The Hotel Californian

The Hotel Californian
By Neal Graffy XNGH
December 13, 2009

The poor, old Californian Hotel was back in the news this week, so I thought we’d “check in” to the history of that once-proud hostelry.

After nearly five months of construction, on June 18th, 1925, the new Hotel Californian opened its doors at the southwest corner of State and Mason. Built of brick and composition stone, the $300,000 hotel offered 100 rooms with fresh or salt-water baths, one of only two hotels on the Pacific coast to offer such amenities.

The rooms were nicely furnished, and each had its own bath and phone. They were proudly advertised as “soundproof” due to “button lath used between walls with dead air space of several inches to prevent noise”. Rates started at $2.50 a room for single occupancy. This was perhaps 50 cents to a dollar higher than the comparable downtown hotels – the Neal, Faulding, Virginia, and Barbara – but it was closer to the ocean and did have those salt-water baths. The owners were “assured of immediate success because of its position between the waterfront and the Southern Pacific station.”

Eleven days later, on Monday, June 29 the hotel truly had its grand opening. At approximately 6:42 AM, a 6.2 (estimated) earthquake rocked Santa Barbara. Inside the Californian, the wood framing swayed, along with the rolling seismic waves. Outside, it was a different matter. The brick and mortar were resistant to the new dance and stood their ground – temporarily. Basically, the interior hammered the exterior until the building shed its brick coat and took on the appearance of a sliced open beehive, thereupon becoming one of the most photographed buildings of the event.

A number of interior doors were jammed tight, and the occupants tied sheets together and climbed down from room to room. W. H. Scott, a businessman staying at the hotel, remembered the walls “swaying back and forth like an accordion”. Clad in his pajamas, he was able to get out of the hotel and down to the street before a shower of bricks and mortar rained down. Looking back, he saw a man standing on the third floor of his now wall-less room, “screaming at the top of his lungs for a taxi”.

The Californian was repaired, and soon after bought by one of Santa Barbara’s premier innkeepers, Neal Callahan, who also owned the Neal Hotel and the Barbara Hotel. Unfortunately, he didn’t own it for too long. True hotelman that he was, Callahan “checked out” while sitting in the lobby of the Californian, on Wednesday evening, September 26, 1928. He was 58.

His wife, Jennie ran it for a few years before she turned it over to Umberto Dardi, a man of many hats, and just one in a long line of interesting characters involved in the hotel.

The best years for the Californian were probably the late twenties into the 1940s. This postcard shows the beautiful canvas awnings that hung from the balconies and gave it a feeling of eloquence and grandeur. One would certainly have no trouble identifying the hotel with the name spelled out three times across the front!

Who needed Starbucks? At left, “A Coffee Shop De Luxe Provides Quality and Service Without Extravagance”, while at right, “The Bedrooms Provide Comfort in all Seasons – Sea Breeze in Summer and Steam Heat in the Winter”. Each room was an outside room with “perfect Vistas of Mountain and Sea”. It was not an idle boast that the, “Hotel Californian adds Comfort to the Charm of Nature’s Gifts.”

Following the war, lower State Street started on its slow downward spiral. Despite their best efforts to attract guests, the Californian and similar downtown hotels were losing out to the new motels along the beachfront and outer State Street, where a traveling family could find better accommodations with convenient parking and pools for the kids. By the 1970s, the Californian was looking a little seedy adorned with all those signs, but still, it held its head high, boasting it was, “overlooking West Beach and the Yacht Harbor and was but a few minutes walk to the beautiful new six block Shopping Mall, Theaters, Bus and Train Depots and Civic Offices”.

The hotel did seem to suffer from an identify crisis. Starting around the mid-1940s, the name changed from the Hotel Californian to the Californian Hotel. A brochure from the mid1950s used both names, and in the early ‘60s the “n” was dropped to make it the “California Hotel”, but the letter returned a few years later, and the Californian Hotel it has been ever since.

The lodging aspects aside, generations of Santa Barbarans fondly remember the Lei Lani Room (above), a place where everything could and did seem to happen, a trend certainly continued with its successor – Rocky Galenti’s – once a part of restaurateur Ray Klein’s empire.

And now, having survived earthquakes, floods, identify crisis, economic downturns, neighborhood blight and even disco, the building sits with an uncertain future.

A memento of better days – 1929

Photos courtesy Neal Graffy collection

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