Variety thrilled true crime fans last week with its exclusive announcement that Netflix’s new investigative show about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam will hit the streaming giant on February 10. In the four-part docuseries, titled “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” director Joe Berlinger attempts to dissect the bizarre case of the 21-year-old tourist, whose nude body was found floating in a water tank atop a notorious downtown L.A. lodging almost three weeks after she went missing. ‘Crime Scene’ will also delve into the dark history of the Cecil Hotel itself. As executive producer Justin Wilkes told Variety, “Throughout the series, we’ll explore infamous locations that end up becoming accomplices to the crimes themselves and the Cecil Hotel, with its storied history shrouded in mystery and notoriety, felt like the right locale for our first exploration.”
Indeed, the Cecil has long been a hotbed of scandal, death and crime.
Built in 1924 for W.W. Paden and Associates, the Beaux Arts-style Cecil Hotel stands at 640 S. Main St. The 600-room, 14-story structure was designed by architect Loy Lester Smith and completed at a cost of $1 million. Featuring an elegant lobby with two stained-glass skylights, plastered columns, a grand staircase and a mezzanine, the property was considered an upscale lodging at its inception – a “Class A” hotel offering rooms at a “popular price” according to newspaper advertisements of the day.
The Cecil’s lofty status faded quickly, though, thanks in part to the dawn of the automobile, which allowed people to venture far off the beaten railroad track, so to speak, making downtown L.A. a much less popular travel destination. The lack of private bathrooms also added to the hotel’s downturn. And the Great Depression, which struck the nation a few years after the property opened, hit the place hard, thereby ending its reputation as a luxury lodging. By the 1950s, the Cecil catered largely to criminals and transients, the well-heeled business travelers who once populated its hallways a distant memory.
The Cecil was eventually converted to a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) establishment, offering studios with shared baths to long-term residents at low rates. And the problems continued. As a 2008 Los Angeles Times article detailed, the “Cecil was a haven for drug dealers, who would move in for a month and rent rooms for their clients to smoke and shoot up.”
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