Small Hours: Ritzing Silver Lake


LOS ANGELES TIMES

July 26, 2006

By James Verini

DRIVE around Silver Lake and you quickly see why the neighborhood has become a geographic byword for hip. Old storefronts abut sleek new businesses, comfortably ramshackle bungalows sit next to million-dollar Modernist architectural gems. At night, you feel just safe enough to walk along Sunset or Silver Lake Boulevard from dinner at a new local restaurant — one seems to open about every month now — to a show at dingy, dependable Spaceland, or, if you like, to the new gelato parlor up the street, but just unsafe enough to make the walk a little thrilling. You might cross paths with musicians Beck or Flea or with “24” star Kiefer Sutherland, all local residents.

In other words, Silver Lake is a place prancing on that thin line between coolness and gentrification.

But Silver Lake is missing one sure sign of an up-and-coming high-end urban locale: a posh hotel. Hollywood has its Roosevelt and soon a W, downtown its Standard and soon the Gansevoort West, a California sister to the popular Gansevoort boutique hotel in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. Silver Lake has a Holiday Inn.

That may soon change. In mid-June, the Department of City Planning approved the renovation of the Sunset Pacific Motel, a shuttered flophouse on Sunset Boulevard. Its proposed replacement is the boutique Silver Lake Hotel, which, according to the architectural plans, will be a stylish affair with a restaurant-bar, spa and rooms going for as much as $255 a night.

Behind the hotel is Dana Hollister, an entrepreneur who has made it her life’s work to contribute to Silver Lake’s face lift. She has two restaurants, two bars, a design boutique and a salon to her credit. She’s renovated the Paramour Estate, Silver Lake’s architectural crown jewel, and hopes to turn it one day soon into Silver Lake’s first five-star lodging, the Bel-Air Hotel of Silver Lake, as she envisions it. A 5-acre spread that was built for oil heiress Daisy Canfield in the 1920s, the Paramour was later converted into a girls’ school and was serving as a decrepit nunnery when Hollister discovered it 15 years ago.

Hollister likes to dust off old gems in a part of L.A. that is littered with them. Like her planned hotels, she is a symbol of a rapidly changing and conflicted place. She is a savvy businesswoman and a bleeding-heart philanthropist. She charges $24 for a piece of halibut at her newest restaurant, Cliff’s Edge, a gorgeous space that was a forgotten hole-in-the-wall before she resuscitated it, but she gives the restaurant over at no cost for charity events. She has a knack for attracting crowds and making money, and she’s made a lot of friends and a few enemies in Silver Lake.

“It’s that thing where you see a place and realize that it could be just a little bit better,” Hollister said. “That feeling. That’s why I do it.”

Her success raises that eternal urban question: Can a neighborhood be at once cool and gentrified?

Silver Lake, named for its most notable point of geography, the Silver Lake Reservoir, has a history of mixing L.A. tradition and idiosyncrasy. Its overgrown hills have long been home to revered Rudolf M. Schindler houses, inhabited by artists and musicians, sitting right near beat-up stucco boxes housing recently transplanted Mexican families.

It was the location of the early silent film studios of Tom Mix and Mack Sennett. Later, it became the seat of L.A.’s alternative music scene, with members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pavement and the late Elliott Smith living there. It also became a center for alternative cultures from gay to gang. It has grown into a hotbed of architectural experimentation, has its own eponymous film festival and music conservatory (founded by the Chili Peppers’ Flea). It is home to some of L.A.’s most attractive new restaurants, such as Cliff’s Edge, the Edendale Grill and Blair’s, but still supports beloved, seedy dive bars like the Short Stop and Lucky Joy. At the same time, Silver Lake had, until recently, one of the worst crime rates in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division.

Until recently — that is a phrase one hears often in discussions of Silver Lake. As in, “Until recently you could see Rilo Kiley play at Spaceland without having to call ahead,” or “Until recently you could rent an apartment in Silver Lake for under $1,000.”

Indeed, it is the area’s skyrocketing real estate values that more than anything seem to be driving Silver Lake’s rejuvenation. According to broker Brock Harris of Brock Real Estate, home prices have gone up 17% in the last year. In the last five years prices have tripled or more, he said. A house in Silver Lake that might have sold for $200,000 to $250,000 in 2001 will now fetch $700,000. Homes on the high end go for $1.5 million. Certain optimistic sellers are even asking for $2.5 million.

“Silver Lake has a terrific brand recognition as a community,” Harris said. “It represents that artsy, diverse, a little rustic, progressive, gentrified but not too gentrified feel.”

So strong is Silver Lake’s brand recognition that UPN has taken not one but two stabs at cashing in on it, with a 2004 Aaron Spelling-produced TV movie, “Silver Lake,” and a short-lived 2005 series, “Sex, Love and Secrets.” Their creators clearly hoped Silver Lake could develop the same psycho-geographic cachet as a “Melrose Place” or “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Oddly, Denise Richards was the show’s star (never mind that seeing Richards on Silver Lake Boulevard would be like seeing Flea on Rodeo Drive). This is as good a sign as any that Silver Lake has the potential to one day over-gentrify.

To that end, some residents worry that as real estate prices go up, and more well-off creative types move in, the Silver Lake nerve and edginess that attract creative types are disappearing.

“The cultural diversity seems to be declining, while people are coming here to live to perpetuate the feel of Silver Lake,” said Cheryl Revkin, head of the Silver Lake Chamber of Commerce.

“A lot of people who rent have moved on because they haven’t been able to buy,” said Barbara Bestor, an architect and author of the book “Bohemian Modern: Living in Silver Lake.” “The Latino and gay communities are diminishing as families move in.” She said that the “rich hippie” aspect of the neighborhood has won out over its poor-cool aspect. But, she added, “it hasn’t been an evil gentrification process.”

Construction on the Silver Lake Hotel is set to begin by the end of this year, with a prospective opening date in late 2007. It will likely cost well over $5 million, according to Hollister. It’s not going to have the metal-and-glass gleam of other new hotels. She plans to outfit it with window frames and marble pieces salvaged from downtown office buildings, an approach she calls “gentle gentrification.”

“It’s going to be an eclectic version of the W,” Hollister said.

Known widely as the Bates Motel, the Sunset Pacific was a local blight for years, a nest of drug dealers, gang members, prostitutes and, on occasion, corpses (three have turned up in its rooms over the years), until it was closed by the city in 2002. With wire fencing enclosing its sooty gray walls and a billboard for a store called Le Sex Shoppe looming overhead, the motel is a reminder of an older, darker Silver Lake.

Despite the long battle of the residents and neighborhood associations to get the Sunset Pacific closed, however, not all of them are excited at the prospect of a nicer lodging opening. Objections range from concerns about noise and traffic to anxiety about the specter of gentrification.

“I don’t like the idea of putting in a glitzy whatsit just for the sake of having a glitzy whatsit,” said Bruce Carroll, a board- member of the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council and the Franklin Hills Residents Assn. “I don’t have a problem with gentrification that preserves the past. But if it means bulldozing blocks of little homes that have been there for 70 or 80 years, it’s not a good idea.”

Carroll may have been referring obliquely to Hollister’s plans to raze an old house adjoining the motel to put in the hotel’s spa.

“We could really use a nice small-scale hotel in Silver Lake,” said Maryann Kuk, head of the Silver Lake Residents Assn. “When I have to house someone here I have to send them to Glendale. It’s embarrassing to not have a nice place.” But Kuk said that although her association wants to believe Hollister, “we are very skeptical not so much about her management but about future management.”

But favor has broken on Hollister’s side. The Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, the most prominent such body in the area, supports the hotel. So do most local business owners contacted for this story, as well as City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.

“I think it’s a good thing for the city and a smart thing for the neighborhood,” Delgadillo said.

And Hollister seems to have Silver Lake’s creative community, many of whom she knows personally through her design business and restaurants and bars, behind her.

“Knowing Dana it’ll be good,” Bestor said. “She is a bohemian. She has quirky taste. It’s not like the Marriott is opening.”

Hollister moved to Silver Lake from Chicago in 1987, when the area was more Sid Vicious than Beck. But she fell in love with its eclectic old houses and tumble-down mood, taking from them the inspiration for an interior design studio and boutique. She built a clientele that included music producer Rick Rubin and Anthony Kiedis.

In 2001 she bought and renovated the Detour, a notorious dive bar on Sunset, and turned it into 4100 Bar, giving the place her standard treatment, which might be described as gothic Buddhist meets Old Hollywood. 4100 quickly became the place to booze in Silver Lake, a haven for poor-cool types and rich hippies alike (this reporter has personally seen Kiefer Sutherland there twice). She has since opened Cliff’s Edge and bought the Brite Spot, a late-night diner favored by musicians playing the local clubs, and Little Pedro’s, a downtown bar in which she’s installed a giant stuffed polar bear and a vintage shuffleboard table. (She sold 4100 in 2003.)

“I’m always looking for places to become communicators of style,” she said. Hollister said she has shipped a vintage pharmacy piece by piece from New York, and it’s sitting in storage, along with a centuries-old church altar. She’s just waiting for the right lounge to put them in.

The greatest communicator of Hollister’s style may be the Paramour. Or so she hopes. She initially bid for the property in 1991 with the intention of turning it into her boutique hotel but abandoned the idea after encountering stiff opposition from neighbors. In 1998 she moved into the estate, funding the mortgage and renovations by letting it out for parties, concerts, weddings and television shoots, and giving it over gratis for benefits (most famously a 2001 concert to raise money for the Hollywood Free Clinic, featuring Elton John and the Chili Peppers), all of which incurred even more wrath from neighbors.

“This neighborhood isn’t zoned for that,” said Marion Spencer, a neighbor who’s filed numerous complaints against Hollister with the city since 1998.

But despite the trouble, Hollister still dreams of opening the Paramour Hotel. If it happens, it will make the Silver Lake Hotel seem cozy.

“It’s a great love affair for me,” she said.