The Culver Hotel opened in 1924 to headlines in the September 4th Culver City daily news: "City packed with visitors for opening of Culver skyscraper." It has remained a fixture in Culver City for over eighty years, drawing guests from nearby and all over the world.
The long and illustrious past of the Culver is what makes this hotel so endearing and mysterious to the thousands of guests who pass by her walls each year. Legends foster the mystery surrounding the Culver, with sordid tales of mischievous munchkins, secret passageways and high stake poker games that give rise to inquisitive minds and adventurous travelers.
It was said that Harry Culver founded Culver City in the early 1900s, believing that it was the perfect stomping ground between the salty beaches of Santa Monica and the vibrant night life of Hollywood, though a much more romantic beginning of Culver City is more likely to be the cause.
After spending a year monitoring traffic and climate through the area that would become Culver City, Mr. Harry Culver fell in love, not only with the land, but also with a beautiful woman. While waiting at a train platform he saw an angelic vision dressed in a yellow dress and a big straw hat illuminated by the Californian sun. This elegant woman was Lillian Roberts, a young beauty who lived in the area.
Unable to get a date with her due to his mature age, Mr. Culver conveniently convinced a doctor friend who was a mutual acquaintance of Miss Roberts to invite her to a party, to which he conveniently acted as chauffer. As the doctor and his wife rode in the backseat there was no place for Miss Roberts to sit other than in the passengers seat right next to Harry Culver. The rest, as they say, was set in stone and the two soon married. This marriage solidified his decision to remain in the area and eventually found what became Culver City.
Harry Culver immediately began enticing celebrities, actors and producers into the city, and soon realized he needed a luxury place for them to stay. In 1924, he opened the Culver Hotel, a "wedged-shape Renaissance revival-style beauty, fashioned with sculpted stone, brick, ornate overhanging eaves and 200 magnificent windows."
The six-story hotel, then named the Hotel Hunt, was called the "latest monument to his vision," referring to Harry Culver himself. It was built on the land that originally held the first theater in Culver City, called the Meratta Theater which is no longer in existence. This theater also held the first city offices that were relocated once construction began.
The hotel incorporated the offices of Mr. Culver and has hosted several well-known casts from movies like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It was built on property in the center of downtown, on what has been called "the shortest Main St. in the USA."
The exterior of the building has remained much the same though the signage in front has changed often with each new owner. The hotel has also appeared in such favorites such as The Little Rascals, The Laurel and Hardy Classics, and eventually more modern day shows such as The Wonder Years and 7th Heaven.
Though a luxury property for its day, the Culver Hotel, at that time, would have disastrously failed today's standards of health and safety. Only one bathroom per floor existed at the hotel's birth, creating a frantic morning scene with guests piling into the bathrooms for facial grooming, hair washing and toilet matters all at once.
In the later 20th century this problem. as well as many other architectural atrocities, would be solved by Lou Catlett who converted several of the sixty six rooms into forty six rooms with private baths. Mr. Catlett can actually be credited with uplifting the Culver from realtors, who through speculation, had allowed the hotel to deteriorate. Investing vast sums of money by importing antique furniture from England, restructuring parts of the hotel to meet health codes, and breathing fresh air into the very walls themselves, Lou Catlett rescued the hotel only to become bankrupt for his efforts. He saved the hotel at the cost of his own livelihood.
The Culver Hotel has, to this day, remained the most prominent building in downtown Culver City. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it retains its historical prestige and nostalgic memories of days long past.
Several plaques dedicated to the historical significance of the building can be found hanging on its magnificent exterior.
Along with the reopening of the Culver Hotel 1997 was the return of the Munchkin cast, an event sponsored by Beyond the Rainbow. Six of the original Munchkins received a warm welcome from the Culver City officials as they entered the grand lobby and shared their remembrances with the representatives of the Culver City Historical Society.
It has been said that the returning Munchkins were awoken the morning after their first night to music and festivities that took the form of a parade outside their window. Ecstatic that the city would honor them in this way they were crestfallen to learn that the festivities were actually in honor of the Armistice Day Parade
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.
Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Red Skelton, Buster Keaton, Ronald Reagan and other well-known stars maintained part time residences within the classic walls of the Culver Hotel. It increased in fame as MGM began filming The Wizard of Oz when nearly all of the one hundred and twenty four "little people" spent four weeks at the hotel. Legend had it that a secret underground tunnel was built to usher the munchkins to their set at the Culver Studio, as well as to ferry alcohol and women during the Prohibition Era, though the "secret" tunnel was actually a well-used underground pathway for pedestrians to cross the tiny but busy boulevard that once separated the hotel from Culver Studios. Wild tales and stories that emerged from these four weeks of filming helped to inspire the 1981 movie comedy starring Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher called "Under the Rainbow." The producers actually used the Culver Hotel as a site for this fictional making-of-Oz story.
Part and parcel with the rich history of the Culver Hotel is the even more enticing legends that surround its ownership. It has been said that the famous Charlie Chaplin once owned the Culver Hotel, but sold it to the "Duke," Mr. John Wayne, for a dollar in a poker game. Another tale is that Mr. Wayne was propositioned by the Black Panthers for ownership of the Hotel, but adamantly refused their offer, leading the Panthers to move their operations to San Francisco. Mr. Wayne later donated the Culver to the YMCA.
Red Skelton, another Hollywood mogul, is also rumored to have owned the Culver, though it was Lou Catlett, a general partner of Historic Hollywood Properties, who rescued it from real estate speculators who had allowed the hotel to deteriorate.
The Culver Hotel was restored to its original glory in the 1990s, with a renovation of the rooms that included individual baths and antique furnishings. The halls were hung with nostalgic scenes from old Hollywood and 1900s impressionist paintings, and the lobby and bar were retrofitted in early-1900s style moldings and dark woods.
Since the 1990s the hotel has undergone several new owners, finally landing in the hands of an independent family with plans on furthering the renovation in hopes of restoring the classic ambiance to the luxurious standards of its initial conception.
Legends and ownership, eclectic clientele and the passage of time have fostered a belief in a supernatural element within the walls of the Culver. Amateur ghost seekers often delight themselves in wandering the halls late at night, investigating thoroughly the paintings from old Hollywood and interviewing the employees with rigorous questions about scandals and tragedies.
So far the midnight apparitions have not made themselves available for candid photos or tape recordings, yet the question remains. Are the halls filled with the ghosts of the past or is the thirst for voices beyond the grave a mere figment of our imaginations?