Portraits of St. Francis Hotel residents capture a bygone Hollywood

In the spring of 1975, Penny Wolin, a 21-year-old art student from Cheyenne, Wyo., moved into the storied St. Francis Hotel in Hollywood. The formerly upscale establishment, built in the 1920s, was by then a rough-around-the-edges, pay-by-the-week, brick hotel that had seen better days. Wolin lived there for three weeks to document its residents — a mix of misfits and dreamers, transients, artists and adventurers — for a photography project at ArtCenter College of Design.

“I looked around and said: ‘wow, this is just everybody, this is humanity,’” Wolin, now 69, says. “There were people there on their way up, people on their way down, young and old, gay and straight, Black and white, people from all different walks. I’d always wondered, even as a young girl growing up in Cheyenne — there was a row, on the main street, of these residential hotels — who lives in these hotels, how do people exist there?”

Wolin’s “Guest Register,” out Wednesday from Crazy Woman Creek Press, offers some answers. The oversized art book includes 34 of the black and white portraits, along with snippets of text, that Wolin made while living at the St. Francis. The book is fashioned like a weathered, leather-bound hotel sign-in register and includes essays Wolin wrote both in 1975 and last year, looking back. The front and back cover interiors include reproductions of the hotel’s actual guest registers, complete with hand-scribbled names and arrival dates.

For the project, Wolin met most residents in the lobby, gaining their trust and setting up appointments to take their pictures later. Inspired by the direct, intimate style of portrait photographer Arnold Newman, the inquisitiveness of photographer Diane Arbus and the documentary spirit of the “Life Library of Photography” books she subscribed to as a child, Wolin worked room by room, shooting honest, matter-of-fact images with a medium format Hasselblad camera. She also kept a 35-millimeter camera on hand to capture quicker, spur-of-the-moment images.

In the process, Wolin says, she learned “life lessons” from her subjects, an unlikely community that included the divorcé in room #215 who prized, above all else, his television; the widowed former Texas bronco champion in room #309; the former child actor in room #412 and the Taekwando master in room #415.

“I learned so much about the human experience,” Wolin says. “I learned about tolerance. And that we all do the best that we can — they did. I learned to tell who’s on the up and up and who’s not, the difference between good and evil, between success and failure, between having opportunity — which I had — and not having opportunity, which many of them didn’t. And that at the end of the day, we’re all the same, we all laugh and love and feel and want to succeed with what we do.”

The St. Francis is long gone — the building is now the Gershwin Apartments. And Wolin, who’s still based in L.A., went on to become an accomplished portrait photographer whose work is in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Harvard University, among other institutions. Her editorial work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Life and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. But she never published her photographs from the St. Francis — they sat tucked away in her archives for 47 years. Until now.

The resulting book is at once deeply rooted in a moment in time and universal, both Hollywood Boulevard nostalgia and — with its subjects’ bushy mustaches, smoldering More cigarettes and wide, polyester shirt lapels — a snapshot of a decade. It’s about chasing dreams and the freedom to embrace one’s true identity. And it’s a testament to the enduring lure of Los Angeles for those seeking reinvention.

Here’s the story behind several of Wolin’s photographs, as she recalls taking them.

A resident at the St. Francis Hotel.

(From “Guest Register,” © Penny Wolin, 2022)

Room 323: “I spent a lot of time with this fellow. He was a plumber, and he had his big, plumber toolboxes and overalls on, and in the morning he’d leave the hotel. And then he’d come back at the end of the day and you’d see him leave an hour later in a wig, a dress and high heels. Something very fancy and beautiful. His name was Wally. Everyone said: ‘You gotta go photograph Wally, he’s the best guy around here.’ I made an appointment and spent quite a bit of time. He talked about always wanting to have a sex change operation — how he always had loved to wear his mother’s clothes — but a sex change operation in those days was cost prohibitive. Plus, people weren’t doing it [often]. He talked about what he had to put up with being a plumber and that people would make fun of him. But he persevered, he was the aristocrat. He was the one that kept his positive attitude and demeanor throughout the day.”

A resident of the St. Francis Hotel

(From “Guest Register” © Penny Wolin, 2022)

Room 110: “Most of the people were in their rooms and the hallways were really just pass-throughs to get to people’s private spaces. But this guy was in the hallway, in the stairwell — I was going up and he was going down. And he had this ‘Love and Pray’ drawing that he’d just made. I photographed him outside his room. I asked him: ‘Can I photograph you?’ And he really wanted to do it. We weren’t sure what to do with the poster. It was his idea to stick it up on the wall. He was enamored with Christianity and Jesus…and I suppose you could call him an artist. He was a half full glass fellow.”

Residents of the St. Francis Hotel.

(From “Guest Register,” © Penny Wolin, 2022)

Room 421: “I met these fellows in the lobby and asked to photograph them and they said sure. They’re a set of brothers, human beings, that had a lot harder life than I had. They’d been orphaned, were in an orphanage, and they’re still together. They came to Hollywood to look around — together. That’s the whole idea of this photo: they’re together. They’re making their way and they’re doing fine.”

A desk clerk at the St. Francis Hotel.

(From “Guest Register,” © Penny Wolin, 2022)

The front desk: “This was on a weekend afternoon, probably. I just remember he was a good guy, a little down on his luck. He’d gotten divorced, he was a little disillusioned. But he wanted to open up a roller rink in Pico Rivera. That’s not a dream I was ever encouraged to have — but it’s his dream, and why not? It’s about our humanity — who they wanted to be, what they wanted to do, their goals. These guys, the management, when people would go to them and say ‘what’s this photographer all about?’ They’d encourage people to participate. That’s key for a photographer — it’s key that people trust me and I trust them and they know that they’re safe. He was completely supportive of me.”

A neighborhood character near the St. Francis Hotel.

(From “Guest Register,” © Penny Wolin, 2022)

The grocery store: “I have no more to say about this than what there is: I’d see her around, the grocery store was in the hotel. She was kind of in her own world. No one knew much about her, she just seemed happy. I know nothing more about her.”

Residents at the St. Francis Hotel.

(From “Guest Register,” © Penny Wolin, 2022)

Room 511: “So I think the young pups were there for the night — but they were there, boy. I think they were brothers, they acted alike, they moved the same. I didn’t know much about them. I just saw them — it must have been in the lobby, in the afternoon. They were just another set of people who wanted to look around, leave where they were. They came to Hollywood to see what could happen. I don’t know where they went that day. But they look like they were ready to party.”

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