Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
It’s been pretty well established that the old Palace Hotel building on the northeast corner of Main and Court streets is one of Visalia’s oldest commercial structures still in use. It was christened on Oct. 12, 1876, when more than 100 invited guests, including California Gov. William Irwin, attended a gala grand opening. Its arrival did wonders to help usher in a modern era for the frontier town.
For more than 144 years, the landmark has attracted much interest, all of which is understandable given its important role in our history.
But with all the attention, there is one aspect of the hotel’s past that is regularly ignored. The legendary hostelry had an offspring — an attachment that became known as the Palace Hotel Annex. So because of this omission, it’s time to share something about this little-known appendage so closely associated with the Palace.
During the first couple of decades of Visalia’s existence, building styles and construction techniques were simple and oftentimes primitive. Wood was the primary building material.
As the town achieved more importance and more travelers visited, the number of lodging rooms in town could not keep pace with the demand. Pioneer merchant Solomon Sweet saw an opportunity. He not only wanted to increase the number of rooms in town, he also wanted to improve the quality, so in 1876, he built the Palace Hotel out of locally made bricks. The Tulare Weekly Times newspaper called it “the largest, most accommodating hotel in southern California.…” And they were right; the structure was impressive with a broad swath of Main and Court Street frontage stretching all the way to the alley on the north.
Immediately after opening, the rooms were filled, and I’m sure Sweet wished that he would have made it larger. But his building already covered the entire parcel of land in the heart of town.
A decade later, the management of the Palace Hotel was again ready to address the room shortage. Adding more stories to the existing building was not an option, so the decision was made to build a two-story “addition” to the existing building.
But how could that be done? There was no space on the existing hotel parcel. But there was a parcel to the north along Court Street and it stretched from the alley to Center Street. The land was acquired, but the alley was in the way, acting as a barrier. The answer was to build a second-story walkway or bridge over the alley that would link the two buildings.
Construction began and by June 1886, work was well underway. The Delta newspaper noticed all the activity and reported, “A large force of men are employed on the large extension to the Palace Hotel, which will cover the west side of the block … to Center Street.” On Sept. 2, the building was finished. Not only did the two-story addition provide hotel guest rooms on the second floor, it offered six new ground-level retail spaces — all with prestigious Court Street frontage.
Visalia continued to grow in population and importance. From 1880 to 1900, the population more than doubled. Demand for lodging rooms at the Palace Hotel and the addition continued to outpace availability. In November 1892, for example, the Delta noted, “The hotel accommo-dations are well taxed nowadays. Every room in the Palace Hotel was taken … and cots were placed in the parlors.”
But popularity and demand for the new retail spaces was evident, too. In the decades that followed, businesses and professional services flocked to what became known as the Palace Hotel Annex. Dr. Albon E. Hall moved his practice there. J.A. Zander, piano tuner, opened his office in 1900. In 1903, Donald Malloch, grain buyer, had his office in the annex. A sporting goods shop, a millinery store, real estate and insurance offices, and many others occupied space. Even a space in the annex was used as a polling place for Visalia voters.
But it wasn’t all rosy for the annex. The building had a history of fires. There were a number of reasons why the building was victimized so often, but clearly its main vulnerability was the wood construction. Wood infrastructure, coupled with carelessness by hotel room patrons and business owners, was a recipe for problems. Accidents added to the list of causes. In February 1919, an exploding oil stove in an unoccupied upstairs room started a fire and could have easily burned the entire building down if not for fast-acting firefighters. Then there were criminal acts. In 1911 and 1912, Miss Delaney’s millinery shop was repeatedly targeted by an arsonist. All six of the fires, set within a few months, were fortunately extinguished quickly.
But the most significant fire occurred in May 1965. By this time, the lodging rooms of the nearly 80-year-old building had been abandoned and only a barber shop and thrift store remained on the ground floor. A pile of debris had gathered near the building, and Visalia Fire Chief Walter Wood speculated that a carelessly thrown cigarette had ignited the pile and spread to the building.
The annex suffered damage, but the worn-out and nearly totally abandoned building survived. Chief Wood personally directed the firefighting operation and, in a later interview, he said that during his time with the Visalia Fire Department, he remembered 30 fire alarms at the building.
But even before the fire, the building was scheduled to be demolished. The city had decided that as part of redevelopment, the location could be better used as a parking lot. In September 1965, the Visalia Engineering Department issued a demolition permit and in early October, the building was gone.
For almost 80 years, the two-story annex with the connecting bridge walkway had been home to scores of businesses and hotel guests. Today, the space is a parking lot, and there is no evidence that the annex even existed.
But if you look up carefully to the second floor on the outside north wall of the Palace Hotel building, you can see the patch where the bridge had been connected to the main hotel.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]