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Historical Perspective: Hopes ride high for Hotel Fresno’s future

Hopes ride high for Hotel Fresno’s future

Hotel Fresno, vacant for 35 years, is up for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places that would buoy hopes for its renovation.
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Hotel Fresno, vacant for 35 years, is up for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places that would buoy hopes for its renovation.

A massive monument of downtown Fresno's early golden age stands on Broadway off Fresno Street, waiting for a new chapter to be written.

Regarded during its heyday as the most luxurious and largest hotel between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Hotel Fresno was where celebrities of the 1920s and '30s stayed while in town.

Silver-screen icons like Gary Cooper and Victor McLaglen held court there, along with Hall of Fame boxers Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis.

Over the years politicians like Richard Nixon bedded down at the Hotel Fresno while on the campaign trail. It was a bustling center for large civic gatherings, luncheon clubs, dances and Christmas balls.

Today, the old building looks like a shell of its former self, as graffiti, peeling paint and grime cover its once elegant walls.

Yet for historic advocates and lovers of downtown Fresno, there’s still a glimmer of hope. This week a key meeting is scheduled that may breathe new life into the once grand lodging.

Laura Groves van Onna, Fresno’s historic preservation specialist, said the current owner hopes the hotel will be added to the National Register of Historic Places, thus making it possible to take advantage of rehabilitation tax credits only accessible to properties on the register.

Update

The group Saving Hotel Fresno reported that the Hotel Fresno won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

She said it’s an effort to retain and restore the building’s historic character, while adapting the building for residential use. The hotel's already on the Local Register of Historic Resources, and getting it on the national register would be a major boost toward preservation.

“The city of Fresno is excited about this nomination and is in full support of it moving forward, with the hope that it will continue to grace our skyline for many years to come," she said.

Christopher Rocha is passionate about the Hotel Fresno, and had devoted several years to hunting down memorabilia and preserving the past from the 1912 hotel.

Early beginnings

Truman Calvin “T.C.” White arrived in Fresno from Vermont in 1877, turning from raisin farming to real estate development. He built the hotel across from his four-story White Theater at Merced and I (Broadway) streets in 1912.

White had purchased a nearly 3-acre parcel at 1257 Broadway, and it made sense for him build an opulent hotel across from his theater. Many luminaries of the day were hosted at the theater — silent screen stars and vaudeville performers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fanny Brice and Buster Keaton.

The location was also on the main thoroughfare in the Valley, perfect for travelers who made the city an important stop on their way to Yosemite and other national parks.

Part of the pre-World War I building boom, Hotel Fresno was built for $300,000, then considered a staggering price. Construction began in early 1911, and finished in late 1912.

Some of the city’s first high rises were built during this period, with records set for construction in the millions of dollars. White hired noted architect Edward Foulkes to design the seven-story, 230-room hotel in the neoclassical tradition, with influences from the Second Renaissance Revival period.

Based out of San Francisco, Foulkes opened an office in Fresno. He was also responsible for the design of mansions for prominent Fresnans like Louis Einstein, H.H. Brix, Louis Gundelfinger and W.A. Sutherland.

For the Hotel Fresno, Foulkes’ plan used a traditional caravansary model — an inn with a central courtyard. No expense was spared.

When the grand opening was held Jan. 7, 1913, 5,000 overjoyed people were feted with the best that high society Fresno had to offer. They were no doubt wowed by the 126,600-square-foot structure.

For the two decades after its inception, the Hotel Fresno was the center of the city’s social activity. Every New Year’s Eve, the hotel hosted a huge party, with as many as 1,500 revelers crowding into the ballroom, dining and mezzanine rooms.

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Lavish furnishings of the Hotel Fresno, shown in an early Claude "Pop" Laval photograph, in the hotel's early days. Pop Laval Foundation

An architectural marvel

Hotel Fresno reportedly was modeled after the historic Palace Hotel of San Francisco, known for its crystal-roofed garden court. Visitors were welcomed into its two-story-tall foyer, with its massive art glass dome which filtered soft hues of light, and a large fountain carved of Italian marble.

Visitors were surrounded by wide leather chairs and settees on imported rugs of a mulberry shade, walnut furniture and furnished writing tables.

Fine woodworking, crystal chandeliers, large potted flowering plants and heavy turquoise-blue velvet draperies hung from the high windows all added to the elegance, details which “vie with one another to at once give an impression of coolness in summer and warmth in winter,” according to a 1913 Fresno Morning Republican review.

A tribute to T.C. White’s agricultural fortune from raisin farming was in the form of tile flooring with grapevines mosaics, as well as grape-themed terracotta medallions on the exterior’s seventh floor.

Flanking the massive fireplace, with its grapevine motif, hung two large paintings — “Dawn” and “Autumn” by Yosemite artist H.C. Best, on walls of white marble. A pipe organ with pipes above the fireplace was played for guests in the evening hours.

A mural, painted by Armenian immigrant Charles S. Maroot, who started as a dishwasher at the hotel and later owned a painting business, adorned the main stairway landing. It depicted two figures, a man and woman, in a Moorish scene.

Overlooking the lobby was the orchestra balcony on the second floor, which also was home to mezzanine party or reception rooms. Touting its modern atmosphere in every way, it boasted air conditioning and two “rapid passenger” elevators. Nearby the lobby was the Colonial Dining Room with its two-story-high ceiling, where under towering, ornate capitol-topped columns were tables with starched white tablecloths and napkins, plus the finest silver and china (bearing the Hotel Fresno logo).

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Traces of Hotel Fresno's past elegance can still be seen in the cavernous lobby. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Diners were helped by waiters in tuxedos, serving five-course meals, costing $1.25 in the early days, and taking two hours to eat. The five floors above the mezzanine level were occupied by 230 guest rooms furnished with “every modern convenience” according to The Republican newspaper, decorated with mahogany and oak, with fine tile work and heavy brass in the bathrooms.

Also adjacent to the lobby was the Grand Ballroom, a cafe and tavern. Retail space was leased out on the ground floor, including a barbershop and real estate office. Next to the hotel was its power and heating plant, which was housed in a separate building.

Fall from grace

The years haven’t been kind to Hotel Fresno.

Starting in the 1940s and into the '60s, the hotel underwent renovations, multiple ownerships and street realignments.

With the advent of Fulton Mall in the early 1960s, Broadway Plaza, where Hotel Fresno stands, seemed to fall by the wayside. The image of the once proud hotel began to tarnish and fade.

By 1969, it was a home for senior citizens with 202 rooms. Hotel owners were losing tens of thousands of dollars each month on repairs.

The seniors went without heat during one winter due to boiler problems. Lawsuits were filed against the owners, who evicted the seniors in 1983, saying they needed to vacate the property so renovations could be done to possibly make it into a luxury apartment complex. The seniors said it was retaliation for their complaints.

A proposal by the National Farmworkers to renovate it for housing low-income seniors fell through, as did other proposals.

Sitting vacant for 35 years, the building has been vandalized and broken into. Vagrants took over the empty property for a while, as did flocks of pigeons. Taggers have left their mark. Most of the hotel was gutted by prior owners.

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The old Hotel Fresno was "heart-bombed" around this last Valentine's Day, by about 30 downtown Fresno history fans, with messages of love and hopes for preservation. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Surprisingly, the grand lobby still holds some of its historic features. Light filters in the lobby through remnants of the glass dome. Terracotta embellishments line the top of the structure, along with the elegant pressed metal bracket work crowning the top.

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Boarded up, but still imposing, the 126,600-square-foot Hotel Fresno, awaits the next chapter in its 106-year history. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Hope for a new beginning

Riding the wave of downtown revitalization are the current owners of the property, APEC International of Los Angeles, and a growing number of advocates for preserving Fresno’s past.

They are hoping to have it placed on the National Register of Historic Places to spur its rehabilitation and bring more housing to downtown.

The critical meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday, May 17 at the Lucie Stern Community Center ballroom in Palo Alto, where the Hotel Fresno will be listed under “Pending Nominations.”

The owner and advocates will find out if the hotel makes the National Register's list. Historical significance is a key factor in receiving the prestigious listing on the national register.

If listed, it will give the owners a 20 percent historic tax credit toward planned renovation, which has been pegged at roughly $30.9 million.

The planned rebirth of the old hotel would transform the upper floors into 79 apartments, 40 of which will be for residents with low to moderate incomes.

As it did during the very first days, the first floor would showcase the lobby as common-area space, while the remainder would be used for retail space.

APEC International would also build a garage behind the hotel for the residents. The first floor of the garage would allow for retail spaces.

The National Register is administered by the National Park Service.

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