Hotel Figueroa, former Holiday Inn respond differently to high-end downtown neighbors

Los Angeles Times

Say you're a hotelier in downtown Los Angeles. And in the spring of 2010, a fancy new Marriott and Ritz-Carlton land in your front yard. What's your move?

For the owners of the former Holiday Inn City Center Hotel, the answer was simple: Redo your rooms, change your name and move upscale. So on March 15, the hotel dropped the Holiday Inn brand. Beginning this summer (the date's still in flux), it will be known as the Luxe City Center Hotel.

Its prime location, affordable rates, bus-friendly parking lot and spacious rooms (about 380 square feet) have long served the hotel well. Now the idea is to spend about $12 million on upgrades, using warm walnut woods and muted tones, offset by bits of crystal and platinum, to woo more affluent travelers. The designers call it "an upscale urban residential atmosphere with a touch of elegant old silver screen."

The hotel — which is keeping some rooms open during its transformation — also will bring in 42-inch TVs and rain-style shower heads for all, along with iPod docks and a fitness center. As management aims for a four-star boutique atmosphere (to match the Luxe-brand properties it runs in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air), some rooms will be combined to make 16 suites. The restaurant, now closed, will reopen, but details remain under wraps. Once the transformation is complete, the Luxe City Center Hotel's standard rates will start at $190.

Meanwhile, about a block away, the Figueroa Hotel is going the other way. Or rather, standing still. With a defiant glint in its eye.

A fixture in downtown's South Park area for more than 70 years, the Fig will stick with its quirky Moroccan décor, three-star amenities and rates that begin at about $150.

In fact, "we never renovate," says Uno Thimansson, the Fig's owner and general manager. "We paint, keep things clean and buy interesting pieces. …Many people think of us as a boutique hotel, but we're not. We're really just a tourist hotel, with an edge."

Indeed, the lodging gets almost as many negative reviews on as positive ones, partly because many travelers are turned off by its lack of modern amenities. Old-fashioned TVs and vintage bathroom fixtures abound.

Still, it has a big, atmospheric lobby, a restaurant and one poolside, succulent-fringed veranda bar that last year made Esquire magazine's "best bars in America" list. Thimansson has punctuated the building's Moroccan theme with Mexican tiles, Iraqi rugs, Indian textiles, IKEA lamps and the occasional Asian erotic carving. (He discourages children.) Guest rooms and public rooms (many of which are rented out for special events) fairly glow with orange walls, red scrims and yellow trim, concrete floors underfoot.

Many of his armoires, magazine racks and trash receptacles, Thimansson says with a scavenger's pride, are castoffs from the Hotel Bel-Air, bought at bargain prices. A few years ago, Prince shot a video here. In March, a 7-foot Buddha joined the lobby array.

As for the neighborhood, "the future is bright," says Thimansson. But "it didn't exactly happen overnight." When he arrived in 1976, he recalls, many of the guests were residents, paying by the week or month.

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