Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Over a century of Arcata history, the Hotel Arcata has stolidly occupied the Plaza’s northeast corner. There, it has weathered wars, economic up- and downturns, changes in social mores, civic controversies, Plaza parades and festivals, celebrity visitations and Humboldt’s wild weather. Through it all, the building has offered both visitors and residents a decent, stately place to stay while they pursue activities about town.
Today, the Hotel Arcata is as its always been – central Arcata’s premier lodging facility, offering prime access to downtown and a clean, well-maintained place from which to launch and to return at day’s end.
“It’s a plus for the downtown,” said Virgil Moorehead, owner representative. “It’s unique.”
It was certainly unique in 1915, when boomtown Arcata gained what the Arcata Union called, in a front page headline complete with an errant apostrophe, “the Finest Hostelry For It’s Size on the Pacific Coast.”
The Northwestern Pacific Railroad had just established passenger rail service to Humboldt County, and Arcata was designated the new home of Humboldt Normal School, now Humboldt State. The Redwood Highway was soon to deliver touring motorists, so the new, upscale accommodations were much in demand.
The Arcata Union rhapsodized over construction of the new edifice, with breathless, near-weekly progress reports, sometimes sharing the front page with news of the new Normal School. The Union opined that the new hotel should be named the “Plaza Hotel.” It acknowledged that the “euphonious” moniker was shared with another hotel of the same name in New York, but assured that “there will be but slight chance of travelers or mail going astray on that account.”
The Union also noted that a previous “Arcata Hotel” had burned to the ground, and that the two people killed in that fire could return to haunt any namesake. Said the Union, “some people (not the editor) pay considerable attention to alleged hoodoos.”
But it was not to be.
Designed by San Francisco architect W.H. Weeks, the three-story, fireproof Hotel Arcata was distinguished by Beaux Arts detailing popular in the early 20th century. It was constructed by contractors George C. Jacobs and Bill Elsemore.
Initially marketed as the “Sportsmen’s Headquarters,” the new hotel boasted 50 mounted heads of elk, moose, antelope, sheep and deer, and even a pistol range in the basement.
But with such modern conveniences as telephones, electricity and hot and cold running water in every room, lodgers more genteel than hunters were soon checking in. These included businesspeople, sightseers, parents of arriving Normal School students and film crews. Silent film star Helen Holmes and her entourage used the hotel as home base for shooting A Lass of the Lumberlands in 1916. A small sound stage was built on the Brizard lot out back, complete with faux forest cabin.
The hotel looked then much as it does now, though extensive modification have been made both inside and out over the past century. Shops populated the Ninth Street ground floor, while the hotel’s restaurant was popular, especially its Sunday evening banquet.
Townsfolk quickly took to the distinguished new building, integrating its public amenities into their daily downtown lives. Citizens would pick up their mail and read it in the lobby, where Union reporters interviewed arriving guests for their news nuggets. Civic and social groups of the day, including the Rotary, Eastern Star, Arcata Cotillion and others held their events there.
Through the decades, the Hotel Arcata served in its role as Arcata’s premier lodging facility, evolving as it went. In the 1930s, it sported a nightclub, while in the 1950s men gathered for nightly dice games in the lobby. From 1958 to 1966, the Arcata Justice Court used the hotel’s office space for judicial proceedings.
By the 1960s and ’70s, though, the old hotel was in decline. Some remember it as a “flophouse,” others as a decent, working class residential hotel.
Derral Alexander Campbell lived there in the 1960s, and recalls many colorful characters occupying its halls and rooms.
“Bill Wylie lived across the hall,” Campbell wrote on the “Remember in Arcata When...” Facebook page. “He played banjo and was one of many characters in the place. My father lived there in the early ’30s, and he took me downstairs to what had been the boiler room and showed me the corner where he brewed beer. He got kicked out of Humboldt for selling beer at a dance. On the way upstairs I reached behind the carpet on the stairs and pulled out a couple bags of weed; I would have the buy-ee wait in my room while I fetched the safely-stashed stash. Dad liked it and it was an actual bridge of the generation gap.”
Alexander, who also served as night clerk and slept behind the front counter on a cot, said living at the hotel was something of an adventure. “I had a keen eye to the sociology of it and its relationship to the town,” he said.
Residents were a mix of overnight lodgers and longer-term tenants. Rooms had hotplates, and there was a communal kitchen downstairs. The 1915 nightly room rate of $1 to $2 had soared to $5, according to Patti Miller Stammer. “It was always full of a variety of characters with lots of strange things flying out the windows,” she said.
“Good times, except the night a person woke me up to call an ambulance, as she had attempted suicide by cutting up her arms but had changed her mind,” Alexander said. “No mistake, the Hotel Arcata was quite a trip.”
Rick Khamsi lived at the hotel in 1971, and fondly recalls that era. “While it had once been the most luxurious hotel in Arcata and had become somewhat seedy in the intervening years, it was managed by honorable people who did not countenance drug use. The Cargill family kept their real estate office near the front entrance. They operated on a slim margin yet kept the hotel maintained as well as they could under the circumstances. They employed desk clerks day and night to maintain cleanliness and order in the lobby and the rest of the hotel. Most of the people who lived there were full-time tenants, who created a stable community.”
By the 1980s, the Hotel Arcata was in serious peril, run down and not necessarily safe for human habitation. In 1981, the City of Arcata sued the owners over longstanding fire safety violations.
In 1982, the city purchased the hotel with block grant funds, and it turn sold it to the Lorenzo family in 1986. The new owners borrowed heavily from the City of Arcata, U.S. Bank and the Big Lagoon Rancheria to finance restoration, and the refurbished hotel reopened in time for Humboldt State’s 1987 commencement ceremonies.
But the crushing debt burden – $507,000 owed to the city, $325,000 to U.S. Bank and $350,000 to the Rancheria– forced the Lorenzos into bankruptcy by 1988. The Rancheria foreclosed, took it over in 1989, put together some financing of its own and in 1990, reopened the hotel.
The Big Lagoon Rancheria has owned and managed the hotel ever since. “We struggled, but we pulled it out,” Moorehead said.
What remained unsettled for a time was the status of the restaurant, which went through several unsuccessful iterations until Tomo took up residence, and proved a permanent hit.
Today, the Hotel Arcata is on the National Register of Historic Places, and a going concern that employs 20 people. The hotel sports 32 rooms, of which four are Plaza suites, two mini-suites and two business suites. All the rooms still boast electricity and telephones, and even claw foot bathtubs.
Rates have edged up a bit since the 1980s, and now range from $97 to $167 depending on room style and season. Ground floor businesses include Tomo, Panache hairstyling and the Natural Selection gift shop.
No vengeful “hoodoos” have made an appearance... depending on who you talk to. One TripAdvisor lodger claimed to have seen “ghosts milling about the room,” but hotel manager Diane Cutshall laments never having met one. “People say their curtains have blown with no window open, and that doors slam. But I haven’t seen anything, not even shadows.”
Who she has met are a number of celebrities, many of whom stayed at the hotel during local appearances. Among the big names both in her memory and on signed photos in the lobby are Arlo Guthrie, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, B.B. King, Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner.
As always, the hotel’s occupancy ebbs and flows with the town’s yearly cycle of events. Along with the steady drumbeat of tourists, Humboldt State graduation sees an influx of parents, while fairs and festivals as well as Halloween and New Year draw bookings long in advance. Cutshall said about 12,000 guests stayed there in 2014.
A fanciful touch is the array of clocks behind the front desk, often set to times of far-flung cities from which guests originate. Around Christmas, a clock is set to North Pole time.
One continuing challenge for the hotel is the nightly noise from the Plaza and clubs with which it shares Tavern Row. Some guests complain, others don’t mind, and Cutshall is stoic. When potential guests ask, “Is it quiet?” she gives an honest answer: “There’s no place in Arcata that’s quiet. We’re right downtown where everything happens, so there’s always going to be noise.”
Sadly, due to the various changes of ownership over the decades, little remains of the hotel’s original furnishings, or its old records and guest registers.
During the next Arts! Arcata on Friday, July 10, the Hotel Arcata will offer tours of its rooms, suites and hallways, which are lined with historic photos. Donald Forrest will give a talk on the hotel’s history and its role in Arcata’s development.
“It’s a historic facility,” Moorehead noted. “It’s got lots of character and charm.”