A birds-eye view of the former Tulare County Courthouse Annex in the northwest part of Downtown Visalia. The art deco building is being converted into a hotel. Photo via 4Creeks.
Written by David Castellon
In 1935, Amelia Earhart made the first solo flight across the Pacific Ocean, canned beer was introduced, the Monopoly board game came out, “swing” music was hitting its stride and the average price of a home in the U.S. was $3,450.
That year, construction of the four-story Tulare County Courthouse Annex was completed.
Some 85 years later, canned beer is sold in most places, Earhart’s disappearance on a later flight remains a mystery, hip-hop and rap are the more common music genres and the average price of a home for sale is about $300,000.
But the old courthouse building at Court Street and Center Avenue in downtown Visalia remains, after having been boarded up for several years.
But that’s changing, as exemplified by a fresh coat of white paint on the building’s exterior and workers coming in and out over the past several months converting the interior — that had spent years divided into county offices after its time as a courthouse came to an end — into what will become a 32-room hotel.
Not another hotel
Don’t expect this to be just another hotel, as “It’s more than just a Days Inn or a property that’s very cookie cutter,” said Sam Ramirez, whose Visalia-based business, The Naxon Group, has been hired to manage the hotel, which will be named “The Darling” when it opens in early May.
An exact opening day may be announced as soon as next week.
The 22,301-square-foot building was purchased in 2018 for $2.3 million from the county by an investment group comprised of five Visalia families who decided they wanted to not only start a new business, but also preserve the essence of the building that looks as if it could be the backdrop in some old MGM drama.
A new life
“I think at the end of the day, the idea was to bring something unique and special to Visalia. This building has been here almost 90 years, and it’s had a lot of different lives,” said Ramirez, who left his job at a hospitality company to start with partners their own business, in part to run The Darling.
Rather than just being a place to lay your head for the night, he said the new hotel will be an experience where guests will have rooms designed to be reminiscent of the mid-1930s era.
“Everything from 12-foot high ceilings in the rooms to the quality of the linens to the service standards that will be implemented here,” along with the eight-foot tall window that will be common in most rooms, Ramirez said.
The rooms, lobby and even the public restrooms will feature art and wallpaper reminiscent of the era, while new floor and wall tiles and inlays were purchased and laid to match existing tile preserved amid the construction to reflect the ‘30s era.
“A lot of this was commissioned and custom made for this property to fit in here,” Ramirez said.
A key feature will be that the plaster-and-wood art deco patterns craftsmen embedded into walls, ceilings and even the building’s exterior decades ago have mostly been preserved or restored.
“Every single piece that could be repaired was repaired. In some instances we had to replace them, but took a lot of time and care to replace it to bring it back to what it used to be,” said Ramirez, who declined to disclose the cost of the renovations, which included removing asbestos from the old building.
Also preserved are the building’s original elevator cars from the 1930s, along with some light fixtures, and even the large, ornate wooden doors that were part of judges’ chambers back when this was a functioning courthouse have been taken down and refinished as closet doors in some of the hotel rooms.
Buying new closet doors would have been cheaper, “but no, we wanted to make sure we paid respect to the history of the building and repurpose those wherever we could,” Ramirez said.
Where additional doors are needed or old lighting fixtures were gone or beyond repair, they’re being replaced by new ones that look true to the ‘30s era, Ramirez said.
In fact, rather than remove the steel doors for a room that had been a large safe, a hotel room was built around it, and the safe’s is being kept and decorated inside to become a sitting room, though the lock on the door will be deactivated so guests don’t trap themselves inside.
Built to last
Ramirez added that he was surprised at how much of the Art Deco plasterwork, flooring, fixtures and other elements of the building were preserved, with some lighting elements needing only some buffing to look new again. He said this was particularly surprising considering the wave of covering up and removing such things during the 1960s and ‘70s to give buildings more modern looks.
As for the design choices being made now for the former courthouse, “It’s very much inspired by 1935 Art Deco. You’re going to find [it in] different aspects throughout the hotel — in décor and the design and the feel — that very much hearkens back to 1935,” Ramirez said. “But we’ve taken that for inspiration rather than imitation.”
New and old
For example, he said, once extensive piping was added to the building that started with six restrooms and was never designed to hold 40 public and guest bathrooms, the owners bought modern showers, sinks and fixtures but made sure they look like those from the ‘30s — even the hand-held heads that didn’t exist back then.
“Where we had to create new, we made sure to be on brand with that time period so people who come here will always think it was a hotel,” Ramirez said.
The rooms will not be entirely reminiscent of that era, as “there will be a modern twist to it, so there are going to be a lot of modern amenities throughout the building that will include modern televisions, electronic door locks and digital phones in rooms, and guests will have Wi-Fi access.
Anyone driving by The Darling will see only three floors, as one floor of the building is the basement that includes a large concrete room that started out as a safe for the county treasury that is being converted into a wine a cellar.
That basement area, which the owners call the “first floor” also will include a meeting room and a gym for guests.
But the renovation is adding a fifth floor — sort of.
Atop the building is a mechanical room housing its heating and air conditioning equipment, along with the mechanical gear for the elevators.
A lot of that outdated equipment has been replaced with more compact equipment, while the room has been expanded to about double its original size, with most of that space to be converted into a restaurant and bar — The Elderwood — with outdoor and indoor spaces so patrons can eat and drink while getting a bird’s-eye view of the city.
While the rooftop area is far from being finished, from the street level black wrought-iron fencing can be seen along each edge of the roof to ensure future patrons can’t fall over the side.
Changes are in the works for outside the building too, as cement pads on both the north and south sides will be converted to patio areas — one with a planned pool — for guests, as well as to rent for special events, Ramirez said.
In all, he said, The Darling will be unlike any other hotel in the Central Valley, with guest rates starting at about $200 a night.
Even though the opening is weeks away, “The response from the community already has been incredible,” with people asking when they can book rooms to stay there as well as for parties and special events, Ramirez said.
As for the goal of the hotel’s owners, he said he believes they’re on track to create the unique, boutique hotel experience they envisioned.
“I don’t think they ever considered doing anything different. I think it was always about respecting the building and letting the building say what it wanted to be.
“The Valley in general, we are lacking sometimes some unique, quality-type experiences, and I think there are some people doing a lot of interesting things in the Valley right now, and I think [the owners] wanted this to be a place they could bring family and friends, but also a place for the community.”
Keeping up with The Darling
Get more information and updates on the progress of building The Darling hotel in Visalia online at ww.thedarlingvisalia.com.