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Life on Grasshopper St

Let’s get historical. Last time, I told you all about our design team Studio Collective, who’ll be restoring the Figueroa to its original Spanish Colonial glory. And, yes, I know the hotel’s always been Moroccan to you, but that’s not the whole story. When it opened on August 14, 1926, it was Spanish Colonial—and it was awesome. Because I’m a little obsessed with that era, I had to know more, so I fully went down the rabbit hole of Figueroa history. You’re welcome. Come cruise with me down Figueroa Street—or as it was originally known, Grasshopper Street.

But let’s start from the very beginning. As we all know, for most of history there was no Los Angeles. When Mexican and Spanish settlers arrived in the 18th century, they found the Cahuilla (as in Cah-uenga, bet you didn’t know that street isn’t even a little Spanish), Cupeño, Luiseño and Serrano tribes. Other indigenous groups included the Cucamongna and the Topanga, which I throw in because there’s two more names that are—surprise!—totally not Spanish.

Fast forward to 1781 when settlers founded El Pueblo de la Reyna de Los Angeles (aka The Pueblo of the Queen of the Angels), which started as clusters of adobe-brick houses and later became the Ciudad de Los Angeles. The City of Angels. Until 1822, California was ruled by Spain, then Mexico and finally the good ol’ US-of-A. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 added Los Angeles—the largest town in So Cal even back then—and the rest of Cali as American turf.

Around this time, Figueroa Street was the western-most street known as the Calle de Las Chapules (Grasshopper Street!), so named for the grasshopper army that hatched in the plains and took out everything green in their path. If they reached the Calle de Las Chapules, the viñatero (that’s Spanish for wine merchant) knew his grape crop was doomed. The street was later renamed for José Figueroa, Mexican governor of California from 1833 to 1835, who oversaw the secularization of the California missions.

Los Angeles has always been a town of dreamers. Fun fact: the California Gold Rush actually kicked off in the hills southwest of the Antelope Valley. But folk had been flocking to the area for a better life since post-Civil War. By the 1850s, there was a pretty cosmopolitan mix of people—English, French, Basques, Spaniards, Mexicans and Germans, later followed by Chinese. Once the railroads came to town, the “Go West” marketing campaign drew even more in time for a second “gold rush,” aka black gold, Texas tea. Bet you didn’t know that LA was once a global oil producer, with 1,500 oil wells in operation at the turn of the century. And if you’ve ever shortcut to LAX via La Cienega (which is a misspelling of swamp in Spanish, btw), you know there’s still a bunch left.

So what’s all this backstory got to do with the Figueroa Hotel in present day Los Angles? Well, everything. From the 1880s to the 1920s, the Chamber of Commerce promoted all of these things in the name of tourism and city growth, along with the region’s romanticized Spanish-Mexican past. Right around the same time, in 1894, the YWCA Greater Los Angeles (Young Women’s Christian Association) was founded. (No relation to the YMCA, or the Village People.) Their mission was to enhance the “physical, social and spiritual welfare of young women.”

You see, these eleven well-off ladies from New York City had a thing for empowerment and wanted to provide healthy, safe and wholesome environments for single girls of means. So they partnered with Stanton, Reed & Hibbard to create a unique new hotel at 939 South Figueroa Street, by and for women. With a $1.25M price tag, the hotel was the largest project to be built, financed, owned and operated by women (it was managed by firecracker and hobbyist aviator Maude N. Bouldin, to be exact). And in 1926 when it opened, that made quite an impact.

Everything about the place was structured to empower the “right class” of women. When it opened, an ad boasted that the hotel was “different, original, exclusive, luxuriously furnished, superbly and artistically decorated, yet, with all conservative, exuding distinctive hospitality and personality.” The hotel fused Italian Romanesque with Spanish Colonial architecture, a style inspired by the Spanish colonization of the Americas and wildly popular in Cali at the time. The lobby was designed in this conservatively elegant Spanish Colonial style (and even called sala de recepción after the Spanish), and exuded professionalism instead of theatricality, like in the neighboring Biltmore Hotel. The mezzanine had a dedicated writing salon, complete with stenographer, while the second floor had an “objects d’ art studio.” And of the hotel’s 409 rooms, only those on the second and third floors could be rented by men and their families. The top nine floors were exclusively for “business, travelling and professional” women.

The Figueroa had an activity list as long as Kellerman’s resort in Dirty Dancing: bridge parties, musicals, recitals, dances, golf, swim lessons and a gym. All around the hotel were opportunities for women to network, too: The Business Girls League met nearby; the women-only Friday Morning Club met across the street and the Women’s Athletic Club was a block away. The hotel’s own Figueroa Coffee Shop became a hot spot for philanthropic and professional organizations, including the YWCA, who had moved their headquarters to the back of the building (now the pool).

 But by February 1928, only a few years later, the hotel was forced to open women-only floors to men in an attempt to increase business. And despite a successful campaign to raise $300,000 to pay off mortgages, the YWCA eventually lost the hotel when the stock market crashed ten months later in October of 1929 (but kept their HQ there until 1951, just as the hotel also kept its status as a special place for women). But as downtown declined—and fast!—so did the Figueroa. Through the ‘60s there were a few quirky guests (like the hung jury in a murder trial who also got “hung” in the elevator on their way to court; and the first black female elephant trainer in the Ringling Bros. Circus), but by the ‘70s most of the residents were paying by the week.

Enter Swedish-born Uno Thimansson, who bought the Figueroa in 1976 and created the eclectic Moroccan retreat we know today. By the ‘80s, it was a tourist hotel once again—and things have only gotten better for the Figueroa and downtown since LA Live came on the scene in 1999. When art aficionado Uno first took over, he needed an “inexpensive transformation of an old Spanish place.” Paint would do the trick. So he hired painter Ira Gagon to breath new life into Spanish tiles, settling on a Moroccan look after a brief flirtation with a Cuban theme. The duo worked with what they had, playing up the aged look because, as Ira put it, “It’s a smoke and mirrors easy-to-care-for look.”

From Indian textiles to orange walls, the hotel evolved over the next 30 years—and certain guests, like film crews, even left behind pieces of their sets that literally became part of the furniture. Even the exterior is unique, as it’s one of the only remaining places in LA where you can marvel at hand-painted billboards popularized in Hollywood’s golden age (yeah, wrap your brain around that). Uno loved the “eclectically funky” Figueroa, his staff and his guests, and was a big part of the hotel for 45 of its 90 years.

One guest dubbed the Figueroa “a redhead in a world of blondes,” and that’s what I hope it’ll always be. When it came on to the scene in 1926 as “an ideal stopping place for ladies unattended,” nobody had ever seen the likes of it before. In a way, the history of the place is kind of like a character who’ll always be a permanent resident of hotel. And when it’s reborn this summer, the past will become the present again, just like the first ads touted: “Especially operated to create an exceptionally warm, hospitable, refined atmosphere with an unusual program of entertainment and social features.”

I really dig that word, unusual. I’m unusual. You’re unusual. Here’s to being unusual together.

‘Til next time…

Hilary