Angels are dancing above me. As the singer Aimee Mann performs on stage, high above my head the angelic ornaments circle a dome of crystals on the ceiling. The stage lights bounce off a Gaudi-esque ornament that gives the whole, echoing room the aspect of an enchanted cave.
I'm in the theatre of the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles: a 1927 gem that was built by Hollywood royalty, went downhill over the course of the 20th century and has now been fixed up as part of the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles. It reflects perfectly what's happening to this neighbourhood: Once empty at night, downtown is one of the hottest neighbourhoods in town. In moving forward, the city is turning back to its history.
To explore that past, I spent a few days walking and biking downtown Los Angeles (yes, you can do that). Specifically, I wanted to see Art Deco. The style remains a favourite in Los Angeles: The Waldorf-Astoria Beverly Hills opened in June, built out in a contemporary, five-star version of Deco. But I wanted to see the original, the buildings of the 1920s through the 1940s that form an underrated and extraordinary part of the city's cultural legacy.
The Theatre at Ace Hotel was where I kicked off my exploration. Designed by the noted theatre architect C. Howard Crane, it opened as the United Artists Theatre – the public showpiece for the new studio founded by a group of directors and stars, including Charlie Chaplin. Some of their faces are visible on murals painted inside.
Ornament was a crucial part of the style, which was born in the 1920s in the wake of an international exposition in Paris. Art Deco, in a nutshell, combined narrative and symbolism from a grab-bag of styles with contemporary forms and technologies.
In that sense it was perfect for Los Angeles, which was a boom town – its population and economy goosed by a massive influx of migrants, largely from the Midwest, attracted to the weather and the glamour.
I could see this in the Ace Hotel above, which was my base. Designed by the local architects Walker & Eisen, it is a steel-framed office tower that for decades housed California Petroleum Corp.; in other words, it's a modern building to the core. Its face has vertical columns that set a modern rhythm – but they're encrusted with Gothic ornament. And somewhere there's a carving of a man with a movie camera.
The Ace Hotel's renovation of the interior, opened in 2014, is similarly eclectic. The restaurant, L.A. Chapter, is dark and moody; the ornate glass-work on the partitions echoes the nearby 1927 Oviatt building, whose lobby features an aggregation of imported Lalique glass. But Ace Hotel designers have filled in the lobby, and the rooms, with their usual vibe: scruffy cement board, custom steel shelving, brass taps and modernist furniture.
What has happened to the Ace Hotel reflects what's happened to downtown Los Angeles: Office buildings are being converted into housing, as the area goes through a rapid and forceful process of gentrification. You can spend $5 on an excellent latte at the Ace Hotel, and then $7 for lunch at Tacos Mexico on the sidewalk outside.
Across the street, the extraordinary 1930 Eastern Columbia building, designed by architect Claud Beelman, also reflects the area's changes.
Its blue-and-gold terracotta façades are shimmering, its ornaments of regional plants and geometric forms all shined up. And its lobby is home to a restaurant and cold-pressed juice emporium.
To get a broader view of the period, I spent a morning on a walking tour run by the Los Angeles Conservancy. Our guide, a native Angeleno, Steven Ort, put it in perspective. "Everything used to be downtown," Ort said. "Everyday, thousands of people would emerge from trains into this area. They would go to the theatres on Broadway, down the block; they would go to the department stores up the block that way.
"In the 1950s, people started moving out. To the San Fernando Valley, where I live, to the suburbs – they abandoned downtown. Stores closed up, the theatres closed up. Business people would come here just for the day. And developers tore down a lot of buildings."
Those that remained include the city's central library, designed by New York architect Bertram Goodhue in 1926. It employs a more spare and monumental dialect of Art Deco, shading into what was called Art Moderne; it's easy to see, as Ort put it, how "this was a building that was clearly leaning into the future."
Across the street, the former Southern California Edison Co. building, now occupied by a bank, suggested the grand ambitions of 1920s L.A. Once among the tallest buildings downtown, it's now overshadowed by nineties skyscrapers. And yet it has power: The tower steps back, temple-like, as it rises, its stone and terracotta façades studded with lightning-bolt ornaments by artist Merrell Gage. The drama continues in the sumptuous lobby, decorated with more than a dozen kinds of marble; a painting by the artist Hugo Ballin, The Apotheosis of Power, depicts the Godlike hand of Thomas Edison bestowing the gift of electric power to a cluster of grateful civic leaders.
Back on South Broadway, by the Ace Hotel, things are still scruffier. The cacophony of construction was everywhere, as new apartment buildings rose on empty lots. "This is where the city is happening now," Ort said. Here, the city's jewellery district continues to occupy a string of buildings that were once theatres, office buildings and grand department stores. But under the grime and fluorescent lights – and in a couple of upscale boutiques – you could see carved stone and moulded brass expressing the fantasias of 80 years ago. This is a city of eagles and California bears, chevrons and coats of arms, spirals and suns. And angels.
If you go
Ace Hotel Downtown L.A., 929 S. Broadway
Rooms from $250 (U.S.). acehotel.com/losangeles.
L.A. Conservancy walking tours
$15 a person; laconservancy.org/tours.
L.A. Central Library daily guided tours
$3.50 an hour; bikeshare.metro.net.
The writer was a guest of Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles. It did not review or approve this article.