Carved into the original walls throughout Downtown LA's historic Hotel Figueroa is a curious insignia, an inverted triangle that appears faintly Masonic, or perhaps a mysterious clue from a Dan Brown novel.
It is, in fact, the original iconography of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), a womb-like representation of feminine power and strength. The motif has also been incorporated into the recently renovated hotel's logo, honouring the role The Fig, as it's affectionately known, played in the early feminist movement.
In 1925, a group of women from the local YWCA secured a $1.25 million loan, reported by the Los Angeles Times to be "the largest individual financial transaction ever undertaken by a body of women in the United States". The idea was to build a safe haven for the growing number of female travellers and businesswomen venturing to the big smoke without a male chaperone; it was advertised as "an ideal stopping place for ladies unattended".
At the helm of the resulting hotel, located on Figueroa and Ninth, was Maude Bouldin – aviator, motorcycle enthusiast and all-round iconoclast who boldly went by her maiden name. It's said Bouldin flew her own plane from the east coast to Los Angeles to take up her new role as the country's first female hotel manager; she also famously gatecrashed a hotel convention in 1926, challenging the male-dominated hospitality industry.
Under her leadership, Hotel Figueroa became more than just female-friendly accommodation. It was also a meeting place, where women could mingle in the hotel coffee shop with like-minded professionals, discussing art and politics, and challenging gender-based discrimination.
Musical soirees, poetry readings and exhibits for female artists were held in its salons; while telephone booths, a travel bureau, a cashier, a newsstand, a public stenographer and a beauty salon catered for the busy life of a working woman. Meanwhile, social activities were encouraged: swimming lessons were held in the coffin-shaped pool, golf courtesy cards were issued and bridge parties and entertainment were held weekly.
Designed in Spanish colonial style, the top nine floors of the luxurious 14-storey hotel were reserved exclusively for women; during the Great Depression, however, the lower floors became available to men and their families in a bid to increase business.
Until the late '50s, Hotel Figueroa remained an important hub for social progress in Downtown LA; but as the city centre declined, so the hotel also slipped into disrepair, operating as semi-permanent residential housing until 1976. It was then bought by an eccentric Swede, Uno Thimansson, who refurbished it in eclectic Moroccan style as a three-star hotel, with a lively underground bar.
When it was sold again in 2014, the new owners planned to retain its retro ambience. As they began to strip away the layers, its history (herstory?) was revealed and so they decided to honour that, restoring the Fig at a cost of $60 million to its original splendour and re-establishing it as a place with strong feminine energy, a place where women have a voice.
In the soaring Spanish colonial lobby lounge – with its original wood-framed skylights, huge fireplace and intimate seating – the walls are lined with paintings and photographs by of some of LA's most compelling female artists, with a quarterly Featured Artist Series acting as a platform for emerging talent. Guests can mingle and chill under the soundscape of playlists curated by female DJs.
Meanwhile, the poolside patio restaurant, Veranda, and the underground Tangier bar hold special events, including wellness sessions, mimosa brunches and comedy evenings featuring all-female line-ups.
Each of the 268 guest rooms in this boutique hotel are unique spaces that blend old world charm with modern touches, include curated local artworks; while a series of Signature Rooms offer more distinctive accommodation, with the 58-square-metre Casablanca Suite featuring its own entertaining space covered in antique mirror, accessed through a secret passageway in a bookcase.
But arguably the most arresting artwork featured in the revamped Fig hangs in its reception area: a portrait of Maude Bouldin astride a motorcycle, a flaming red image of a fierce, unstoppable pioneer riding into a more equitable future.
Julie Miller was a guest of Discover Los Angeles.
Delta Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne (via Sydney) to LAX. See delta.com
Rooms at the Hotel Figueroa start from $US469 a night for a Classic Double, with suites from $539 a night. See hotelfigueroa.com