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.
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In January 1937, Time magazine wrote that, “the Hotel Senator’s 86-ft. bar is much favored by Sacramento’s legislators in their more public moments of relaxation,” and reported that the hotel’s proprietor hired the co-architect of the San Francisco Opera House, Gustave Albert Lansburgh, to redesign his bar—newly coined The Empire Room—in less than three weeks, before the legislators returned to session. As part of the project, Lansburgh hired a team of Los Angeles muralists to paint a scene that reflected one of the biggest scandals of the day—the December 1936 abdication by Britain’s King Edward VIII, who gave up the throne to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson.
Sadly, the painting and the bar didn’t survive the office conversion.
In the 1940s, a young Joan Didion auditioned for a theater part in front of an agent from the Pasadena Playhouse who had set up a casting call in the hotel. She didn’t get it, but fondly remembered the ice-cold lemonades with grenadine she used to order there. Around the same time, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Saroyan was known to frequent the hotel bar for decidedly more adult spirits.
Throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the Senator was routinely visited by high-profile politicians such as Governors Reagan and Jerry Brown, as well as Presidents Nixon and Carter. But none shone an international spotlight on the hotel more than a visit by President Gerald Ford who, upon leaving the hotel to cross L Street toward the Capitol one day in 1975, came face to face with Charles Manson disciple Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who attempted to assassinate him.
But for all the stories, there is an equally compelling reason to return the building to its former purpose. As a government town, downtown has been cursed with a surfeit of buildings that close at 5 p.m. and remain shuttered on weekends. Hotels, like residential buildings, breathe life into their surroundings, with hundreds of people filling neighboring streets, shops and restaurants seven days a week. Urban planners call it “street animation,” because it creates movement, color and energy.
Imagine the once bustling portico in front of the hotel again filled with tables and people. The right ground-floor restaurant would transform a dark corner of the central city into a lively street scene. And the beautiful lobby that was reportedly designed to resemble the courtyard of the 16th-century Palazzo Farnese (now the French Embassy) in Rome would still be a perfect fit for a hotel lobby.
For another example of why this makes sense, look no further than Chip Conley—who has built his thriving Joie de Vivre hotel chain largely by resuscitating long-forgotten urban structures—to know that historic hotels are now very much in vogue. While some travelers prefer ultramodern design, others want authentic experiences in a city that reflect its character and history. A thriving city needs both.
As cities become more homogenized, it’s more important than ever that we retain the irreplaceable structures that give us our identity. And not just the exterior of them, but also the experience of them.
While retaining the building’s status as office space adds nothing to the cultural fabric of the city, returning it to its roots as a hotel with a restaurant, bar and shops can, quite simply, be a civic game changer.
And while its central location would certainly help attract more conventions and major events by adding several hundred more hotel rooms, its more significant role would be to give Sacramento and its visitors that “sense of place” that’s so extraordinarily critical for a city like ours.
Buster Keaton’s classic Sacramento-shot Steamboat Bill, Jr. was recently digitally restored to its former glory. And here comes another chance to restore a Sacramento classic. Unlike with Keaton, though, now is not the time to be silent.