October 20, 2012
Right by the beach in Santa Monica, the art deco stylings of the Shangri-La Hotel have been drawing crowds since the 1940s. Standing on the corner of Ocean/Arizona Avenues, its opening was announced in the Los Angeles Times on April 21, 1940 and noted that architect William E. Forster’s “streamline moderne” design had contributed to the $380,000 cost.
The name “Shangri-La” was inspired by the fictional mountain paradise described in James Hamilton’s novel Lost Horizon and it’s been a hideaway for celebrities ever since (Madonna and Sean Penn courted here back in the 1980s).
Texas oil and cattle baron Frank A. Gillespie was the man behind what was originally the Shangri-La Apartments, and this was his regular summer home every year up until he died here on July 5, 1950. Next day the Los Angeles Times reported that he had “arrived on the Coast just nine days before his death”.
It had served as an army barracks during World War II, and then in 1962 it was listed as one of several nuclear fallout shelters, and was classified as being able to accommodate 66 people. The Cuban missile crisis had bought the world to the brink of war in October that year, and after President John F. Kennedy’s announcement of quarantine on Cuba the Los Angeles Times of October 25 noted that local Civil Defense offices had been receiving “a continuous flood of enquiries”.
Emergency supplies, air raid siren testing and radio announcements suddenly became part of everyday life, and emergency supplies including powdered food and biscuits, water and radiological equipment were “filled out and mailed” to several addresses, including 1301 Ocean Avenue.
There were no strange or mysterious stories in the archives, and Kris Ferraro of the hotel’s PR team was “sorry to say” that he asked around and couldn’t find any stories either, though he did mention the basement/former fall-out shelter, which now houses a kitchen, conference room and an office:
“It is spooky down there. It’s like being in the bowels of a ship, it’s so big and deep.”
The Shangri-La recently underwent a glamorous $30 million renovation, but when you visit, make sure you take a trip on the original freight elevator (the one on the right in the hall) to the rooftop bar, Suite 700. Lined with art deco mirrors, the patio outside allows you to take in the amazing view of the 101 year old Santa Monica Pier, the Pacific Ocean and beyond.
If you want to eat, take a seat in one of the swiveling barrel-shaped chairs in the small, club-like restaurant The Dining Room. Art deco in style, the restaurant serves delicious comfort food and has ingredients bought fresh from the local Farmer’s Market. Recommendations include the truffled duck empanada, the sirloin burger, or any of the flat breads. Also, the side of mac and cheese is made with Fat Tire ale, one of my favorites.