Inside the Hotel Bel-Air’s Renovation: Picketers to Presidential Suites

The hotel recently completed a $100 million dollar renovation, and it shows. It opens this Tuesday

Last Updated: October 31, 2011 @ 8:28 AM

Secluded, pastoral, famously exclusive, the Hotel Bel-Air has at various times been rated as the world’s best luxury hotel. 

With the hotel reopening on Tuesday after completing a $100 million renovation, that reputation  will be enhanced (see our slideshow), though more subtly than that figure would lead you to believe. The 65-year-old,  celebrated destination,  which had been shuttered since 2009, has been brought into the 21st century with larger suites, a new hillside aerie and with its ornate, floral motifs replaced by a pared-down modernist look. 

But the worry many veterans had that the renovation would strip away the hotel's intimate charm now seems misplaced. As a visit to the grounds and the chance to meet a few staffers makes clear, it’s more than ever a showplace and Los Angeles landmark.

See slideshow: Hotel Bel-Air, 1946-2009

See slideshow: Hotel Bel-Air, renovated 2011

There still are some ripples to be dealt with. As the hotel moves to its official reopening on Nov. 1, the hotel workers' union is eyeing continued picketing to protest employees laid off when the Bel-Air closed for renovation. 

Also read: Hotel Bel-Air Gets Back to Business After Protest-Marred Re-Opening

But for now, luxury rules. 

A key addition is the group of 12 new canyon-view suites that march up a previously undeveloped hillside to overlook the leafy environs of Stone Canyon Road. 

The new hillside lodgings bring the total number rooms and suites to 103. That includes a truly grandiose, expanded presidential suite at around $13,000 per night. (At present, a reduced rate of $565 per night is in place for the less costly “deluxe” rooms.)

The hotel is part of the international Dorchester Collection — nine elite hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei — which is bringing it front and center among its properties, including its nearby pink cousin, the Beverly Hills Hotel. 

The two-year renovation was steered by the architectural tandem of Alexandra Champalimaud and the Rockwell Group. 

Champalimaud is the Portuguese-born design doyenne who re-imagined the Carlyle and Pierre hotels in Manhattan, among many others; David Rockwell's credits include Nobu and the Kodak Theater. 

Together, they set out to enhance the breezy, open-air quality of the property — without disturbing two of the most iconic elements of the hotel: Swans Aphrodite and Eros remain in their idyllic pond. They have, however, been given a new circulation pump that will reduce water consumption by 1.5 million gallons per year.

A new 12,000 square-foot building will house the La Prairie spa and an expanded fitness facility. La Prairie will itself occupy over 4,000 square feet, including a couples treatment room.

From other changes and refurbishing around the classic Oak Bar, it’s clear the management wants to better enable business conferences, with the Garden Ballroom accommodating 300 guests, and a nearby foyer and courtyard coordinated with the ballroom for groups of varying sizes.

As before, the spacious front lawn framed by towering old sycamores is ideal for parties, luncheons and other gatherings. 

Also read: Great Hollywood Moments at the Hotel Bel-Air

Newly installed food maven Wolfgang Puck pitched in on the bar and terrace restaurant upgrades.

Ultimately, the attraction is in the lodgings, where the count is now 58 guest rooms and 45 suites (seven of them dubbed "specialty’ suites," with varying decors and floor plans).  

Among the custom updates are the Swan Lake suite, overlooking the famed waterfowl,  and the Grace Kelly suite, near the pool and the site of a famous photo shoot the actress had after winning an Oscar. 

There’s no question the landmark is rich in Hollywood history. A 2006 promo magazine compared it to Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca”:  a place “everyone goes to in the end”. 

Royalty came from all corners, actual monarchs like Prince Charles, and political dynasties like the Rockefellers, Kennedys, Fords and Reagans. (Nancy is inevitably cited as a former lunch regular.)

But the hotel is most famous for the great Hollywood names who graced its corridors –  Grace Kelly, Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Great Garbo in past and present.

Word has it that Cruise and Kidman preferred it for not just Oscar-time gatherings but for the later, genteel divorce negotiations.

A $2 million investment in a 200-camera security system in 2006 and the presence of as many as 12 discreet security staffers means that would-be paparazzi never make it across the stone bridge that leads off the parking lot.

The distinctiveness of the layout goes back to the days when developer Alphonzo Bell planned Bel-Air as a swank development. 

Aiming to attract the horsey elite, he built the Bel-Air stables on Stone Canyon Road, and soon added administration buildings — the beginnings of what would 20-odd years later become the grand, if meandering hotel. 

In 1946, sometime Texas oil fields roustabout Joseph Drown, who grew rich doing hotel rescues during the Depression, had the vision of creating a hotel on the property, adding a restaurant and kitchen and planting gardens. He dammed a stream to make a pond for swans, and carved out 62 rooms. 

From there, what writer Richard John Pietschmann has called “what may be the world’s first intentionally conceived boutique hotel” began what’s now a 65-year run.

Though the basic Spanish mission-style complex later developed French Deco touches, it was loved for its quirks — as with its terra cotta roof tiles that supply a nice contrast to what has come to be known as Bel-Air pink. 

Now buried in the facility’s corporate history are the ownership vicissitudes. For example, the 1982 purchase of the Bel-Air by Dallas’ Rosewood Company (on behalf of yes, oil-rich heiress Caroline Rose Hunt) and a Japanese consortium’s 1989 acquisition that led to a 1995 sale for $65 million to Prince Jeffrey, brother of the Sultan of Brunei. 

A two-and-a-half-year, $19 million renovation was completed in January 2003, and the hotel gradually managed to convert its clientele from the longtime acquaintances of Nancy Reagan towards a younger, one could almost say hipper, set.

Such likely Oscar contenders as Kidman, Hilary Swank and Russell Crowe would camp out there for parts of awards season, drawn by what former manager Paul Zuest said of the place years before: “We sell privacy.” 

That’s still true, but they also sell luxury and service. 

Now, if only they could banish a few unsettling matters. The hotel is still engaged in a momentarily quiet struggle with many of the 275 workers it laid off before it closed for the renovation. “The laid-off Bel-Air workers’ struggle to reclaim their jobs is far from over,” union spokesperson Leigh Shelton told TheWrap.

In fact, a protest by some 400 members of the hotel workers’ union, Unite Here, Local 11, bolstered by some 50 kindred souls from Occupy L.A., caused some hullabaloo on Oct. 14, when the property’s “soft” re-open began.

But even they would probably recognize the sentiment that came from regular Bette Davis who, when a studio chauffeur tried to take her to a competing hotel, said: “Turn this car around and take me to the Bel-Air. That’s my home, even if I have to sleep in the lobby. They’ll find me a bed.”

And no doubt the thread count was as it should be.