A long and illustrious past is what makes the Culver Hotel so endearing to the many visitors that pass through its halls each year. From legendary ownership to memorable guests, our rooms tell stories - mischievous munchkins, secret passageways and high-stake poker games are all part of what make the fabric of our history. As a National Historic Landmark and almost a century old, the Culver Hotel gracefully retains its prestige and nostalgia of days long past. It remains a true icon.
“City packed with visitors for opening of Culver Skyscraper” – these were the headlines in the September 4th 1924 Culver City Daily News. Los Angeles firm Curlett and Beelman was selected by Mr. Culver to build what was called “the latest monument to his vision”. The same partners built several other architectural gems in the Los Angeles area such as the Park Plaza Hotel, The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and the Union Oil buildings in the LA area. Beelman went on to design the Thalberg Administration Building at MGM in Culver City, now Sony Studios, as well as the Eastern Columbia building in Downtown Los Angeles.
Before the hotel was erected, the land held the first theater in the area - the Meralta - as well as the first City offices which were then relocated to Van Buren place. When Harry Culver decided to construct the Culver Hotel on what has been called “the shortest Main Street in the USA,” he created a “wedge-shaped Renaissance revival-style beauty, fashioned with sculpted stone, brick, ornate overhanging eaves and 200 magnificent windows.”
Although a luxury property for its day, the Culver Hotel of earlier eras would have disastrously failed today’s standards of health and safety. The hotel was advertised as having “150 modern apartments for everyone to enjoy.” At the hotel’s inception, each floor offered only one bathroom, creating a frantic morning scene with guests vying for space to groom and wash.
These issues, along with others, were solved in the later part of the 20th century when the rooms were reconfigured to allow for private baths. Today’s Culver Hotel offers forty six newly designed guestrooms, where each room does have its own bathroom – rather than down the hall- for everyone to enjoy...
1917 – Culver City is founded by Harry H. Culver and incorporated on September 20th. Population 550.
1918 – The first film studio is built by Thomas Ince. Silent movie producer Hal Roach and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) follow thereafter.
1920’s –During the Prohibition, Washington Boulevard is notorious for its nightclubs and speakeasies such as the Cotton Club. Main Street acts as the retail center. There are three major movie studios, a hospital and small businesses. Culver City experiences fast growth.
1922 – Western Stove marks the beginning of industry in Culver City.
1924 – The Culver Hotel, then named the Hotel Hunt, is opened by Culver City founding father Mr. Harry H. Culver. His offices occupy the first 2 floors where he works to expand his City’s borders.
1930’s – Helms Bakery opens and becomes the official bakery for the Los Angeles Olympics. Gambling and bootlegging remain. No additional annexations occur reflecting the Great Depression. The City is branded as “The Heart of Screenland”.
1938 – The Wizard of Oz is filmed in Culver City. Much of the cast, including all 124 ‘little people’ also known as the ‘Munchkins’, stay at the Culver Hotel.
1939 - Gone with the Wind along with many other classic films are filmed in Culver City.
1940’s - Culver City is home to half of America’s movie production which becomes affordable entertainment throughout the war. Hal Roach Studios functions as “Fort Roach”, making training films and many locals work in the aircraft industry.
1946 – Harry Culver passes away. The Hayden Tract map is filed by Mr. Sam Hayden, a glass manufacturer and developer. This large industrial complex was designed to expand Culver City’s economic base and very much in line with Mr. Culver’s vision for his city.
1950’s to 1990’s – The Culver Hotel gradually starts a downturn over the next few decades.
1950’s and 60’s – Car dealerships arrive in the area. Culver City’s residential neighborhoods expand. Culver Center, one of Southern California’s first malls is completed.
1952 - Dwight D. Eisenhower has campaign offices in the hotel during his Presidential campaign and visits Culver City as does his running mate Richard Nixon.
1970’s – Culver City embarks on a Redevelopment plan.
1980’s – The City’s population approaches 40,000. The hotel has considerably deteriorated over the last couple of decades.
1990s – The Culver Hotel is restored and reopened by Mr. Lou Catlett.
1997 – The Culver Hotel is proud to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
2007 – The Culver Hotel is purchased by an independent hotelier family and undergoes new management and extensive renovation. Downtown is in the process of revitalization and the momentum is building up again.
2013 – The Culver Hotel Renovation is completed. The Culver Hotel shines and is once again as the jewel of Downtown Culver City.
1880 – Harry Hazel Culver is born on January 22nd in Milford Nebraska. He is the middle child of five and is raised on a farm.
1896 – Enlists in the Spanish-American War taking the lead from his father. Although underage, he works his way from trumpeter to sergeant. After a year at Doane College, he spends three years at the University of Nebraska and finances his education through assorted jobs, including taking in laundry, and going into the bottled water business with his father.
1901 – Works in the Philippines for a few years in the mercantile business. Takes a job as a reporter for the Manila Times and then as a Customs agent.
1910 – Harry Culver arrives in California and works for real estate developer I.N. Van Nuys who later offers him a manager’s position but he declines and prefers to go out on his own.
1913 – Announces his plans for a City at the California Club in Los Angeles. That same year, he files ‘Main Street’ with the County recorder’s office.
1916 – Marries silent film actress Lillian Roberts. Has his first and only child Patricia a year later.
1917 – Incorporates his own city at age 37, four years after his initial attempt. Well done!
1922 – Founds the Pacific Military Academy in honor of his father.
1923 – Is elected President of the National Association of Realtors.
1924 – The Culver Hotel, then named Hotel Hunt, opens to headlines “City packed with Visitors for opening of Culver Skyscraper”. Mr. Culver’s offices occupied the first two floors.
1928 – Donates 100 acres overlooking the Pacific to Loyola College.
1929 – Appointed as the President of the National Association of Realtors.
1946 – Harry Culver passes away on August 17th at age 66. His wife Lillian lives until the age of 103.
Harry Culver loved horseback riding, swimming and ice hockey. He gave over 600 speeches over his lifetime.
It was said that Harry Culver founded Culver City because he discovered the perfect location for new stomping grounds — partway between the salty beaches of Santa Monica and the glitzy nightlife of Hollywood— but a much more romantic beginning is likely to have launched what we now consider to be one of Los Angeles’s most enticing neighborhoods.
After spending a year monitoring the area’s traffic and climate, Mr. Culver fell in love, not only with the land, but also with a beautiful woman. While waiting at a train platform, he saw a charming vision illuminated by the Californian sun. This elegant woman was Lillian Roberts, a young local beauty and aspiring silent film actress.
Unable to secure a date with her due to his ‘mature’ age, Mr. Culver convinced a doctor friend — a mutual acquaintance of Miss Roberts — to invite her to a party, to which Harry Culver conveniently acted as chauffeur. With the doctor and his wife in the backseat, there was no place for Miss Roberts other than the passenger seat right next to Mr. Culver. The rest, as they say, was history; and the two soon married, solidifying his decision to remain in the area.
In 1913 Harry Culver announced his vision for a new city halfway between Los Angeles and Abbott Kinney’s beach resort, Venice. He pursued and promoted city development, served locally in elected office and supported every opportunity to promote the area. He was President of the California Association of Realtors and then elected the National President of that same association. Mr. Culver was well known for his innovative style- holding events like free picnics and prettiest baby contests- leading tours with box lunches and advertising “All Roads Lead to Culver City.” By 1924, he had opened the Culver Hotel, then named the Hotel Hunt, where he ran his large sales force to expand his vision.
Since the 1920’s, Culver City has been a significant center for motion picture and later television production, in part because it was home to MGM Studios for many years. By enticing movie industry moguls such as Thomas Ince and Hal Roach to move into his city in the early years, Harry Culver’s plan played a vital role in bringing movie making into his backyard.
Culver City’s "Heart of Screenland " legacy includes Cecil B. DeMille's studio, MGM Studios, David O. Selznick Studios, RKO, Desilu and Culver Studios. Ince's 1915 Triangle Studio is now Sony Pictures, home of Columbia and TriStar Pictures. Hundreds of movies have been produced and filmed both on movie lots and in the streets of Culver City for decades, from the silent Laurel and Hardy classics to some of the most recent blockbuster releases.
Alongside the rich history of the Culver Hotel are the enticing stories that surround its ownership. While Charlie Chaplin once owned the hotel, legend has it that he sold it to the “Duke,” Mr. John Wayne, for a dollar in a poker game. It is said that Mr. Wayne was then propositioned by the Black Panthers for ownership, but adamantly refused, eventually donating the building to the YMCA.
Tinsel town mogul Red Skelton is also rumored to have owned the Culver Hotel though it was Lou Catlett, a general partner of Historic Hollywood Properties, who rescued the building in the 1990’s from real estate speculators. By investing vast sums of money into the hotel, importing antique furniture from England, restructuring to meet health codes and undergoing seismic retrofitting, Mr. Catlett breathed fresh air into the dilapidated surroundings and rescued the hotel from being torn down, a fate many other historical buildings in the Los Angeles area succumbed to at the time.
In the years since, the exterior of the building has remained much the same but has undergone several changes of ownership finally landing in the hands of an independent hotelier family in 2007, who fell in love with the building and had the vision of what it could become again. While maintaining the architectural integrity and classic ambiance inherent to the building’s initial conception, the latest renovation has made the Culver Hotel proud of its National Landmark status.
No matter the rumor, it is undeniable that the Culver is intricately linked with Hollywood history: Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Ronald Reagan are only some of the stars who maintained part time residences within the hotel. And when MGM began filming The Wizard of Oz, they housed nearly all of the 124 “little people” who played the Munchkins. Story has it that a secret underground tunnel was built to usher them to their set at the nearby Culver Studio — as well as to ferry alcohol during the Prohibition. In reality, this “secret” pathway was used for pedestrians to cross the busy boulevard, but we like to stick with the first story better!
The wild tales and stories that emerged from this Munchkin “residence” inspired the 1981 Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher movie, Under the Rainbow and, in 1997, six of the original cast returned for a Beyond the Rainbow event to share their remembrances with the Culver City Historical Society.
Interviews were conducted as the Munchkins reminisced about the costumes, makeup and lights, as well as what it was like to work with Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton and Billie Burke.
No matter the time period, the iconic structure consistently remained a part of what is called the ‘Hollywood Golden Era’, appearing in favorites such as The Little Rascals, The Laurel and Hardy Classics, and many more. The hotel continues to play a prominent role in the movie world, still serving as a coveted background for countless modern day productions.
Eclectic clientele, a vibrant history and the passage of time have fostered a belief in other dimensional elements within the walls of the Culver Hotel. Amateur ghost seekers often delight themselves in wandering the hotel late at night, investigating thoroughly and fishing for stories of spiritual happenings. So far the midnight apparitions have not made themselves available for candid photos or tape recordings, yet the question remains… are the halls truly filled the echoes of the past or are our imaginations merely longing for a connection with the deep and mysterious soul of the Culver Hotel.
A very special thanks to the Culver City Historical Society & culvercity.org