During the Sunset Strip’s early incarnation as Hollywood’s playground, the Strip was more than just an entertainment destination where the stars dined, drank and gambled, it was a desirable address. Perched on a hill above Sunset Plaza midway along the Strip, the Sunset Plaza Apartments were the westernmost and last-built luxury apartment buildings on the Strip. Three of the buildings on Sunset are still standing. Two have been repurposed as hotels — the Chateau Marmont and Sunset Tower, built in 1929 and 1931, respectively — and one, the Hacienda Park Apartments, built in 1927, is an office building now called the Piazza del Sol.
The others, including Sunset Plaza Apartments, have been demolished.
The Sunset Plaza Apartments were built in 1936 by retired photographer Frank S. Hoover. The architects were Paul Revere Williams, a prolific designer of celebrity homes and public buildings — he designed the distinctive Theme Building at LAX — and L.G. Scherer. The fact that Paul Williams happened to be African-American made his professional success in Jim Crow Los Angeles even more remarkable. According to the Paul R. Williams Project website:
[This] commercial project was a rare example of a privately funded multi-family project designed by Paul R. Williams and L. G. Scherer… Originally conceived as a combination apartment/hotel, the Georgian Revival-style building with interiors by Bullock’s offered potential residents elegance in a grouping of home-like spaces without sacrificing the luxurious features found in single family residences. When completed the three-story complex flanked by its two-story wings cost the Hoovers more than $350,000 to build. (Los Angeles Times. September 20, 1936)
Described as “stately and dignified” in California Arts & Architecture (1937), the Georgian-style of the Sunset Plaza Apartments was a modernized California version. Each apartment had a compact kitchen filled with “all the latest gadgets to aid modern culinary arts” and tiled baths with full glass enclosed showers. An illustrated article in Architect and Engineer (1937) stressed Williams’ and Scherer’s solutions to a variety of design problems especially how to customize heating and cooling for each of the 18 units. Together the designers adapted a state-of-the-art forced air unit gas furnaces to heat, cool and even clean the circulating air.
Sunset Plaza Apartments became a model for a California style of apartment living. Rental units in the eastern U.S. typically opened off long halls in high rise buildings. Williams’ horizontal design allowed for more individuality in the arrangement of a unit’s rooms, independent heating systems and an exterior treatment allowing each resident his own front door. While these touches added more to the building costs the Hoovers were able to recoup them through higher rents. The pool, tennis court, and attractive landscape were all part of Williams’ original plans and were designed to take advantage of the California sunshine and climate. As important design elements these outdoor amenities extended the tenants’ living space and formed a “nucleus for social festivities.” (The Architect and Engineer, June 1937)
Through the years the Sunset Plaza was home to many celebrities and the grounds and tennis courts were often used as background for studio publicity shots. The pool area became a popular setting for a new Hollywood photographic form: “cheesecake photos of starlets.” Many of the long-time residents lived on the property for decades describing it less like an apartment and more like “a very fine country club” with a fresh change of linen delivered every day.
Celebrity residents in the early years are said to have included Columbia Pictures CEO Harry Cohn; actors Katherine Hepburn, Dorothy Lamour, Ralph Bellamy, Richard Arlen, Carole Landis and James Dean; “Tarzan” author Edgar Rice Burroughs; and mobsters Virginia Hill, Johnny Roselli and Allen Smiley. Big-name musicians who lived there included Alfred Newman, Kay Kyser and Tommy Dorsey.
With one exception, goings-on at the Sunset Plaza rarely made news. In 1944, bandleader Dorsey, his wife, actress Patricia Dane and their neighbor, Allen Smiley, who was Bugsy Siegel’s aide de camp, were arrested after a pre-dawn drunken brawl on the Dorseys’ patio at the Sunset Plaza that left their victim, adventure star Jon Hall, with knife wounds on his head, face and neck that required nearly 50 stitches, including a slice clean through a nostril. (The bandage he wore on his nose is said to have inspired the wound suffered by Jack Nicholson’s character in “Chinatown.”) Dubbed “The Battle of the Balcony” in the press, the controversy raged for months, leading up to the trial in December — a media circus at the end of which, true to form in Los Angeles, charges were dropped against the Dorseys and Smiley.
Except for a few , the Sunset Plaza stayed out of the news for four decades, until Christmas Day 1983, when the Los Angeles Times reported that its tenants — then including actors Bernadette Peters and Robert Forster — had received eviction notices. Despite the building having been designated a “historic cultural monument” by the city in 1980, new owners had been granted permission to demolish the building and were said to be planning to build a new apartment or condominium project on the 1.65 acre site. The city’s nascent historic preservation movement rallied to save the building, but it was finally demolished in October 1987.
In the end, however, the Sunset Plaza was not replaced with another apartment or condo building. In 1990, a single-family residence was built in its place — a home that is still there, though well-secluded behind a tall hedge. In fact, however, this change from a multi-family to single-family building completed a circle of sorts. When the Sunset Plaza Apartments were built in the 1930s, the complex replaced a mansion that had been built decades before by Victor Ponet, a Belgian financier who purchased 280 acres north of what was then the village of Sherman in 1892. (There are no photos of the Ponet estate online, but this enlargement of an aerial shot from the early 1930s gives a sense of its location and size.)
After Victor Ponet died in 1914, his heirs, the Montgomery family, developed Sunset Plaza, the upscale commercial strip along the section of Sunset Boulevard that ran through the Ponet estate. Today Sunset Plaza is both the geographic center of the Sunset Strip and its historic core — and it is still owned and operated by the Montgomerys, Victor Ponet’s heirs.