The History of the Barclay Hotel

By J. M. Moore

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

During the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, across the United States, in towns large and small there was a dramatic upsurge in the construction of magnificent buildings, particularly in the downtown sections, fueled by the profits made from the oil, mining, farming and transportation industries and the millionaires that it had produced, millionaires who wanted to show off their wealth and enjoy the comforts of these fine buildings.

Los Angeles, which was seeing the beginning of the rapid growth that caused it to become the second most populous area in the country, had more than its fair share of such men and, therefore, a high concentration of such buildings that were built downtown, building such as, to name just a few, the Bradbury Building at 3rd Street and Main—the Italian Renaissance Revival building built by Lewis L. Bradbury in 1893, the Biltmore Hotel—constructed between 1921 and 1923, and the Barclay Hotel, built by Isaac Newton Van Nuys, a wealthy farmer, banker and businessman, which opened its doors on January 19th, 1897, nearly 120 years ago.

This six-storied hotel was the epitome of the luxury and style for its time—32 rooms on each floor, making a total of 160 rooms, lavishly decorated with ornate furniture and plush carpets, offices, parlors, a dining room, a grill and kitchen on the ground floor, exquisite silver flatware and fine china used in the dining room, the Romandy’s Orchestra to serenade diners, and electricity and telephone service in every room. The then-popular Beaux-Arts architectural style inspired Greek and Roman elements—columns and high ceilings—stained glass, and arched doorways. It was built mostly from brick and stone, thus making it fire proof (however, there were fires in 1972 and 1974.)

The history of the Barclay Hotel (formerly called the Van Nuys Hotel) is one of happiness and tragedy, for over the course of its many years, almost anyone who was someone stayed there, but there were also horrific accidents, murders and suicides, which took the lives of some residents and causing others to call it, “a place where people come to die,” and so adding to the lore of Los Angeles’ dark history.

All of these historic treasures in downtown Los Angeles have stories to tell and perhaps ghosts that inhabit their quarters, complaining of the untimely deaths they suffered, but the Barclay Hotel has found its historian in J. M. Moore, a lady who lived there for seven years and 40 days, from August of 2005 to September of 2012.

J.M. was raised in South Burlington, Vermont and lived in several states throughout the United States before coming to Los Angeles, where she had dreamed of living since visiting when she was child, taking up residence at the Barclay Hotel, and finding work in a bank at the corner of 5th Street and Flower. She fell in love with the hotel, decorated her room with bookshelves, plants and her own furniture, and hoped never to move again. Life, however, intervened and caused her to move in 2012.

In 2008, she gave up her banking career to devote herself to writing, home decorating and continuing her education. After a great deal of research, grueling work really, at the Los Angeles Public Library on 5th Street and Flower, pouring over microfilms from the Los Angeles Times—newspaper articles, birth and death certificates—she wrote The History of the Barclay Hotel.

Unfortunately, happy events, like weddings and bris, celebrations of anniversaries, birthdays, and retirements don’t make for particularly interesting news, so much of the history is accounts of those who met unfortunate ends at the hotel—the horrible deaths several employees suffered in elevator accidents (the elevators then, the first of their kind, were powered by hydraulic systems that were hard to control), murders, and suicides.

After Ada Tilt was deserted and subsequently divorced from her husband, Thomas C. Otis, she lived at the Barclay and ingested there a poison made from stinking nightshade and black henbane, which killed her. Her note written on August, 8, 1909, before she died, said, “I tried society but its vagaries disgusted me.”

Rather than move to New York to film stories set there, Los Angeles movie studies often set up scenes at the Barclay, making them seem as though they were in New York, so the list of movies made using the hotel is long.

The Barclay is Los Angeles oldest, continuously operating hotel. Now it’s undergoing a transfer of ownership. J.M. Moore would like to move back, because she considers the Barclay her true home, but she will settle to just move back into Los Angeles’ downtown district.

Reading The History of the Barclay Hotel whetted my appetite for more. I want to know about the supernatural occurrences that happened while she was a resident. Dear J. M., please tell us more.

To find out more about the history or to order the paperback of the book for $14.99, please visit http://www.barclayhotelhistory.com

The e-book is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble online for $9.99

The website contains a virtual tour of the hotel (complete with the shadows of the ghosts who still live there; no, just kidding.)

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