The Cecil HotelOct 9th, 2013 | By Lindsay | Category: This and That
Los Angeles magazine’s The Crime Issue had me absolutely drooling when I received it back in July, especially Steve Erickson’s article “Sleep Tight,” which detailed the bizarre 2013 death of 21-year-old Canadian tourist Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel in downtown L.A. I was glued to every single word Erickson wrote and, upon finishing the article, immediately headed to my computer to find out more information about the case, which is easily one of the most haunting and peculiar ever to touch the City of Angels. Then, when I came across the insanely eerie surveillance footage of Lam in the hotel’s elevator – the last images taken of the young woman alive – I knew I had to cover the place during my Haunted Hollywood postings and dragged the Grim Cheaper right on out to stalk it just a few days later.
The Cecil Hotel was constructed sometime during the 1920s (there are varying reports online stating that it opened in 1924, 1925 and 1927 and I am unsure of which year is correct). The fifteen-floor property was originally billed as an upscale hotel for business travelers, but when the Great Depression hit just a few years after its founding, the Cecil’s business took a severe downturn. By the 1950s, the site had become a sanctum for transients and criminals and was eventually converted into a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) establishment, offering rooms with shared bathrooms to long-term residents at low rates.
In May 2007, the structure was purchased for $28.5 million by a development company who had plans to turn it back into a hotel. Renovations were started in which the lobby was restored to its original grandeur (the result was fabulous as you will see at the end of this post) and three floors of rooms converted into a modernized “boutique hotel/youth hostel hybrid.” Sadly though, the city stepped in and halted the project mid-way through, claiming that the property was a “residential hotel” and that the owners would have to find replacement housing for any displaced occupants. Lawsuits followed and the Cecil wound up being turned back over to the lender. It is unclear as to what is to become of the locale in the future, but at the present time the site offers both long-term and short-term accommodations, and a rather odd dichotomy.
Despite the partial renovation and grandness of the lobby, seediness still dogs the Cecil. A 2008 Los Angeles Times article states, “Fresh Monet, Picasso and Kandinsky posters hang on the vivid yellow, red and blue walls next to the elevators on each floor. But around the corner, reality hits: The rooms are small, bugs scamper across the floors and in the dim hallways, one sometimes encounters guests who have been using drugs or alcohol.” Steve Erickson actually spent the night at the hotel before penning his “Sleep Tight” article. (Um, no thank you!) Upon checking in, he snagged his neighbor’s DO NOT DISTURB sign to hang on his own door because, as he says, “When someone knocks on your door at the Cecil, it isn’t room service.” When he returned to his room after a dinner at Cole’s restaurant (which I blogged about here) a few hours later, the sign was gone – stolen by another wary hotel guest. Erickson describes the property as such, “If you aren’t at the Cecil to hide, or to look for the city you’ve occupied but never known, you’re probably a foreign traveler stranded by expectations, inconsolable for a glimpse of Hollywood or the beach that the travel guide promised is only ‘minutes away.’ The Cecil hasn’t been minutes away from anything worth being minutes away from for decades.” Yeah, I’d say that pretty much sums the place up.
The Cecil has had numerous brushes with darkness over its eighty-plus-year history. In 1985, Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, lived on the hotel’s top floor in a $14-a-night room. Austrian journalist/serial killer Jack Unterweger moved into the property in 1991 in what many believe was an homage to Ramirez. He killed three prostitutes during his tenure there. The structure has also been the site of at least three suicides and one unsolved murder. Its most bizarre incidence of the macabre, though, has to be the disappearance and death of Elisa Lam.
Lam, who was traveling alone, checked into the Cecil Hotel on January 27th, 2013 while on a California holiday. She spoke with her family back in Vancouver daily during the trip. Then, on January 31st, she vanished without a trace. Detectives investigating the case were at a loss until they asked to see the hotel’s surveillance videos, on which was footage of Elisa acting extremely strangely in the Cecil’s elevator the night of her disappearance. In the video, which you can watch by clicking below, the young woman, seemingly both petrified and playful, is shown haphazardly pushing buttons for every floor, hiding in a corner, jumping in and out of the elevator, speaking to someone real or imagined just out of the camera’s view, and inexplicably flailing her arms and hands about. The feed is honestly one of the most haunting things I’ve ever watched in my life!
Lam’s body was not found until almost three weeks later, when, on February 19th, a maintenance worker headed to the Cecil’s roof to check the water tanks after several guests complained of low water pressure in their rooms. He discovered Lam’s naked body at the bottom of one of the property’s four 8-foot tall, 4-foot wide tanks. (And yes, hotel guests had been bathing in, brushing their teeth with, and drinking the water from that tank while Lam’s body was decomposing. Talk about an absolute nightmare! The incident triggered some rather humorous Yelp reviews, though, including the admonition, “Worst. Swimming. Pool. Ever.”) Despite the eerie video and mystery surrounding her disappearance, the coroner’s report ruled Lam’s death an “accidental drowning” and listed her bi-polar disorder as a contributing factor. Um, what now? Detectives were unable to explain how the young woman entered the roof area, which can only be accessed with a key, although they speculated that she climbed there via a fire escape. But did she do so naked? If not, then where are her clothes? And how does one theorize a tiny woman scaling an 8-foot tall water tank, opening the lid, climbing inside, and then shutting the lid back over herself ALL ON HER OWN? Accidental drowning, my foot! While the case is now closed, I have a feeling that the mystery surrounding it will never quiet.
Besides being the site of real life horror, the Cecil hotel is also a filming location. In 1977, the structure was where a taxi cab driver named Lawson (James Sutorius) killed a prostitute (Juno Dawson) in the Season 5 episode of Kojak titled “A Strange Kind of Love.” As you can see below, the exterior of the hotel looked quite a bit different back then.
Although the “Cecil” sidewalk sign (which you can see a photograph of here) still looks the same.
The interior of the property seen in Kojak bears no resemblance whatsoever to the interior of the Cecil hotel today. As you will see in a minute, the new owners did one heck of a remodel!
Fellow stalker Walter also informed me that in 1978 the exterior of the Cecil appeared in the background of the Season 4 episode of The Rockford Files titled “Dwarf in a Helium Hat.” Thanks, Walter!
The property has also been used in no less than three episodes of the television series Castle. It first popped up in 2009 in the Season 2 episode titled “When the Bough Breaks” as the supposed fancy New York building where Dr. Cameron Talbot (Reed Diamond) lived. Only the interior of the lobby area was used in the filming. (Like I said, the renovation was really quite spectacular.)
That same year, a bike messenger was struck by a hit-and-run driver in front of the Cecil in the Season 2 episode of Castle titled “Kill the Messenger.”
In 2011, the site popped up once again in the Season 3 episode of Castle titled “Nikki Heat,” as the supposed New York-area Beaumont Hotel. And while IMDB also states that the property appeared in the Season 1 episode of Baretta titled “The Half-Million Dollar Baby,” I was unable to find a copy of the episode with which to verify that claim.
On a Halloween side-note – this past Saturday I attended the bachelorette party for Miss Pinky Lovejoy, of the Thinking Pink blog, which took place at Disneyland, my favorite place in the entire world. I just about died upon arriving at the park’s gates and seeing the decorations pictured below. Halloween and Disneyland together was almost more excitement than this stalker could handle!
Check out the autumn leaves used as a bow in Minnie’s hair.
For those who have never been, Disneyland is an absolutely magical place during Halloween. Who am I kidding? Disneyland is an absolutely magical place any time of year, but it is especially so during Halloween.
Um, LOVE IT!
Add to that the fact that a Starbucks FINALLY opened inside the park – right on Main Street – and my head was about to explode! As my mom said, now Disneyland truly IS the Happiest Place on Earth.
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Until next time, Happy Stalking!