Hotel Lobbying

Sacramento’s grandest historic hotel has been lost for decades. But with a new owner taking over, now is the time to reclaim a key part of our civic narrative. Sometimes you need to look backward to move forward.

An old postcard touts the hotel’s central location as the “most beautiful” in America.

An old postcard touts the hotel’s central location as the “most beautiful” in America.

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IIt’s not easy to find silver linings in an economy like this one, but if the forces that are propelling the slumping office market end up restoring one of the city’s most storied buildings to its former glory, some good will certainly have come from The Great Recession, after all.

The Hotel Senator, or Senator Hotel as it’s often called, has been standing across from the Capitol since it opened in 1924, elegantly rising nine stories above 12th and L streets. For more than 50 years, the 400-room Italian Renaissance-style structure was a nexus of political and social activity. It even had its own Hotel Senator Orchestra.

As the Senator’s fortunes waned in the ’70s, and despite its designation on the National Register of Historic Places, it was shuttered and eventually purchased by developer Buzz Oates, who gutted the hotel and reopened it as an office building in 1983, giving lobbyists spitting-distance access to the halls of power.

But recently, with downtown vacancy rates climbing toward the clouds, came word that the previous owners of the building, which is only about 60 percent occupied, lost ownership of the property. The agent handling the sale, Greg Levi of Jones Lang LaSalle, says a number of potential buyers made bids in recent months, with several interested in potentially converting it back into a hotel, but that the seller, located in Florida, has decided to temporarily pull the building off the market. Levi says he’s no longer actively marketing the property, but that the seller would likely still consider offers.

If a new owner does emerge with the intent of converting the building back into a hotel, it would reverse one of our greatest civic missteps—the 1979 closing of our last historic hotel. For a city that prides itself on its role in American history (the Gold Rush, the Transcontinental Railroad), shockingly we are the only city in America’s 25 largest metro regions without a single major historic hotel.

We have reminders up and down our own coast. San Francisco is filled with grand old hotels, like the 1907 Fairmont. Seattle has the 1927 Mayflower Park Hotel. Portland, the 1909 Governor Hotel. San Jose’s Sainte Claire has been around since 1926. Los Angeles has too many to count, from the 1912 Beverly Hills Hotel to the 1923 Millennium Biltmore. And San Diego’s elegant Hotel del Coronado dates all the way back to 1888.

In Sacramento, however, one by one, our great historic hotels have closed or been converted into offices. The 1914 Travelers Hotel at 5th and J, with one of the most spectacular lobbies in the city, was converted into office space in the ’80s. The massive 1909 Hotel Sacramento at 10th and K was demolished around 1956.The lobby of the Senator was modeled after a 16th-century Italian palace.

The closest thing we have to a historic hotel today is the stunning Citizen Hotel—housed in the old 1925 Cal-West Insurance office tower. The building’s offices were gutted and the structure was lovingly reimagined as a boutique hotel in 2008 by a partnership between San Francisco’s Joie de Vivre hotel group and Sacramento’s Rubicon Partners.

It is arguably the single most important building conversion project in Sacramento history and has added immensely to the city’s urban fabric. The only thing missing from this new civic gem are the stories that come with a historic 20th-century hotel. A great city needs a great civic narrative, and the Senator provides just that.

Consider that in the summer of 1927, silent film star Buster Keaton and his production company spent about five weeks at the Senator while in town to film Steamboat Bill, Jr. on the Sacramento River. Keaton’s publicity manager told a writer for the hotel’s magazine, What Cheer! (yes, it published its own magazine) that they chose Sacramento, “because it gives us just the atmosphere we want … and because there are lots of pretty girls here, too.”

Only weeks later, in September, a 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh was fêted in the Florentine Room of the hotel after his famous May flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis. The elegantly designed menu for the occasion included “Cantaloupe Surprise,” “Larded Beef Tenderloin” and petit fours.

Herb Caen, the celebrated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle once wrote an article for The Sacramento Bee remembering that in the 1930s, Sacramento boxer Max Baer, who was later featured in Ron Howard’s film Cinderella Man, “was to be seen showing off his latest beauty in the lobby of the Senator Hotel, starting tongues awagging.”