Unique Places

Hotel Cecil: A Wicked Refuge or a Refuge for the Wicked?

Hotel Cecil is the wooden stacking doll of historical hotels in downtown Los Angeles. As it’s changed hands over the years, it’s continued to serve as a relic of what once was—and the grandness of its marble lobby and Beaux Arts-style architecture is not lost on us today. But unlike the children’s toy, the hotel’s hidden layers don’t reveal rosy-cheeked figures wearing smiles, but a dark past that has a seemingly relentless hold on the structure, and one that’s earned it recognition, no longer as a go-to destination for travelers, but as a local landmark known for paranormal activity—and one that continues to be a magnet for fallen souls and bizarre happenings.

Cecil Hotel

Ronald, a former employee of Hotel Cecil who held a managerial role for a few years in the ’90s—a pseudonym was used to conceal his identity—worked at the hotel for less than 30 days when he started noticing some of the unusual activity that’s synonymous with its ominous reputation. “I had barely been there a month when I began noticing the strange reports and complaints that were coming in from guests/patrons that were staying there,” he says. “Within the first six months, I and other fellow employees had received hundreds of complaints about disembodied voices, crying, screaming and disturbing whispering in various rooms, seeing the silhouettes of unidentified people running through rooms and disappearing into walls, doors and cabinets opening and closing, sink and shower faucets going on and off, sickening smells that moved and inexplicably disappeared, and the physical sensation of being electrically shocked, pinched and even pushed by no one, and the list goes on.”

Inexplicable eyewitness accounts like those described by Ronald, are shared with Amy Price, who was the hotel’s manager for 10 years, from 2007 to 2017, as she disclosed in the 2021 Netflix documentary series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, detailing the mysterious death of Elisa Lam in 2013. Price chalks up the hotel’s nefarious reports and activities to circumstances and chance and hopes it can one day escape its “darkness.” But it’s hard to escape something when it’s all you’ve ever known.

Full of Promise

Hotel Cecil was meant to be a lavish destination for locals and traveling professionals when it opened its doors on December 20, 1924, in the midst of the holiday season. Joe Berlinger, producer of the Netflix documentary, described it as a “jewel” in Los Angeles in its short heyday, and it was. Named after the prominent hotel of the same name in London, and standing tall at 14 floors with 700 guest rooms, the massive structure was the brainchild of hoteliers Charles L. Dix, Robert H. Schops and William Banks Hanner, who together invested nearly $2.5 million, tantamount to more than $15 million today, to have it built from the ground up. Its structure draws from the Beaux Arts style, which combines the likeness of French neoclassicism architecture with design elements from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. Coupled with growth took place throughout the city, from LA becoming the end of the line of the transcontinental railroad in 1876 to its budding public transit system that brought riders all across the city; to the Pacific Electric Railway System which, in the 1920s, was the largest electric railway system in the world, and to its location smack dab in the middle of the downtown metropolitan area (640 S. Main Street), Hotel Cecil was convenient for those coming and going—and best of all, it offered options. At the time, Main Street was the city’s heartbeat, and close by the hotel were stores, restaurants and theaters, and also the Spring Street Financial District.

Hotel Cecil, photographed in 1928. Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Hotel Cecil, photographed in 1928. Los Angeles Public Library photo collection
Photo via curbed.com

It was grand. It was promising. Its location was the lifeblood of LA. But the onslaught of the Great Depression just five years later prompted people to move out of the city and into the suburbs, and segueing into development of LA’s freeway system, and finally the eradication of the streetcar system by 1960. Coupled with Hotel Cecil being in the middle of LA’s Skid Row, a four-mile radius, 50-block containment zone that’s “home” to more than 10,000 homeless people, and a place notorious for addiction, mental illness, prostitution and other criminal activity that remains problematic for the Los Angeles Police Department to this day—it seems the hotel never truly had a chance to live up to what its initial investors had hoped for. Like a person who’s weathered many storms in their life and lived to tell the tale, so goes Hotel Cecil; and perhaps this jagged underbelly is the reason why it continues to inspire countless podcasts, vlogs and productions made by curious and intrigued creatives, including the 1991 comedy and psychological thriller Barton Fink and season five, “Hotel,” of the FX horror series American Horror Story.

There’s many self-proclaimed nonbelievers who dismiss reports of Hotel Cecil’s unusual occurrences today, and in the past, as possibly being swayed by unknown forces. Ronald was also one of these people. “As a skeptic and nonbeliever in the paranormal, I myself originally dismissed the many claims as mostly being over-active imaginations, and others a result of intoxication and/or drugs, and even psychologically unstable people,” he says. But as time wore on, Ronald’s perception quickly changed. “Whenever I had to take the elevator for any reason, I began to notice more and more the unsettling feeling of being watched and ‘things’ in the corner of my eyes. And I was really trying to take into account that perhaps all the unexplained and disturbing reports might have actually gotten to me, but I could not shake the feeling of growing anxiety, tension and being stalked, as well as energy-consuming dread that was everywhere,” he says. “In contrast, the moment I exited the hotel every day at the end of my shift, the feeling of decompression and relief was immense, and felt a difference of night and day.”

Hotel Cecil

Photo source

A Sordid Past

This inescapable feeling of trepidation that Ronald speaks of could have very well played a role in the unfolding of Hotel Cecil’s morbid history. There are 17 reported suicides, murders and accidental deaths that occurred at or around the hotel grounds that captured media attention over its 100 years, though during Price’s decade-long stint as hotel manager, she claimed there’d been at least 80 deaths. Multiplied over the course of its lifetime, and that brings us to 800 fatalities—though of course, that’s just speculation.

Arguably, the hotel’s most infamous death occurred in 2013, when 21-year-old college student, Elisa Lam, departed from her home in Vancouver, Canada, and set out on a solo trip—her self-described “West Coast tour”—planning to visit San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and San Francisco; but she never made it to her last two destinations. In what remains an internet sensation, Hotel Cecil gleaned national headlines and caught the eye of internet sleuths when a clip from a hotel security tape was shown across news channels, asking for information on Lam’s disappearance and/or potential whereabouts. The tape showed Lam making erratic hand motions and disjointedly moving in and out of a hotel elevator, shortly before her estimated time of death. Weeks later, Lam was found deceased in one of the hotel’s four rooftop water tanks, with little indication as to what happened. Since, it’s drawn the attention of many well-known true crime YouTube vloggers, like Stephanie Harlowe’s “Elisa Lam and The Cecil Hotel” and “Elisa Lam: The Haunted Cecil Hotel” by Lights Out Podcast—which have more than 500,000 combined views—and other curious folk who attempt to retrace the steps of Lam’s last moments, though with as much success as anyone else who’s speculated on the case: the facts remain unknown, trapped in time, and it may remain that way.

But Lam’s death was far from the first. The first recorded death took place on January 22, 1927, when Percy Ormond Cook, a 52-year-old former real estate agent from Providence, Rhode Island, died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, leaving behind a note claiming that he spent $40,000 over the previous six months in “a vain attempt to buy happiness,” and had been suffering from loneliness after a separation from his wife and son. A string of seven suicides by way of poison, firearm, slashing of the throat and jumping from a hotel window took place during the 17 years that followed, until September 7, 1944, when 19-year-old Dorothy Jean Purcell gave birth in a communal hotel bathroom, unbeknownst to her 38-year-old boyfriend Ben Levine, who was sleeping at the time, and threw her infant son out a 12th-story window, causing him to land on the rooftop of an adjacent building. Allegedly Purcell believed the baby was stillborn, but it was later confirmed that her newborn was alive, and she was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Shortly after in 1947, an infamous murder received mass coverage when 22-year-old aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, nicknamed by the media as the “Black Dahlia,” was brutally killed just blocks from Hotel Cecil. Short was believed to have been drinking in the hotel’s bar days before. A case that remains unsolved to this day, Short’s gruesome death on January 15 received such wide-scale attention because of its graphic nature: she had been mutilated and drained of blood, and her naked body was found severed in half at the waist.

Evidence concerning the murder of American aspiring actress and murder victim Elizabeth Short

Evidence concerning the murder of American aspiring actress and murder victim Elizabeth Short. Photo: Getty Images via oxygen.com

Three more suicides took place over the next 18 years, until October 12, 1962, which marked the beginning of even more tragic, headline-gleaming stories for Hotel Cecil. On this day, 27-year-old Pauline Otton jumped from the ninth story to her death, landing directly on 65-year-old George Giannini, a pedestrian walking below, killing them both instantly. She’d been fighting with her estranged husband, 32-year-old sheet metal worker Dewey Otton, and after going to his place of work in attempts to reconcile, the pair agreed to meet at Hotel Cecil to talk about their marriage. While Dewey was out having dinner, Pauline left behind a suicide note and leapt from their hotel room window. When police discovered Pauline and 65-year-old George Giannini, they initially thought they’d jumped together, but quickly saw that Giannini’s hands were in his pockets and his shoes were still on; something that would have been impossible if he’d jumped himself.

Throughout the 1960s, the hotel was deeply seeing the effects of the worsening Skid Row and the Los Angeles Police Department’s struggle to control crime in the area. Unable to keep up with fire and safety codes, smaller surrounding hotels closed, reducing area lodging by 50 percent, according to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and severely displacing many people under the poverty line; a good portion of whom were also plagued by substance abuse and mental health issues. Struggling to keep doors open, hotels that remained in business, like Hotel Cecil, began offering single-room occupancy and lowered their rates, appealing more to this population than its original intended market of traveling professionals, which only further discouraged them from staying there. Eventually, the hotel began providing low-income housing on designated floors, with many of these new guests living there for years.

Also in the ‘60s, a resident of Hotel Cecil, 65-year-old retired telephone operator Goldie Osgood, was found dead in her room—she had been living at the hotel for some time—on June 6, 1964. Well known by locals as “Pigeon Goldie” as she was regularly seen feeding the pigeons, Osgood parted ways from a few friends and returned to her room after a seemingly normal day. She was followed, and the assailant, who remains unknown, beat and sexually assaulted her, and strangled Osgood to death.

After the suicide of an unidentified woman in 1975, Hotel Cecil was home to another class of guests: serial killers. In 1985, 24-year-old Richard Ramirez, dubbed the “Night Stalker” by the media, stayed at the hotel as he terrorized communities in the Greater LA and San Francisco areas. Convicted in 1989 and charged with 13 murders, 14 burglaries and 11 sexual assaults, for a few weeks Ramirez rested his head at the Hotel Cecil, where he paid just $14 per night. On a few twilights, he’d even remove his blood-stained clothing behind the hotel and discard it in a hotel dumpster, then walk through the lobby and up to his room barefoot and in his underwear. And no one even, not even the hotel staff, allegedly batted an eye.

The Cecil Hotel and Richard Ramirez

The Cecil Hotel and Richard Ramirez Photo: Netflix; Getty Images
via oxygen.com

Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger soon followed in Ramirez’s footsteps. A 41-year-old journalist who became somewhat of a known figure in the area, Unterweger—who had committed murder in West Germany and Czechoslovakia, and who served a 15-year prison stint in Austria for the sexual assault and murder of an 18-year-old woman in 1974—went to LA in 1991 oddly enough to report on the city’s red light districts for an Austrian magazine. After killing at least three sex workers during his brief stay at Hotel Cecil—Unterweger was known for his “signature” style of assaulting his victims with a tree branch and strangling them using the bras that they wore—he was extradited back to Austria and charged with nine murders, ultimately taking his own life in his prison cell.

Unexplained Phenomena

Since the finding of another unidentified body in 1992, a man who was believed to have fallen from the hotel’s rooftop; deaths reported at the hotel seemed to have ceased, but that didn’t mean the activity inside had quieted down. Ronald says that he was witness to many strange experiences around this time. “As months went by, I encountered more and more strange and bizarre events, so much so, that I simply could not ignore them,” he says. “I first began experiencing them around the lobby, front desk area and offices, since that’s where I spent the majority of my time. Unexplained handprints and footprints of icy, cold water tracking on floors through the lobby and on the front desk, and even, amazingly, on the ceiling; some sort of large, shadowy figure whisking by in the corner view of your eyes, and unexplained flickering lights.”

Ronald’s encounters only intensified the longer he worked there. “Then as I had to spend more time on various floors, moving through the hotel and in guests’ hotel rooms, I encountered more strange and even startling encounters. Objects moving by themselves, the sound of someone talking, snickering, whispering or even breathing right behind me, only to discover that no one was there. Shadows of people moving across the floor, in elevators or along floor hallways, all attached to no visible person. Scary sensations like being electrocuted, hit, pushed and clusters of either extreme cold or blazing hot to the touch.”

Ronald says that, on many occasions, he saw patrons be overcome by a trance-like state, causing them to sleep-walk “right out of the hotel in the middle of the night,” and supposedly with no recollection—some of whom would experience “violent encounters” on nearby streets, which resulted in staff phoning police. “I’ve never believed in demonic possession, but I did witness firsthand how guests/patrons would come down in the middle of the night acting extremely odd and uncharacteristic of what they were when checking in or previously, on a couple of occasions causing dogs on the street to immediately become violently defensive when they walked by.” He adds, “These unexplainable sleep-walking events, for lack of a better word, were all assumed to be caused by drugs, legal or illegal, or alcohol or severe psychosis, though in all honesty, we felt that these explanations didn’t explain the events.”

Ronald also tells of a particularly terrifying account, one that remains seared in his memory. “On one occasion late one evening (early morning), we received a complaint from two floors up that someone was stampeding back and forth with what was described as a growling dog. I had security go to one floor and I went to the other. Upon arriving on the floor, I saw no one but someone standing at the end of the hallway looking back at me. No matter how much I squinted, the person appeared very blurry and out of focus, even though the end of the hallway and wall behind them was in focus and clear.” He adds, “I started walking toward them but as I got closer and closer to the person at the opposite end, the person seemingly faded away or was absorbed into the wall behind them, like a mirage of some sort. A horrific smell and muggy heat began permeating all over the end of the hall, so I quickly headed back down the hallway to the elevator. While waiting for the elevator, I watched in disbelief as the end of the hallway began to appear like it was getting swallowed up by darkness. The darkness quickly moved down the hallway toward me, and as it did, I felt tremendous pressure with difficulty breathing, similar to diving deep, deep under water (my ears even popping). As I quickly got into the elevator, I looked back down the hallway to now see that everything was completely normal. I asked myself and told a few very select others that I must have had some sort of hallucination, but that was to be only one of a dozen other experiences that was truly maddening, terrifying and confusing, and convinced me that something, indeed, was going on at the hotel.”

But after about a year of working there, Ronald remembers a sort of breakthrough for the hotel. Having received complaint after complaint from patrons and employees alike (including Ronald himself), and after conducting environmental tests on the property the previous year—all of which turned up negative—upper management (including the owner at the time) announced they’d begun an internal assessment of the hotel and its property to once and for all find out the source of these occurrences and that the assessment was already six months underway. What began with covert remote surveillance from trucks parked adjacent to the hotel grew into a somewhat extensive overt investigation, complete with truckloads of technological equipment and team of scientists, led by scientific investigator Christopher Chacon, all of which the hotel staff was instructed to keep confidential.

Chacon is a preeminent Anomalist and Parapsychologist and one of the world’s leading authorities on the scientific investigation of anomalous and paranormal phenomena. He has investigated and researched every phenomenon imaginable for over forty years, his cases taking him to every corner of the world. In numerous past interviews, Chacon made it a point to reiterate that a majority of reported phenomena (some 70% to 80%) is explainable and not paranormal at all. Because of his adaptive hybrid methods of investigation, utilizing the most advanced technology available, as well as his mandate to maintain confidentiality, Chacon’s clients range from law enforcement and government agencies to private corporations, from religious institutions to academic organizations. His notoriety as a credible scientific investigator of unexplained phenomena was the inspiration for the Stephen King short story, “1408” (that was subsequently adapted into a 2007 movie by the same name starring John Cusack), King having heard about Chacon’s investigations of hotels that were plagued by highly malevolent phenomena.

The confidential investigation at the Hotel Cecil continued for another year, though everyone, including staff and upper management, remained mostly uninformed. Ronald explains that employees and contractors, and even past employees, police officers, detective and guests, underwent a series of medical, physiological and psychological examinations and testing, along with an in-depth interview process where they were asked to describe any strange encounters, and also peppered with questions about their personal lives, as part of this confidential investigation. “We were frequently reminded that every phase of their investigation must remain confidential”, Ronald emphasized. And aside from blanketing the hotel, floor by floor, with state-of-the-art technology to monitor every aspect of the hotel, every few weeks Ronald says employees would be asked to “wear these small boxes with wires attached to monitor our hearts, brains and other physical aspects” while working their shifts. Ronald left Hotel Cecil for another opportunity shortly after the investigation closed, but he says that employees were not given any information on the findings; upper management (owner) and those involved in heading the operation remained very much tight-lipped.

Efforts To Change

In 2007, while hotel manager Price was there, Hotel Cecil got a promising new start when it was taken over by a new management company that wanted to shed its image as a low-income housing structure and turn it back into a hotel as it was intended to be. The new owners renovated parts of the hotel, and in 2011, attempted to shake free from its weighted past entirely by rebranding as Stay On Main. Still contained in the same building and sharing the same facilities, including the elevators, Stay On Main gave the illusion of a separate, boutique hotel and appealed to younger, thriftier travelers with low prices complemented by fresh, modern branding, with an ambiance that starkly contrasted the aged look of Hotel Cecil. Three floors of the hotel were designated as a hotel and hostel, and the rest, Hotel Cecil, was for other tenants and other guests.

Cecil Hotel

Photo: Jennifer Boyer / Flickr creative commons

Seven years later, the hotel changed hands again and was purchased by hotelier Richard Born, and it’s remained closed ever since—though also this year, the hotel was deemed a historical-cultural monument by the Los Angeles City Council. Due to reopen in October of 2021, this five-year period involves major renovations, including the addition of a gym, rooftop pool and lounge area. However, that’s likely not enough to separate Hotel Cecil from its offbeat reputation as “The Suicide” and “Hotel Death” and its role in the “true crime tourism” market; after the release of the Netflix documentary, Google saw a surge in inquiries about the Hotel Cecil’s reopening, according to Forbes.

But no matter the changes made to its aesthetics or the amenities added or removed, there’s arguably little that can be done to distance Hotel Cecil from its dark past. Though what happened at a previous point remains but a moment, the energy concentrated in the hotel acts as a lifeline, pulsing to preserve the catastrophic events that took place within. The hotel remains both shrouded in mystery and admired by fascination and morbid curiosity, and within its walls many, like Ronald, have attested to forces beyond their understanding. The misfortunes bore by the troubling souls who gravitated to the hotel for refuge, for solace, for pleasure or for pain haven’t remained wrinkles in time, but it seems they continue to walk the halls alongside the living, standing as ominous figures of what once was, and of what could have been. It can change its look and it can change its name, but it’ll always remain LA’s Hotel Cecil, made infamous by tragedy.

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