A LOOK AT PARK HO­TEL’S HIS­TORY

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY DAVID MIDDLECAMP dmid­dle­[email protected]­bune­news.com

The Park Ho­tel, un­der­go­ing its lat­est face-lift, has a long, col­or­ful his­tory, from the Reidy Ho­tel to a home for the down­trod­den.

Take ex­treme care when ad­just­ing the chronome­ter in your time travel de­vice.

When headed to San Luis Obispo’s Park Ho­tel, for ex­am­ple, a dif­fer­ence in tem­po­ral co­or­di­nates could land a trav­eler in the midst of a suc­cess­ful Women of Moose card party or a drunken brawl.

Orig­i­nally known as the Reidy Ho­tel, the first sec­tion was built in the 1800 block of Osos Street in 1906 to serve the nearby rail­road trade.

With ex­pan­sion and name changes, the Park Ho­tel be­came a des­ti­na­tion for women’s club events in the late 1930s — an in­di­ca­tion that it was one of the more rep­utable places to have a gath­er­ing.

The ho­tel eluded the fate of swankier es­tab­lish­ments from an ear­lier era, such as the Ra­mona or An­drews ho­tels, which were lost to fire.

But change was al­ready com­ing down the high­way. The world’s first mo­tel opened in San Luis Obispo in De­cem­ber 1925.

By 1953, the Park was a blue-col­lar des­ti­na­tion es­sen­tial to the work­ers on the eight pas­sen­ger trains that ar­rived each day in San Luis Obispo. That was just be­fore the free­way and diesel-elec­tric lo­co­mo­tives ter­mi­nated the era of steam lo­co­mo­tives and round­houses.

“Since the rail­road runs on a 24-hour sched­ule, there are no such things as ‘night’ and ‘day’ in the op­er­a­tion of the ho­tel. Its sched­ule is set ac­cord­ing to the ar­rival of the trains,” ac­cord­ing to a story pub­lished in the Tele­gram-Tribune on April 2, 1953.

“San Luis Obispo is the half­way point be­tween San Fran­cisco and Los An­ge­les, and all the pas­sen­ger trains change crews here,” the Tele­gram-Tribune re­ported. “The crew of the Day­light will rest here and then take the starlight back home to com­plete their round trip. The crews of other trains work sim­i­larly.”

For the ho­tel man­agers, the 1953 ar­ti­cle said, “the heav­i­est work comes be­tween mid­night and 3 a.m. as four trains come and go dur­ing that pe­riod. As the mem­bers of one crew check out of their rooms the rooms are cleaned by the maid for the mem­bers of the in­com­ing group. Some­times all of the 42 rooms in the ho­tel are used sev­eral times in a sin­gle day.”

On Satur­day, the San Luis Obispo Rail­road Mu­seum is cel­e­brat­ing the 150th an­niver­sary of the golden spike link that com­pleted the transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road. The mu­seum is lo­cated in a ren­o­vated rail­road warehouse.

Just down­hill, the Park has found new life as well

— hous­ing Bon Temps Creole Cafe and My Thai Restau­rant on its ground floor. But the Rail­road District build­ing had to hit bot­tom be­fore it was re­stored.

In 1982, the Park was known as a flop house. Larry Bau­man wrote the story, pub­lished in the Tele­gram-Tribune on Novem­ber 18, 1982.

ERA ENDS

For more than a decade, the Ho­tel Park has been San Luis Obispo’s most in­fa­mous ad­dress: the place winos, drug ad­dicts and petty crim­i­nals have called home.

That seed­i­ness soon will end. The shabby Park is be­ing re­mod­eled, and the ho­tel’s most un­de­sir­able ten­ants have re­ceived the bum’s rush.

The Park, like a wrin­kled old ma­tron yearn­ing to re­live bet­ter days, is headed for a facelift. In fact, the rot­ting 80-yearold ho­tel on the edge of the rail­road tracks is get­ting what amounts to an en­tirely new body.

No longer will it pro­vide shel­ter for the poor and home­less va­grants drawn to San Luis Obispo only to wind up in one of the Park’s lonely lit­tle rooms.

No longer will the ho­tel’s halls ring with the shouts of drunks on a tear or fights be­tween some of the young tran­sients.

No longer will the Park be known as one of the most of­ten listed ad­dresses for sus­pects and in­ci­dents re­ported on the city po­lice log.

But the project holds good news for some of the Park’s long-term res­i­dents: De­vel­oper John King, who owns the build­ing, is re­mod­el­ing the ho­tel for low-in­come peo­ple and se­nior cit­i­zens. Once the work is com­pleted, those long-term res­i­dents will be of­fered new and en­larged apart­ments.

The rentals will be man­aged by the San Luis Obispo Hous­ing Author­ity, which ex­pects five of the nine res­i­dents it moved out to re­turn when the work is done.

In the mean­time, all of the ho­tel’s res­i­dents have been moved to other apart­ments in town. A city grant paid up to $100 to cover mov­ing costs for each of the dis­placed res­i­dents. An­other $100 will be avail­able for each who wants to move back when the work is done.

And those who wish to re­turn will have to pay no more than 30 per­cent of their monthly in­come in rent be­cause the new apart­ments will be part of a fed­er­ally sub­si­dized hous­ing pro­gram run by the Hous­ing Author­ity.

Only one of the Park’s ten­ants is ex­pected to re­main through most of the 10-month re­mod­el­ing project, res­i­dent man­ager Roland Wil­son.

Wil­son, who has lived in and man­aged the Park for 1 years holds no bad feel­ings about the big changes ex­pected at the ho­tel.

“Let’s be blunt,” he said in his small sin­gle room with­out kitchen or bath­room. “The Park Ho­tel has been about this far” — mea­sur­ing an inch of space be­tween his thumb and in­dex fin­ger — “above a flop­house.”

And many res­i­dents at­tracted to the ho­tel have been just as far above skid row, Wil­son said.

“These peo­ple, as you say, aren’t the norm when it comes to John Q. Pub­lic.” said Wil­son, slumped be­fore his room’s one lux­ury, a color tele­vi­sion.

Re­cent parolees from the Cal­i­for­nia Men’s Colony, re­fer­rals from county men­tal-health agen­cies, winos, drifters and var­i­ous types of so­cial out­casts have been among the Park’s clien­tele, said Wil­son.

Although it has also at­tracted sim­ply poor peo­ple who couldn’t af­ford any­thing bet­ter, it has also drawn trou­ble­mak­ers who gave the ho­tel its rep­u­ta­tion, he said.

The re­mod­eled Park would at­tract “a dif­fer­ent class of ten­ants, a bet­ter class of ten­ants,” Wil­son said.

And Wil­son, whose hobby is the his­tory and ar­ti­facts of ghost towns, said he is es­pe­cially pleased to know that King Corp. plans to re­store the build­ing’s ex­te­rior in turnof-the-century style.

A grand por­tico will be ex­tended from the build­ing’s north­ern end, where Church Street will be aban­doned so the ho­tel may merge with the ex­ist­ing El Tri­an­glo Park. A small gazebo will be added to the park.

Ex­te­rior shin­gles that have hidden the ho­tel’s red­wood sid­ing will be re­moved and the whole place will be thor­oughly re­fur­bished. A new en­trance will be cre­ated on what is now the back­side of the build­ing.

Inside is where the big­gest changes will take place. An el­e­va­tor will be in­stalled for the dis­abled and four of the new 21 apart­ments will be fit­ted for dis­abled ten­ants.

The old Park has only a cou­ple rooms with their own bath­rooms, none with their own kitchens. All rooms of the new Park will have both.

When it’s all over, $600,000 will have been in­vested in the res­i­den­tial por­tions of the ho­tel and an­other $100,000 in the ground floor commercial spa­ces, ac­cord­ing to Keith Gurnee, the King Corp. plan­ner who la­bored over plans for the re­mod­el­ing.

He said that only Cafe Roma and Ca­boose bar are sure to re­main as commercial ten­ants. Other ex­ist­ing busi­nesses would like to stay but they’re not sure they can af­ford the higher rents they’ll even­tu­ally have to pay.

One of the ho­tel res­i­dents plan­ning to re­turn is Frank Gnesa, a 76-year-old re­tired rail­road worker. Gnesa, like most of the other res­i­dents, was at­tracted to the Park be­cause of the low rent. He paid $100 a month for a sin­gle room.

“It wasn’t much of a place, but it was cheap,” Gnesa said about his tiny room at the Park.

When he re­turns, he’ll prob­a­bly end up spend­ing more of his monthly in­come on rent, but that’s all right, he said, be­cause he’ll have two rooms in­stead of one.

The rail­road has been a part of the Park’s his­tory ever since it was built in 1906, ac­cord­ing to a his­tor­i­cal sur­vey by for­mer owner Wil­liam Whar­ton.

Orig­i­nally known as the Reidy Ho­tel, it be­came the Ax­tell Ho­tel in the early 1920s and didn’t be­come the Ho­tel Park un­til 1938.

It was a board­ing house in the early years, pri­mar­ily cater­ing to rail­road work­ers. The ho­tel con­tin­ued to serve rail­road em­ploy­ees through the early 1950s.

One of the ho­tel’s most un­usual res­i­dents in re­cent years is an­other for­mer rail­road worker, Robert Earl Brough, a writer, poet, painter, self­taught econ­o­mist and for­mer en­tre­pre­neur who was drawn to the Park for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons.

“There was a sense of dan­ger liv­ing there, but it was kind of fun,” said the 69-year-old Brough. “It was very much the seamy side of life. Like liv­ing in a vol­cano. It was San Luis Obispo’s skid row.”

Brough, who lived at the Park for the past five years, stayed there oc­ca­sion­ally dur­ing his years as a rail­road clerk, work­ing out of Lom­poc, San Luis Obispo and other sta­tions along the Cen­tral Coast.

Brough said he re­turned to the Ho­tel Park in re­tire­ment to bat­tle his drink­ing prob­lem and be close to the Alano Club, a so­cial club for alcoholics across the street from the ho­tel.

A large man and not one to be pushed around, Brough said he was an am­a­teur boxer in his younger years. A few years ago he had what he calls his “last am­a­teur bout” in the hall­way of the Ho­tel Park.

He won the fight, although he was fac­ing a much younger man, he said.

Fights were not un­usual at the Park, but Brough said most of the young toughs who stayed there treated him with re­spect, per­haps be­cause he dressed neatly and looked out of place among the ragged res­i­dents.

But Brough said he also kept to him­self to a great deal. He cre­ates ab­stract paint­ings and writes po­etry about love and lone­li­ness, not ex­actly the kinds of in­ter­ests likely to be shared with other Park res­i­dents. He re­mem­bers one res­i­dent — “a 19-year-old fire bug” who tried sev­eral times to burn the place down, but other res­i­dents quickly ex­tin­guished the flames. The man later com­mit­ted sui­cide, Brough said.

Asked if he in­tends to re­turn to the re­mod­eled Park next year, Brough re­sponds quickly with a sim­ple “no.”

“I don’t miss the place at all,” Brough said. “You tell peo­ple you live in the Park Ho­tel and they size you up pretty care­fully.

“It was the only ad­dress in town worse than the city jail.”

‘‘

THERE WAS A SENSE OF DAN­GER LIV­ING THERE, BUT IT WAS KIND OF FUN. IT WAS VERY MUCH THE SEAMY SIDE OF LIFE. LIKE LIV­ING IN A VOL­CANO. IT WAS SAN LUIS OBISPO’S SKID ROW.

Robert Earl Brough, then-Park Ho­tel res­i­dent

TONY HERTZ Tele­gram-Tribune

Park Ho­tel was lo­cated on Osos Street in San Luis Obispo near the rail­road sta­tion. Be­fore the 1982 re­model, there were 42 small rooms with­out bath­rooms, a kitchen or an el­e­va­tor. Sid­ing was re­moved and the orig­i­nal red­wood boards un­cov­ered.

TONY HERTZ Tele­gram-Tribune

Park Ho­tel res­i­dent man­ager Roland Wil­son walks through one of the larger rooms of the San Luis Obispo ho­tel as re­mod­el­ing gets un­der­way in 1982.

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