For a state that’s large enough to be its own country, it’s become the norm to always expect the unexpected when you land in California. It is a place where dreams can be made, or broken. It’s a melting pot of cultures that is continuosly presented in the people who live there – whether you’re visiting as a tourist, or one of the many local denizens that populate it.
It certainly is a place that constantly temps the unwary and the jaded alike.
The more eccentricly-inclined would also say it’s the also a hotbed of activity that’s good, ill, and downright bizzarre. Like a certain hotel that has gained such noteriety that a song sung by the Eagles seems to perfectly describe it – at least to me – because some people check out, but never leave. The reason why it’s back in the limelight is due to the fact Netflix recently released a 4-part documentary profiling one of it’s more recent, tragic guest.
So let us open the door wide, and let the cool breeze waft you in – as we welcome you to the Cecil Hotel.
The hotel was the brainchild of three hoteliers: William Banks Hanner, Charles L. Dix, Robert H. Schops and designed by Loy Lester Smith – the Cecil was built in 1924 as a luxury destination for business travelers and tourists of the era. The three hoteliers invested roughly $2.5 million in it’s construction, but within five years of its opening, the United States sank into the Great Depression.
Despite the Great Depression, it weathered the turmoil during that era and flourished as a go-to destination throughout 1940’s. Unfortunately, the years beyond that saw to the decline of the hotel as a nearby area that would one day become known as Skid Row became increasingly populated with the surrounding area’s poor and destitute.
By the time the 1950s came around, the hotel had gained an increasingly ill reputation as a residence for transients. There were reported incidents of death, murder, suicides, and a host of other crimes happening within the hotel go back as early as 1927.
Some even believe the place to be cursed and haunted.
Like some inexorably slow descent into madness, it already went downhill from there – and some say, had never gotten better despite the many tries to “uplift” its reputation.
Over the years, it’s also gone through a lot of renovations – the most recent being in 2007 when a portion of the hotel partitioned to bring it new life. The newer portion was renamed the Stay on Main, though a good effort, it was still unable to escape it’s self-afflicted curse of strange and tragic incidents.
The most infamous one to date, was the initial disappearance – and then tragic death of Elisa Lam.
Elisa Lam, born Lam Ho Yi to Cantonese parents who immigrated to Canada, was a Canadian student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She had supposedly planned to tour most of the US for her vacation before going to back to college.
She checked in to the Cecil two days after arriving in Los Angeles on January 26, 2013 after doing the tourist thing in places like San Diego, and then back to LA. What happened later that turned her into an overnight mystery sensation came out as a jumbled mess that still baffled more than a few people today – despite the findings in the new Netflix show.
On the day that she was supposed to leave the hotel on February 1, 2013, she never checked out and also never called her parents like she usually did every day since she began her trip. Worried, her parents reached out to the LAPD and reported her missing. They even dropped everything and also flew down to LA to help with the search after the initial investigations didn’t bear any fruit.
When interviewed, the hotel staff said that they saw Lam that day prior to her disappearance, alone. Outside the hotel, Katie Orphan, manager of a nearby bookstore, was the only person who recalled seeing her that day. Investigators tried to search as best that they legally could.
According to Sgt. Rudy Lopez, “We didn’t search every room, we could only do that if we had probable cause to believe a crime had been committed. On February 6, a week after Lam had last been seen, the LAPD decided more help was needed. Flyers with her image were posted in the neighborhood and online. It also brought the case to the public’s attention through the media via a certain video that was released.
This is the infamous elevator video of Lam acting out in a bizzarre fashion became an accidental viral sensation comes in. As you can see from the video below, it pretty much spooked everyone watching it.
The video was originally released on February 15, 2013. The LAPD released it after another week without any further leads, and no sign of Lam. The video itself was taken from one of the hotel’s surveillance cameras that was inside the elevators, it was literally the last known sighting of her taken of her before she disappeared. As you saw from the example above, the original video was roughly two and a half minutes of footage wherein Lam was alone – she enters the elevator with an unsteady gait and she starts pressing every button she sees, then she was making several unusual moves and gestures, going in and out of the elevator at one point as if playing “hide and seek and peekaboo” with someone off camera while its doors remain open. She finally leaves the elevator after the doors still failed to close for the last time, only then for the doors finally eerily close mere seconds after she was gone.
The video drew worldwide interest in the case due to Elisa Lam’s strange behavior. It was extensively analyzed, reposted, and discussed in such forums such like Reddit, etc. It was also reposted on the Chinese video-sharing site Youku, even – where it got over 3 million views and more than 40,000 comments in its first 10 days. Many of the commentators found it unsettling to watch as some have stated it felt like a real-live horror film.
That’s when a lot of internet armchair sleuths started theorizing at warp speed as to what may have happened with what they were seeing, the whole thing ballooned in a mess of conspiracy theories galore.
All that reached a fever-pitch until her body was found on February 19, 2013:
The discovery of the body was due to the hotel occupants complaining to staff about the poor water pressure, foul odor coming from the taps, and they also said that whatever water that DID come out looked tainted. It was enough for the staff to send someone back on to the roof to inspect the water tanks, thus solving the maddening mystery of her bizzare disappearance.
The conspiracy theories from internet sleuths practically jumped further than it should have after she was found.
I must confess, I was one of those “silent” internet sleuths, myself – but most of my own theories never reached a conspiracy-laced crescendo that took the social media connected world by storm. My theories were based on the facts available from what the police had released – foremost among them was her medical condition as well as her missing her daily doses until the day she vanished.
Upon watching the Netflix documentary of her disappearance, I was a bit surprised at how some of their conclusions slightly dovetailed with mine for the most part. Not much of a lurker at internet forums like Reddit, I was also shocked at how some of those same armchair sleuths – and in some ways, the general public – lashed out at an individual that never really had anything to do with the incident, but was crucified via public opinion anyway. I never really saw just how crazy it all came down, at least until I watched the documentary.
I know that some people will also contest the documentary – some will probably argue that it’s been “sanitized” for general public consumption – and they will probably add more conspiracy theories for, or against it.
That’s both a good thing, and a bad thing at the same time. More discussion is always welcome.
People LOVE mysteries, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Elisa Lam’s tragedy will go on to become something of a legend – as much as the hotel in which she breathed her last has become. In the end, however, it’s really about how she can no longer go home to a family that still miss her.
As for the Hotel itself, the Cecil/Stay On Main was sold to New York City hotelier Richard Born for $30 million in 2014, after which another New York-based firm, Simon Baron Development, acquired a 99-year ground lease on site. In 2016 the president of said firm stated that he was committed to the preservation of architectural and historically significant components of the building, such as the hotel’s grand lobby, but his company has plans to completely redevelop the interior and fix the earlier renovations work that had been done in more recent years – including the renovations done by the original Stay On Main owners. The developer also plans to install a gym, lounge, and rooftop pool.
In February 2017, the Los Angeles City Council voted to deem the Cecil a Historic-Cultural Monument, because it is representative of an early 20th-century American hotel and because of the historic significance of its architect’s body of work. The hotel was closed that same year for said renovations that had supposedly begun – with an estimated completion sometime in 2021-2022.
Will it be able to shed it’s gruesome reputation? Probably not, because in June 13, 2015, the body of a 28-year-old man was found outside the hotel. Some conjectured he may have committed suicide by jumping from the hotel, although a spokesperson for the county coroner informed the Los Angeles Times back then that the cause of death had not been determined. I wasn’t able to find a follow-up of that case, though.
He was just another person who probably checked in, but never left.