Just over a century ago, some of downtown Los Angeles' most storied hotels were bright, shiny, and new, and full of potential.
The Hotel Clark and the Morrison Hotel, both built in 1914, have had similar story arcs. Both were built as hotels, later became SROs as downtown's fortunes waned, lost all their tenants due to varying plans for luxury hotels, and have now been empty for years, despite the obvious need for the living spaces they offered to vulnerable Angelenos.
Eli P. Clark - railway entrepreneur, real estate investor, YMCA donor - commissioned the 555-room Hotel Clark. In those days, it was a grand hotel. The Morrison Hotel was much smaller, more modest, and further from downtown's core.
As the city expanded west, downtown became a less fashionable place to stay. When Bunker Hill was emptied out and razed, many nearby businesses closed, further emptying downtown.
It isn't precisely clear when either hotel became an SRO. A 1989 LA Times article citing a Hotel Clark resident who had lived there for 25 years indicates the Clark was a residential hotel at least as early as 1964.
When The Doors (and photographer Harry Diltz) shot their iconic "Morrison Hotel" cover in the Morrison's lobby, they were initially shooed away by the desk clerk. The Morrison was a cheap flophouse at that point. But the clerk stepped away, Diltz took the perfect shot, and the hotel will forever be known for its brief association with The Doors.
A different LA Times article from 1988 stated that then-City Attorney James K. Hahn had charged several slumlords, including the then-owners of the Morrison Hotel, for repeatedly ignoring instructions from fire, health, building, and safety inspectors to make repairs and deal with infestations. (If only the City Attorney were that proactive today!)
The Clark's owners were certainly no better. The hotel changed hands several times, with the tenants fighting harassment, extreme temperatures, unreliable water access, and attempted eviction (with the goal of turning the Clark into a luxury hotel).
In the summer of 1987, 150 people were still living at the Hotel Clark. May Wah International Enterprises, which owned the hotel, boarded up all but one fire exit, removed the fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, and cut off elevator access. When fire officials discovered this, the residents were all temporarily evacuated.
It was a cold and calculated attempt at getting rid of the Clark's tenants, many of whom were elderly, disabled, and unable to afford other housing. But the 50 remaining tenants fought back with a lawsuit and won.
Under RSO codes, the residents legally could not be forced out unless the building were to be demolished or taken off the market. May Wah tried this, claiming the Clark would be converted into a luxury hotel with a Chinese export market. However, the Rent Stabilization Board deemed it illegal to turn the RSO rooms into pricier accommodations.
The Hotel Clark has been empty since 1992. Subsequent owners' plans to convert it back into a hotel have fallen through repeatedly, most recently in 2019.
In 2004, inspectors found over 100 code violations at the Morrison Hotel. Despite the inexcusably inhumane conditions, the then-owners received shockingly light sentences.
The Morrison has been boarded up and empty for almost twenty years. Relevant Group, which bought the Morrison in 2018 with the intention of turning it into yet another party hotel (doesn't LA have enough of those?), brutally gutted the historic interior last year, likely to thwart a freshly-submitted landmark nomination.
The Morrison's 111 empty rooms are still protected housing stock, but try telling that to Relevant Group. Their announced plans to "renovate and restore" sound about as convincing as the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding Jim Morrison's tragic passing. (There is more dirt, of course. There's always more dirt.)
Between the two mistreated old hotels, there are 666 long-empty units that could be put to good use...IF the current owners would kindly fix them up or sell the buildings to someone who will. They may never be bright, shiny, and new again, but they could be clean, safe, and repaired or restored...and full of new potential.
Hotel Clark: 426 Hill Street, Historic Core.
Morrison Hotel: 1246 South Hope Street, South Park.