Palace Hotel – A Building for the Ages
For the last 140 years, the Palace Hotel building has been exposed to harsh elements. Floods, fires, earthquakes, and endless remodels and tinkering by man have taken a toll on this old timer. But it has survived and holds the distinction of being the oldest commercial building still in use in Visalia and probably the southern San Joaquin Valley. Structural endurance and longevity like this doesn’t happen by accident, but rather is the result of many factors blended together including vision, architectural design, quality of construction and, of course, the care of its many owners. October 2016 marked the 140th anniversary of this grand old Visalia building, and it seems fitting to reflect on its history.
The idea for this large hotel came from Solomon Sweet, an early Visalia pioneer and businessman. He had the vision to see the need for a big hotel, probably influenced by the “silver rush” taking place in Mineral King in the Sierra to the east. Sweet hired San Francisco architects Kenitzer & Raun, and contractor Albert Washburn of Stockton, the same builder that would construct the famous Wawona Hotel in Yosemite.
By early 1876, there was a flurry of activity at the building site on the northeast corner of Court and Main streets. Lumber, brought in by rail, and 800,000 bricks were on the ground. Leon Guggenhime had fired up his lime kiln ready to make the necessary mortar for the bricks. The town was buzzing with anticipation.
But the new hotel was not the only excitement happening in town. A fancy new courthouse was in the works, Elias Jacob was constructing a building, and the Good Templars had one in process, too. And several homes were in various stages of construction. The Tulare Times was bubbling with joy over all the activity, commenting that 1876, the nation’s centennial year, could be a turning point in making “our city what it should be.”
In January 1876, J.S. Carter, foreman for the contractor of the hotel, gave an interview to the Times providing Visalians with an advanced description of the new hotel that would be called the Palace. He said it would be a two-story brick structure with 86-feet of frontage on Main and about 115 feet on Court, with the main entrance on Court Street. The ground floor on both streets would be designated for retail spaces and a hotel restaurant. The second floor would have 45 regular hotel rooms and seven large suites. Off of the alley would be an open area allowing the rooms access to additional light and ventilation. Small balconies would be on the second floor and awnings would cover the windows.
Work began quickly, and by the end of May it was nearly finished. But one important detail remained. Sweet needed to find a suitable proprietor for the hotel. He owned the building, but needed someone to run the hotel.
By October 1876, the building was finished. The rooms had beautiful furnishings and a proprietor for the hotel was in place. Grand opening festivities were set for Thursday, Oct. 12 at 5 p.m. At the gala event, more than 100 guests were escorted into the elegant dining hall including special guest, California Governor William Irwin. In the dining room were eight large tables “loaded with all the substantials and luxuries imaginable.” The hotel proprietor, Ike N. Harter, clearly demonstrated he was determined to make Visalia’s Palace as elegant as the newly constructed Palace Hotel in San Francisco.
The local newspaper was obviously pleased with the new hotel and its management, and reported, “Mr. Harter has our best wishes for unlimited success in establishing a first-class hotel (an institution much needed in our midst) where [all] the comforts and conveniences can be secured that is afforded by large cities.”
But after just a short time, Harter was gone and a new hotel proprietor had taken over. Business was good and in 1878 the new proprietor commented that if the rush continues, he would have to go to Europe to recuperate.
By 1879, the Palace had “been completely reconstructed intently and extensively.” Why the necessity for extensive changes after only three years remains a mystery, but according to the newspaper, the reconstructed hotel had been “fixed up in the most approved style in all departments and is much more convenient than it had been formerly.”
In 1886, there was more evidence showing the hotel’s popularity. An extension or annex building was built north of the hotel providing more guest rooms and retail space. Made of wood, this two-story structure stretched along the east side of Court Street between the alley and Center Street. The second floor had lodging rooms and the ground floor had retail shops. The second floor of the main hotel was connected to the second floor of the annex by a wooded bridge over the alley. Now the Palace Hotel and the annex building occupied Court Street from Main to Center.
Building ownership, proprietor changes, and remodels continued. Gradually, the once fancy hotel began to show its age and was obviously suffering. Probably in the 1960s, the second floor guest rooms were closed. The annex structure stood until 1965 when a carelessly thrown cigarette caught the building on fire, damaging it beyond repair. It was demolished and a parking lot is on the site now.
Today, Danny Freitas owns the old building, and the ground floor continues to be used as desirable retail space. The second floor hotel portion remains vacant. Now, just like in the past, the building is going through more changes. Danny has painted it and is putting in new windows and awnings. Will the upstairs ever welcome guests again? Time will tell.
The City of Visalia’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, thanks to a generous donation by the Kaweah Kollectors, placed a bronze plaque on the building in October 2011. It was the first to receive a plaque in the Historic Recognition Program.