Hotel Johnson – Queen of the Valley
When I moved to Visalia 42 years ago, I remember hearing of a 5-story hotel that had once stood downtown. It was a large building surrounded by shops, theaters and banks, located on the northeast corner of Main and Church streets. People said its dominant and stately appearance gave the town a metropolitan flair. Many shared fond memories of the old lodging house, and hoped it would be replaced. As time went on I learned more about the gone but-not forgotten Hotel Johnson, a place called the “Queen Hotel of the Valley.”
The story of the Hotel Johnson can be traced to Langston Andrew Johnson, a Missouri native who came to Visalia in 1876. A hardworking entrepreneur, Johnson invested heavily in farmland and city real estate, and eventually purchased the Visalia House, a pioneer hotel built in 1859. After his father’s death, John Sublitt Johnson, who was known as J. Sub Johnson, inherited the Visalia House located on the northeast corner of Main and Church streets. In 1915 the old timer was showing its age and a large chunk of the building gave away, so Johnson began planning for a new hotel on the site.
In 1916, the old lodging house was torn down and Johnson hired Trewitt and Shields, contractors from Fresno, to build the new 5-story hotel using the family name. Construction began in the latter part of the year and early press releases promised one of the finest hotels in the San Joaquin Valley. According to newspaper accounts it would “be modern in every particular, first class B construction, contain 125 living rooms, steam heat, hot and cold water, elevators, telephone, ice water facilities…and private baths.”
The planned structure was so large that engineers were called in to examine the suitability of the soil on the construction site. The concern was that the sandy nature of the ground might render the foundation unstable especially considering a portion of the building would span Mill Creek. The engineers tested the ground and found it very capable of supporting a solid foundation.
Once the foundation was laid, the brick building began its 5-story ascension. The community anxiously watched as it took shape. For almost a year work on the building progressed, and in October 1917, with the hotel nearly finished, Johnson announced that he had signed a 10-year lease for the operation of the hotel with W. L. Fisher & C. W. Berry.
The people of Visalia were excited about the building, but the excitement spread beyond the valley. San Francisco took note of the elegant new hotel and on October 13, 1917, The San Francisco Chronicle honored the new building with an article and a photograph calling it “modern in every respect.” They even captured a quote from a smiling J. Sub Johnson as he proudly looked over his new hotel and said, “Some house boy, some house.”
At 6:00pm on November 6th the hotel opened and the reviews were amazing. The Visalia Morning Delta called it more elegant than anyone could have expected and declared it to be one of the finest structures in the San Joaquin Valley.
For the decades that followed, the hotel was a popular destination. Thousands of people stayed there and ate in the restaurants including many well-known personalities. Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, along with his tour party, visited the hotel as part of his 1919 National Park tour. In 1934 sitting California Governor James Rolph spoke and had dinner there, and movie producer, Walt Disney, stayed at the hotel in 1946 during his filming of “So Dear to My Heart,” a film shot throughout Tulare County.
But the years for the grand hotel weren’t always so glamorous. Hotel operators would come and go and maintenance problems began to accumulate. From time to time the hotel would undergo remodeling. For example, in 1939 the hotel operator did a major facelift throughout, and another in 1950. In 1963 the hotel shut down again for yet another upgrade and this time it stayed empty for a year and a half. City business and government leaders began eyeing the Main and Church hotel site for other uses including a convention center and shopping area. Redevelopment was on the minds of city officials and the dated hotel did not seem to fit in the city’s future plans.
But the nearly 50-year old building survived the calls for its removal. By July 1964, it reopened again and it was “practically brand spanking new inside,” including new electrical wiring, fireproofing and painting. But the struggling hotel had other challenges ahead.
On Friday evening, May 3, 1968, the building caught fire. Smoke and flames bellowed out of the windows and the fire department ordered a complete evacuation. While the fire was being fought, firefighters discovered the body of Ezar David Epps, a victim of smoke inhalation.
The damage to the building was extensive, however a huge section of it remained standing. After examination, the internal framework was found badly compromised, so the section still standing needed to come down. Demolition began and thirteen days after the fire, the demolition crew discovered another victim of the fire. Thedral E. Micham had been the occupant of room 217 and became the second fire related death. The remains of the building were eventually cleared, leaving a huge open gap in the downtown Visalia landscape.
For the next 8 years, the big vacant lot was a regular reminder to many that the hotel needed to be replaced. Finally in 1976 construction began there, but rather
than a hotel it was the new downtown branch of the Bank of America.
Talk of a new downtown hotel continued but obviously the attention shifted from the Hotel Johnson site. On June 14, 1989, ground was broken at Court and Willow for a new hotel, and a year and a half later, November 4, 1990, the Radisson Hotel opened its doors.