The Enduring, Historic Charm of California’s Oldest Hotels
Some of California’s oldest hotels in the state have survived fires, earthquakes, pandemics, the Great Depression, and various cycles of neglect and renewal. While the current pandemic has left few destinations unscathed, we have no doubt that these enduring hotels will reopen their doors and enchant travelers with their with historic charms once again.
1859 Historic National Hotel
In the Gold Rush town of Jamestown, the 1859 Historic National Hotel has been in nearly continuous operation since it was first built. Stephen Willey is only the third owner of the hotel, which he purchased with his brother in 1974. The hotel’s saloon had been a place they would stop for drinks on their way back from skiing and backpacking. When his brother learned the hotel was for sale, he convinced Stephen to move to Jamestown and run the hotel for at least six months. The original six-month commitment turned into a 40-plus-year restoration and modernization project. In 1974, the aging hotel had 12 rooms and just one bath. Working room-by-room, they tore the hotel down to the studs, upgraded the electrical, plumbing and insulation, and added baths. Instead of the original 12 rooms, the hotel now has nine guest rooms, each with private baths. The rooms feature high coved ceilings, dark-stained wood trim, and beautiful period details. The hotel’s authentic Gold Rush-era saloon features the original back bar from 1859 and a stamped tin ceiling.
The Upham Hotel
The Upham Hotel first opened its doors to guests in 1871 and is the oldest, continuously operating hotel in Santa Barbara. Originally named the Lincoln House, the New England-style boarding house was built by Amasa Lincoln to welcome the growing numbers of pioneer settlers turning up Santa Barbara. The first visitors to the hotel arrived by horse, steamship, or on foot. Beginning in 1880, the hotel was sold to a succession of owners who continued to make improvements and build out the estate, including Cyrus Upham who changed the name to the Hotel Upham in 1898. The hotel survived a devastating earthquake in 1925, and the Great Depression beginning in 1929. The current owner, Carl Johnson, purchased the hotel in 1982. He and his sons embarked on an extensive renovation project to modernize the buildings’ systems while restoring the hotel’s period details. The landmark hotel continues to embrace its legacy, providing modern amenities with historic charm.
Monte Cristo Bed & Breakfast Inn
If the walls of the Monte Cristo Bed & Breakfast Inn could talk, they would have undoubtedly have stories to tell. Possibly the oldest surviving hospitality building in San Francisco, the hotel was originally built in 1875 as a bordello and saloon. When a large fire swept through the city after the 1906 earthquake, homes were torched on Van Ness Avenue to create a firebreak. The saloon not only survived, but served as a refuge for newly homeless residents following the earthquake and fire. In the 1920s, the hotel served as a speakeasy and has since evolved into one of the top boutique hotels in San Francisco’s exclusive Pacific Heights neighborhood. The 14-room bed and breakfast has been lovingly restored and features high ceilings, hardwood floors, Persian rugs, authentic antique furnishings, luxurious beds, and private, modern baths. A complimentary breakfast is served each morning. The hotel is within an easy stroll of great shopping and restaurants.
Walking the wide, wrap-around porch of the elegantly-restored Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake is like stepping back in time. The Western-style hotel was built in the 1870s by one of Lake County’s first non-native settlers, Rufus Tallman. It was popular among many well-heeled travelers who journeyed by stagecoach from Sacramento and San Francisco to soak in Lake County’s natural mineral spring waters. Rufus’s daughter and son-in-law inherited the hotel in 1912 and continued running it for decades. Two owners succeeded them, but eventually, the hotel fell into disrepair. It stood vacant for 40 years before current owners Bernie and Lynne Butcher purchased the property in 2003 with the vision of restoring the hotel to its original grandeur. They salvaged many architectural details, including the fir floors, staircases, and banisters. They introduced period moldings, tile floors, and claw foot tubs in keeping with the vintage of the hotel. The period-perfect 17-room hotel now exudes the grace and luxury of a turn-of-the-century hotel run by a family with impeccable taste.
Stanyan Park Hotel
Across from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the Stanyan Park Hotel was designed at the turn of the 20th century to be the most elegant and fashionable hotel along the park. Shortly after its completion, Beaux Arts-style hotel sustained damage in the famous 1906 earthquake but was spared the devastating fires that consumed most of downtown San Francisco. Repairs were made and the hotel re-opened. The hotel changed names and ownership numerous times over the years before it was purchased by the current owners in 1980. Upon seeing a neighbor’s historic photo of the original hotel, the owners scrapped their planned remodel in favor of an historic renovation while incorporating structural upgrades and modern conveniences. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the award-winning hotel recalls a bygone era of style and grace and is just a stones’ throw to coffee houses and restaurants in the Haight-Ashbury district.
Volcano Union Pub & Inn
In the tiny historic village of Volcano, deep in the heart of Amador County, the Volcano Union Pub & Inn is an Old West-style saloon and boarding house reborn as an outstanding pub and bed and breakfast. The inn was built in 1880 by four itinerate French Canadians for $400. It served as a locals’ saloon and boarding house for miners until the 1920s and then enjoyed a brief reawakening in the 1950s. Thereafter it was, by turns, vacant, and a private residence until it was finally restored and reopened in 2000. New owners took over in 2009, transforming the Union into a lively locals’ hangout offering elevated pub fare and delightful discovery for visitors with four charming guest rooms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Union made pivot to take-out only and is currently working to complete a facelift for the pub in anticipation of welcoming guests back soon.
The Queen Anne Hotel
Entering through etched glass doors of The Queen Anne Hotel in San Francisco, guests step back in time to an opulent, bygone era. Built in 1890, this grand Victorian rose from the wealth produced at the Comstock Lode and first served as Miss Mary Lake’s Finishing School for Girls. After surviving an earthquake and a fire in 1906, it became an exclusive gentlemen’s club and was then later sold to the Episcopal Diocese. By the 1970s, it had fallen into disrepair and was boarded up, only to be fully restored and re-opened as a hotel in 1980. Today, the hotel offers 48 elegant rooms and suites with luxurious amenities, period-perfect details, and lavish Victorian charm. Some of the rooms offer large bay windows, wood burning fireplaces or Jacuzzi tubs for two. In keeping with the vintage of the hotel, tea and sherry is served each afternoon in the Parlor Room.
Far north on Highway 1, the tiny seaside hamlet of Westport is the last town before the Pacific Coast Highway turns inland, rising through the redwoods to terminate at US 101 near Leggett. Westport is mostly a passing blur for drivers who make it this far north, but it’s worth a stop to stay at the historic Westport Hotel. Built in 1890, the hotel endured a number of incarnations until it was purchased by local residents Lee Tepper and Dorine Real about a decade ago. The couple had moved to Westport in 1974, and their first jobs were actually cooking in the restaurant of the hotel before moving onto other careers. Upon purchasing the inn, they sought to preserve the Victorian architecture and recreate some of the character had been stripped away over the years. The care they took with the restoration is evident creating an unexpected gem in a beautifully rugged and remote coastal destination.
Cornell Hotel de France
At the turn of the 20th Century, A.W. Pattiani was among the most sought-after architects in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work lives on in the hundreds of Victorian-era residences and buildings he designed, including the Cornell Hotel de France in San Francisco’s Lower Nob Hill District. Built in 1910, the hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been owned and operated by the Lambert Family for 50 years. In that time, the Lamberts have created the kind of intimate, moderately-priced hotel that could be found on the southern bank of the river Seine in Paris. With an easy-going, European vibe, the 50-room hotel combines historic charm with art and modern amenities. The hallways features fine art prints of Modigliani, Matisse, Chagall, Gauguin, Toulouse, Lautrec and others. The hotel’s ground floor restaurant, Jeanne d’Arc is a French bistro offering a four-course prix fixe menu and a well-curated selection of French and California wines.
Nestled at the base of Mt. Shasta, McCloud is a former company town built for the McCloud River Lumber Company. At its height, the company was one of the largest sawmills in California. Everything in the town was built and owned by the company: the mercantile, the meat market, the café, the hotel, and all of the homes for its employees. McCloud remained a company town until it was privatized in 1963. The result is that much of the town’s historic architecture has remained intact, including the original hotel. The beautifully-restored McCloud Hotel was built in 1916 to house single men working in the lumber mill. The Arts and Crafts-style hotel features a wood-burning fireplace with built-in bookcases, box beam ceilings, and the hotel’s original registration desk–all trimmed in a warm-hued pine and lit with Craftsman-style lamps. The hotel also features two restaurants: the upscale Sage Restaurant and the more casual Axe & Rose Public House, both of which offer outdoor dining in the summer months.
Just west Yosemite National Park, the Old West-style Hotel Charlotte in Groveland was built in 1921 by one of the town’s most notable female pioneers. Born in Italy in 1881, Charlotte DeFerrari migrated to the California gold fields with her family when she was 16. After arriving in Groveland, her father was killed in a mining accident, and Charlotte was left as the sole provider to her mother and younger siblings. Her hotel and restaurant rode the wave of prosperity spurred by the Hetch Hetchy Dam project and then weathered declines due to the completion of the dam and the ravages of the Great Depression. Surviving the Depression, Charlotte went on to attract a new wave of visitors on their way to Yosemite. She ran the hotel until her retirement in 1948. Today, the hotel offers 15 cozy rooms that blend modern amenities with vintage touches. Downstairs, Charlotte’s Tavern features California-fusion comfort cuisine paired with craft beers, cocktails, and local wines.
Benbow Historic Inn
Steeped in Old World charm, Benbow Historic Inn in Humboldt County is an elegant, Tudor-style hotel near the Avenue of the Giants and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built above the banks of the Eel River in 1926, the hotel became a popular resort destination for motoring tourists traveling the newly completed Redwood Highway. It was designed to be the cornerstone of the resort community that the Benbow family envisioned for their 1,290 acre valley. The hotel’s seclusion, luxury, fine dining, and access to the great outdoors attracted early Hollywood stars and numerous dignitaries. The hotel survived the Great Depression and remained in the Benbow family until it was sold in 1962. The current owners, who bought the hotel in 1994, have made numerous upgrades and restorations—including a new ADA compliant wing—all of which have been designed to seamlessly blend the old architecture with the new.
Hotel Marisol Coronado
Just two blocks from the glittery sands at Coronado Beach, the Hotel Marisol Coronado was one of many small hotels that sprung up in the early 1900s after investors turned San Diego’s Coronado Island into a seaside resort. Originally called the Blue Lantern Inn, the hotel was built in 1927 in a Spanish Eclectic style that had been inspired by San Siego’s Panama – California Exposition of 1915. The hotel suffered a myriad of alterations and name changes until the newest owner restored it to its original Spanish Eclectic architectural style. The completely revamped hotel, which reopened in 2014, features smooth white stucco walls, a red-tile roof, high ceilings with exposed wood beams, arched windows with ornate wrought-iron scroll details, wrought-iron light fixtures, and an enchanting courtyard patio. A vintage 1920’s Otis elevator serves the hotels’ three floors. The hotel is located just around the corner from Coronado’s main street lined with shops and cafes.
In the heart of Carmel-by-the-Sea, L’Auberge Carmel was built in 1929 by one of early Carmel’s most colorful figures, a seafaring adventurer named Allen Knight. Knight based the design on Bohemian architecture he had seen travelling through Prague. His ideas were realized by noted San Francisco architect Albert Farr. The collaboration resulted in an enchanting three story wood frame and stucco building with an open interior courtyard. A series of recent renovations have recaptured the building’s elegant Old World charm while incorporating modern luxuries. For example, the enlarged baths feature antique travertine tiles with radiant floor heating and hand-hammered copper sinks. Other restored features include the original coved plaster walls, French windows, and antique doorknobs. Guest rooms guest rooms are furnished with open-canopied or tufted beds, original antiques, and custom fabrics, assembled by San Francisco designer Helga Horner. The hotel is also home to the Michelin-starred restaurant, Aubergine, and its impressive 2,500-bottle wine cellar.
The Pelican Inn
The Pelican Inn at Muir Beach looks as if a bunch of 16th Century English sailors washed ashore and built an inn. With whitewashed walls, rough-hewn timbers etched with graffiti, low ceilings, leaded windows, and nary a straight line in sight, the Tudor-style country inn looks like the type of place Shakespeare might have thrown back a foamy pint and feasted on shepherd’s pie and Yorkshire pudding. Despite the exacting period details (recessed inglenook fireplace with a hidden “priest hole” and the heavily-draped half-testers with hagstones suspended above each of the beds) the inn is not 400 years old. The inn was actually built just over 40 years ago by fourth-generation English innkeeper and San Francisco advertising maven, Charles Felix. Charles envisioned an homage to the bygone hostelry tradition of his native England with an entertaining dose of British culture, customs, and superstitions. We’ve included it on this list of historic hotels as a nod to the impressive effort to recreate a 16th Century English inn.