From LA glamour to tragedy: final scene nears for iconic hotel

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A superior court judge in Los Angeles has brought to a close a tightly-fought battle over the fate of the crumbling Ambassador, ruling in favour of the local school district, which plans to demolish most of the building and replace it with a new education complex.

It is a blow for Los Angeles preservationists, who had argued that the structure, opened on New Year's Day 1921, was an icon of the city's entertainment and political past. It was also the site of national tragedy in 1968 when Senator Robert Kennedy fell to an assassin's bullet there after celebrating victory in the California primary on his way to challenging Richard Nixon for the US presidency.

"This really was the social and political hub of Los Angeles for decades," said Ken Bernstein, of the Los Angeles Conservancy. "There's nothing like it today, with so many functions rolled into one. It is one of the defining historic sites of Los Angeles."

The Oscar ceremonies were held five times in the hotel's main ballroom and its interiors were used as sets for numerous Hollywood films, including The Graduate, where it appeared as the "Taft", where the characters played by Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman held their trysts. Also shot there were The Mask, A Star is Born and The Fabulous Baker Boys.

Almost as well known as the hotel itself was its bar, Cocoanut Grove. Originally designed in the style of Moorish North Africa, it played host to a parade of American performers from Sammy Davis Jnr and the Rat Pack to Barbra Streisand and Bing Crosby.

"The importance of the Ambassador Hotel to the culture and history of Los Angeles cannot be overstated," the historian Kevin Roderick, whose urban history, Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles, comes out in November, told USA Today.

The hotel was shut in 1989 and arguments over what to do with it began almost immediately. The owner of the property, the school district, wants to use it to relieve overcrowding in other schools which it runs. Thousands of students in the area have to travel by bus, sometimes for more than an hour each way, to reach their classrooms.

"We have to build these schools, so our choice is either to build it at that site ... or to displace thousands of people to find enough land to do it," said a school district spokesman, Glenn Gritzner. A few parts of the hotel will be saved. Cocoanut Grove could become a school theatre while the hotel's coffee shop is destined to be a common room for teachers. The rest of the edifice, however, will be torn down barring any last-minute legal manoeuvres by the preservationists.

They had hoped to persuade the school board to preserve the main building and turn it into facilities for teachers or even low-income housing for the surrounding neighbourhoods.

But at least something may be done to preserve the memories, however painful, of 6 June 1968. That was the night when Senator Kennedy had just finished his speech in the main ballroom and was on his way to a press conference, cutting through a kitchen pantry, when the assassin struck. School district officials say they are willing to discuss relocating and preserving the pantry.

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