"Now it's one great living room," Arnold said.
Repurposing older buildings usually costs less than building new ones, but the renovation route still presents financial risks. The makeovers of the Freehand and NoMad buildings ended up costing more than $200 million, including acquisition costs, Zobler said.
"The disadvantage is that you don't know what's behind the walls," he said.
The foundation of the Freehand was unusually problematic, for example. City officials decided to widen Olive Street in the mid-1930s, and the owners of the building were obligated to reduce the footprint of the 13-story structure by nearly 10 feet.
Engineers chose to cut a 10-foot chunk out of the middle of the building from top to bottom and reunited the building by sliding the western portion east on rails, thereby opening up more space on Olive Street. The process cost $60,000, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1935.
When the Freehand renovation got underway, builders encountered a second foundation that had been poured in over the original in the 1930s project, which created challenges as they worked to attain modern seismic standards. They also found the railroad rails used to move the divided building back together.
Sometimes builders get good surprises when they rip off wall coverings and other "improvements" added through the years. At the Freehand, they unveiled marble walls and old-fashioned transom windows along 7th and Olive streets.
Owl Drug Co. was once located in the building, and flooring was lifted in what is now a restaurant to reveal an owl insignia made of tile. The owl has become a logo for the hotel.
Demand for hotel rooms in downtown Los Angeles has grown with its economic comeback over the past several years, said Jeff Lugosi, managing director of CBRE Hotels Consulting.
The average daily room rate for full-service hotels rose 1.7 percent last year over 2016 to $233 and average occupancy rose 2.3 percent to 79 percent, he said.
Most of the market belongs to big brands such as Marriott, InterContinental and Sheraton, Lugosi said. A Park Hyatt is set to open next year near Staples Center. Competition from older buildings is also arriving.
"Now there are these independent boutique hotels," he said. "It's a segment we really didn't have before."
Travelers in creative businesses such as entertainment and fashion who might have stayed in individualistic hotels in West Hollywood or Hollywood in the past are now coming downtown, Lugosi said.
These days they may have friends who live downtown. New bars, restaurants and other attractions such as the Broad museum have helped make the neighborhood an overnight option, he said.
Boutique hotels appeal to the self-image of many creative types, Lugosi said. Burkle sees even wider appeal in their competition with big traditional brands.
"The NoMad has an Old World feeling with youthfulness to it," Burkle said. "The Four Seasons is where your parents would stay -- even if you're in your 70s."
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