Before retiring, one of the last things Los Angeles School District Superintendent Roy Romer did was to push a plan through the school board to first purchase and then raze the site of the Ambassador Hotel. Romer had been quite an experienced politician. Before becoming the superintendent in LA he had been governor of Colorado for a number of years. Once he gained his new position, he made it his number one priority to build enough new schools to accommodate the district's high growth rate. Romer backed putting a number of large bond issues on the ballot in order to purchase new land for construction and to renovate older schools.
Clearly, one of Romer's pet projects was the purchase of the Ambassador Hotel, the location where Robert Kennedy was murdered in June of 1968. The district had brought the site out of a bankruptcy sale since it had been a failed project of Donald Trump. Since the Ambassador Hotel had a long and storied history there was bound to be controversy around Romer's plans to create a huge multi-grade complex on the grounds. A historical landmark society called The Conservancy wanted the district to preserve as much as possible of the legendary hotel i.e. things like tennis courts, and the Cocoanut Grove, the posh restaurant inside the hotel. Some even argued for preserving the integrity of the famous hotel rooms where artists and scientists like Scott Fitzgerald and Albert Einstein had stayed. The argument being that it would be inspiring for young people to study English in the same room Fitzgerald had lived and worked in; or science in the same confines that Einstein had inhabited. And what could have been more thrilling than to have a U.S. History class walk down the storied corridor and into the kitchen pantry where Robert Kennedy was killed. What a dramatic way to cap a chapter about that fateful year of 1968.
For however extreme Romer's plans and ambitions were, surely he would leave the RFK assassination site intact. After all, this has been done with dignity in both Dallas and Memphis, so the public could revisit and reeducate itself about the tragic murders of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The sites had been preserved pretty much as they were in order to commemorate the fact that turning points in history -- the unsolved murders of two hugely important men -- had taken place there. And in fact, in the three plans presented at public hearings, this seemed to be the case.
Romer himself was present at these hearings in September and October of 2004. And although he clearly backed the most extreme plan, he tried to present a neutral and objective face over the whole enterprise. But if one was watching closely, one could see that the fix was in.
First, Romer had his chief construction engineer testify that the actual hotel rooms could not be preserved. Why? Because they could not accommodate the ceiling height that engineering needed for central air units. The ceilings would have to be dropped below the standard ten feet. Well, what about room air conditioning then? Those would be too noisy the man replied. Romer's idea of compromise with The Conservancy was a bit one sided. As one of their representatives testified, they were never consulted before any of the three plans was devised. So Romer had tilted the three options so far away from the idea of renovation and toward complete reconstruction that they had no interest in backing any of the three options. Finally, politician Romer had cleverly used Kennedy's ties to Cesar Chavez and his own friendship with a Hispanic member of the board to inject the ethnic issue into the debate. Because of the overcrowding at a neighboring school and the ethnic make up of the area, most of the students attending would be Hispanic. Therefore if you opposed Romer's concept, you were then seen as depriving disadvantaged minority students of a huge new school complex named after Chavez' friend and colleague in their struggle. And predictably, Romer had a flock of young Hispanic youth file into the hearing on cue and speak their mind through their spokesperson.
Lisa Pease, Larry Teeter (Sirhan's late attorney), and myself attended one of the two public hearings on the issue. There were so many people who wanted to testify that witnesses were allowed only three minutes, a limit that was vigorously enforced. When Romer flashed the three general plans on the overhead, it seemed that in all of them the kitchen pantry would be preserved. I commented on that satisfying contingency to Lisa. She said, "Jim you're not reading the fine print." And she pointed out to me that in the third plan presented, the most extreme one and Romer's clear preference, it appeared as if the pantry could be deconstructed -- that is literally taken apart. And then a committee would decided which of those parts would be preserved and how. Needless to say, the board and the superintendent would appoint that committee.
To make a long, sad story short, Romer convinced the school board to side with his radical plan. Larry Teeter decided to file a lawsuit to preserve the Cocoanut Grove and the pantry in deference to the possibility of a new trial for his client. Unfortunately, Teeter passed away in 2005 before he could actually record the complaint. The demolition balls then went to work. In a matter of months the Ambassador Hotel was being knocked to the ground. They saved the Grove and the pantry for last. But in September the pantry was razed. ( Los Angeles Times, 11/30/07) Certain artifacts were saved, e.g. an ice machine, and 3D imagery was taken of the room. The Conservancy finally sued over these two issues: the destruction of the Grove, and the preservation of the artifacts. But the fact is, with the pantry now demolished, Sirhan can never really have his true day in court. And Los Angeles now becomes the one site of the three great assassinations of the sixties where you cannot see or touch the place where a great leader was struck down. How a school superintendent and his board, supposedly dedicated to the education of youth, could have been involved in a decision like that is inexplicable. What a lesson for the students of Los Angeles. If they want to visit the place where RFK was murdered, well here is a 3D photo. Courtesy of Mr. Romer.
Click here to see how the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been preserved.