When she was 21, Penny Wolin checked into a residential hotel in the heart of Hollywood.
The year was 1975 and the building was the St. Francis Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard – the same strip where film veterans have long immortalized their hands and footprints in wet cement.
St Francis was built in 1926 during the heyday of silent films, a place filled with the glitz and glamor of Old Hollywood. But when Volyn arrived half a century later, St. Francis was a very different place.
Its rooms were filled with people who felt like they didn’t fit anywhere else. People whose dreams, as he said, were bigger than their rooms.
“People stayed there for a night or 30 years — and somewhere in between,” Wolin told NPR.
So he pulled out a camera and a single strobe light and a tape recorder, and for the next three weeks of his time there, Wolin tried to engage one-on-one with the people who made up the community in St. Francis.
Volyn grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and remembers a time when she was a child and her father would take her to a part of town that had residential hotels. She says that he always held her hand a little tight, and it made her think: Who lives in these buildings?
When she arrived at St. Francis, she began to understand.
“It was people who needed a place to live, whether they were going up, or maybe going down,” says Wolin.
Nearly 50 years after she lived, Volyn’s photographs and the stories she heard have turned into a book, guest register, It includes all the photos of an American man in the ’70s and his new French-born girlfriend, from the empty room that belonged to a stuntman until he died the night before Volyn was photographed.
Then there was a plumber-electrician who liked to wear laces.
“I would see this fellow who would leave in the morning, and he was a muscular plumber,” recalls Volyn. “And then he’d come back at the end of the day and go to his room and then another kind of person would come out, a pretty woman in a lace dress and high heels, and that was that. And off he goes.”
When Volyn wrote the book, everyone who knew him liked and respected him. So she wanted to know him too.
Wolin also fondly remembers the orphaned brothers from Nebraska, who had managed to live together from the ages of three and five, and were now exploring the world as young adults.
“It just warms my heart,” says Volyn. “They were just these great guys from Nebraska who said, ‘Let’s go to Hollywood.'”
For many residents of St. Francis, it was the myth of Hollywood that attracted them to the city. Volyn says the idea is alive and well, and may still be true. She describes Hollywood not only as a geographical location, but as an existential place.
“And you can make some for yourself,” she says. “You can be a photographer, a musician, all these things you want to be, hope you can be them. That’s why Hollywood is built on hope.”
St. Francis himself meant different things to different people, Volyn says. Like the woman who lived with her lover and worked in Arabic and kept a clean room.
“So, for him, it’s a place to be for a short time,” Volyn says. ,[But] The penthouse fellow who had probably been there for decades understood the dynamics of where it was and became comfortable with it. It was home, a home for the people.”
Then there was the man in room 540 who left Wolin a handwritten note that simply said: “Here’s a room for you.” It was a note that would keep him alive for years to come.
Wolin says, “It became the mantra that no matter how many bad things happen in your journey to find your way…” If there was a place for me here, in an existential hotel, well, I would have a place to live in the world. And people will take care of me.”