By now it’s a classic, almost-cliche tale of urban revitalization: artists seeking dirt cheap studio spaces descend on a post-industrial, less-frequented part of town. They open a few galleries, a book store, a coffee shop. Then a groundbreaking new restaurant opens. Bam! Suddenly that under-the-radar, grimy stretch of warehouses is one of the coolest neighborhoods in town.
Such is the trajectory of L.A.’s downtown Arts District, which began its slow crawl to “It” neighborhood way back in the ‘70s, when the first batch of enterprising young creatives moved in. That, of course, was before Bestia, before Shinola, and before Stumptown—and well before the herds of tourists wielding smart phones in front of street murals. But not before a two-story, red-brick fire station was built on the corner of Sante Fe Avenue and 7th Street.
“It opened in 1927 and was a working firehouse until 1980,” says Dustin Lancaster, the founder of hospitality group Eastside Establishment. “I first saw it ten years ago, but it had been decommissioned and there wasn’t much going on other than a Deus Ex Machina pop-up.” Still, Lancaster fell in love with the building: with its wood truss ceilings and giant windows; the concrete nameplate emblazoned with the words Engine Co. No. 17 in capital letters over the double front doors. Mostly, though, he fell for the wide-open, unfinished spaces. Shelled by brick and glass and dusted with a crust of forgotten drywall, they beckoned to him with possibility.
“When I opened Bar Covell ten years ago, the neighborhood, Los Feliz, was in a similar up-and-coming state,” Lancaster says of the northeastern Los Angeles neighborhood that is also home to his first hotel, the beloved Hotel Covell, which opened in 2015. With its distinct, minimalist-vintage design and cool kid ethos, the five-room hotel on Hollywood Boulevard was quickly seen as a beacon for the Los Feliz neighborhood.
So it was fitting then, that when the owner of Engine Co. No. 17 was looking to develop his old firehouse into a boutique hotel, he called Lancaster. It was kismet. “Anytime you’re lucky enough to get a building with these kind of bones, it feels special—even if you do nothing to it, it’s already still a great building,” Lancaster says.
Not that there was nothing to do: Lancaster’s plans included a multi-use public space that would “truly serve the neighborhood”; it required a complete buildout. To realize this vision, he tapped developer Tyler Stonebreaker, as well as his longtime friend and collaborator, designer Sally Breer: “Sally is immensely talented and we speak the same design language, so that’s helpful.” Also helpful: that Breer had done the interiors at Hotel Covell.
As with Covell, Breer wanted the interiors of Firehouse to weave a narrative, so she created a fictional set of characters to help inform the design. “The idea was that Mabel, the mom, took over the building as a boarding house in the ‘40s and then later her daughter, Marta, came in the '70s and messed it all up. So there is this classical element, but also a playfulness,” she explains.
To that end, each of the nine individually-designed suites has its own singular layout and color scheme, and is a dreamy mix of the elegant and bizarre. In the Blue Room, for example, the bed is canopied by a ladylike, floral-print curtain and a Wes Anderson-eque archway in baby blue; in the White Room, the bed’s rounded headboard is made from luxe burgundy velvet and backed by a tonal rainbow that’s been painted directly on the wall. Sofas and chairs are either clean-lined and straight or low-slung and fluffy; in one room, a hand-painted wave in pale blue undulates along the wall. While historical architectural details, like pressed-tin panels and wood floors, were kept in place, most of the art, lighting, and objects were culled from Breer’s vast network of Los Angeles creators and collectors—a modernist mix that includes the artisanal tiles of Clé; the sculptural light fixtures of Simon St. James and Atelier de Troup; the whimsical, graphic prints of Block Shop Textiles, and the hand-hewn ceramics of Robert Siegel. Much of the furniture comes from Breer’s own firm, ETC.cetera. “I was aiming for something that's familiar and hopefully a little bit timeless,” says Breer. “I wanted it to have some homages to the past but also do something brave; I wanted it to look like someone took a risk here, had some courage.”
The aesthetic bravery extends to the first floor, where the airy common spaces include a reception-area retail cove (featuring striped seersucker robes designed exclusively for the hotel by Clare V.) and a cafe serving Counter Culture coffee and baked goods from pastry chef Rose Lawrence; as well as the hotel’s pièce de résistance: a sprawling New American restaurant, bar, patio, and private dining room helmed by Chef Ashley Abodeely, formerly of Eleven Madison Park in New York and the NoMad Hotel DTLA. Here, much like the guest rooms nestled above, the vibe is a quirky (and soon to be Instagrammed) blend of whimsical and grown-up: Hedley & Bennett designed the staff uniform, and the space is filled with velvet seating, white marble, concrete, factory glass, and a large-scale, custom-made, mint-green chandelier. All in all, the kind of dining room you’d definitely want to spend a few hours lingering in over a meal or cocktail. “My entire desire has been to make this place approachable,” says Lancaster. “I love eating at hotels and there’s not a ton of great dining options over here besides Bestia. I wanted a place you could go multiple times a week.”
Looking out the windows at this newly bustling stretch of Santa Fe Ave—which houses the sparkling new headquarters for Warner Music and, soon nearby, the offices of Spotify—it isn’t difficult to imagine that the Firehouse, which officially opens to the public on April 15th, will soon be the daily neighborhood meeting spot Lancaster has envisioned all along. Soon it will also be joined by a new Soho House, and two side-by-side Mexican restaurants from Enrique Olvera and Daniela Soto-Innes.
“It’s funny,” muses Breer. “Two years ago, when we did the walk-through, I wasn’t so sure. The neighborhood felt remote and so sleepy. Now I walk around outside and I think, nah, we cool.”