The Ambassador Hotel was built in the early 1920s during a period of rapid expansion in Los Angeles. The building went up just west of downtown on Wilshire Blvd., then only a dirt road. From the beginning, the Ambassador had strong ties to Hollywood-it hosted many early Academy Awards and entertainment personalities were a fixture there. The 500-room hotel featured with sprawling gardens, numerous ballrooms, and the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The Ambassador was a micro-city occupying many city blocks-it even had its own zip code. The hotel witnessed nearly one hundred years of visiting dignitaries, lavish celebrations and secret trysts. If Hollywood stood for Los Angeles, so did the Ambassador.

The social and political turbulence of the 1960’s stole the spotlight when presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the Ambassador’s kitchen in June 1968. This murder marked the end of the hotel’s glamorous heyday and the Ambassador then slipped into obscurity. After the hotel eventually closed its doors in 1989, the seemingly empty shell became a film location for scores of motion pictures. Eventually the hotel was slated to be demolished and with its destruction all of its memories erased. The massive structure stood in ruins as a monument to Los Angeles’ gilded legacy and the city’s inability to remember its own history.

Photographing the Ambassador was a race against time as I tried to make a record of the place as its traces disappeared. Like a detective, I investigated every lead at this storied crime scene. I attended a nomadic carnival on what was formerly the front garden, glimpsed the empty stage of the once glamorous and now defunct Cocoanut Grove, and found mushrooms growing on the carpet of the ballroom floor. The photographs document a space in time between the hotel’s grandest days and its demise. Photography, like the movies, is a fantasy. My photographs serve as a monument to both an authentic past and to one of fiction.

 

--Stephen Hilger