are two wonderful on-site restaurants, Smeraldi's and Bugis Street Brasserie, as well as the Gallery Bar and Cognac Room for a sophisticated evening of cocktails. For a lovely afternoon, the traditional tea in the Rendevous Court is well-known and has become so popular that other hotels have scrambled to start their own. And if you'd like to take a historic tour of the Biltmore, the Los Angeles Conservancy offers one at 2 p.m. on Sundays - click here to make your reservation. The hotel is such a landmark of Los Angeles, it was declared a historic monument in 1969.

There has been much renovation and restoration in Downtown Los Angeles in recent years, and as a result it has become a hot spot once again. Because the Biltmore is located close to so many cultural attractions, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Ahmanson Theater and Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), it continues to be a popular destination.

There's so much to love in its history and you can channel so many eras within its walls. The 1920s and 1930s saw the start of a glamorous relationship with Hollywood - both on and off-screen - that has continued to this day. That same period saw the romanticism of Prohibition and the Jazz Age. The 1940s saw the hotel playing a patriotic role when it housed servicemen during World War II. The 1950s brought guests back who wanted to celebrate in style. And the following decade saw the beginning of Camelot at the hotel with John F. Kennedy and the 1960 Democratic National Convention that brought the idealism of a new age.

That aspirational feeling has not left the Biltmore. It is an architectural masterpiece that offers guests and visitors elegance in our modern times.

Welcome to the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

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Kimberly Truhler