Cover Story - August 19, 2005
Into the sunset
What is the future of the Danville Hotel?
by Dolores Fox Ciardelli
False fronts, a jail, the look of the Old West, and lots of gingerbread - is it Disneyland? No, it's the funky old '50s development behind the Danville Hotel. It was a draw in its day - a contrast to a less-than-charming main street at the time. But now, the rest of the town has developed attractively and it's these old structures that are in need of refurbishment. The owner plans to redevelop the entire square block behind the Danville Hotel, retaining the buildings along Hartz Avenue. "The frontage along Hartz would not change," said Tom Baldacci, president of Castle Companies, which owns the property, partnering with Neuron Enterprises. "What would be redeveloped would be Celia's and the open space in the back." The only truly historic buildings are the old Danville Hotel, now Lisa B's restaurant, and the old McCauley House, now the Wine Sellars. They will be updated structurally with input from the historical society, Baldacci said. "We're proposing a two-story building, more in the character of Papyrus," said Baldacci. "We'll have a pedestrian access through the middle of the building, a promenade to Railroad Avenue. That's our intention." He said the plans are flexible at this point as he gathers input. Another project of Castle Companies was Forward Motion, almost across the street from the Danville Hotel, which, he said, gets positive feedback. The quirky little Old West buildings were part of a plan in the '50s and '60s to give character to Danville, to transform it into an old frontier town. Danville had a tired appearance in the 1950s, remembered oldtimers. The stores had nondescript fronts and a total of 18 gas stations served the cars and trucks that rumbled through the middle of town on old Highway 21. The skyline was a mishmash of telephone poles and electrical wires. Then Russel Glenn came on the scene, an idea man who took over the Danville Hotel. It was no longer serving overnight guests but had become famous as a restaurant that drew clientele from throughout the Bay Area. Glenn painted the formerly white hotel a signature red with white trim, and moved a covered wagon in front as a canopy over the entrance. "I came out here on a dinner date in the '50s," recalled Hazel Hockins, who lived in Hayward at the time. "Russel was doing the cooking. The restaurant had a chef but he filled in. You mentioned Danville and everyone knew him." She was to marry Bill Hockins, a photographer raised in Piedmont. Hockins had an insurance office in Danville, and they moved to the area and became friends with Russel and Plin Glenn. "There were 20-30 new couples our age," remembered Hazel. "It was so much fun." Glenn installed a "ghost town" around the back patio of his restaurant. "I used to love to sit outside with all the store fronts," said Hazel Hockins. Glenn would shop in the Gold Country and furnish the restaurant and ghost town with antiques. "As buildings came up for sale he would buy them and fit them into his town," noted Bill Hockins. The Vol. 1, No. 1 issue of a slim magazine called "Diablan," dated November 1957, described Russel Glenn as a genial host at the Danville Hotel Restaurant. It described its Virginia City Patio as "a spacious courtyard shaded by old trees and bounded by wooden sidewalks fronting on the facades of frontier tradition: jail, bank, general store, saddlery, livery stables, Chinese laundry and saloons in reassuring abundance." "Russel was ahead of his time," Hockins said. He recalled that Glenn joined up with merchant John May, owner of the Shoe Stable in Danville; veterinarian Tom Ohlson; and school principal John Roberts, to form a group called the Confederacy of Danville. It was dedicated to recreating Danville in the image of the Old West. Glenn even hoped that wooden sidewalks would be installed, said Hockins. Glenn wanted to set the tone for folks arriving in Danville so Bill Penland, an Alamo sign painter, used Old Western-style lettering on a sign that read: "Danville - 1858 - Old Century Leisure, New Century Convenience." "He wanted to put the sign on a hay wagon," recalled Hockins. "He and I drove around to find farmers to donate a hay wagon." They ended up finding two, and they were duly installed at the south end of town and at the north end, where Railroad merges with Hartz. Hockins also had became involved in the Old West effort, having his insurance office at 169 Front St. professionally decorated in Victorian style. Hazel sewed him 50 vests to wear with his suits, earning him the nickname "Vesty." She recalled that Danville indeed needed an overhaul. "Coming into town, it looked very trashy," she remembered. "The signs weren't regulated, it was like they were competing." An article in the San Francisco Examiner "American Weekly" of Dec. 16, 1962, told about the plan afoot in Danville by a group of professional men to set back the clock to give the town an identity. "Their solution was the Danville Confederacy, an organization having nothing to do with mint juleps or the War between the States, but devoted to remaking the town with a 19th century, frontier motif." But all of the downtown business owners did not buy into Glenn's vision, Bill Hockins said. "A lot of people didn't want to do it. They said, 'It would be promoting his business, not ours.'" Semmes Gordon, who was then owner and editor of the Valley Pioneer, the town newspaper, also recalled Glenn's efforts, which he and his newspaper backed. "We tried to get all the stores and buildings on Hartz turned back to the Lucius Beebe era but there was not enough support," Gordon said from his home in Petaluma. "It was a short-lived period, about a year." Glenn sold the Danville Hotel but the new owners did not work out and Glenn again assumed ownership. He came up with another grand plan - the ornate Victorian Silver Dollar Banquet Room (now Celia's), advertising it as "Planned Retrogression: To the Lusty Elegance of Early California," growing a beard and dubbing himself "The Retrogressionist." He brought in two Hollywood set designers to help with the endeavor, and he opened his new facility in 1965, touting the most modern comforts for patrons, including four air conditioning units that checked themselves automatically every eight minutes. Present Mayor Mike Doyle, who moved to Danville in 1952, recalled the heyday of the Silver Dollar Banquet Room. He said its bar had silver dollars stuck to them, which patrons would try to remove, and it brought a lot of folks from out of town to Danville. "Russel Glenn was a real great guy," said Doyle. "An innovator. He had vision." Bill Hockins noted that it was Jim Graham, who was president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1969, who promoted the undergrounding of the telephone wires and utilities, which vastly improved downtown's appearance. And, of course, downtown Danville was forever changed when Interstate 680 was completed. It opened from Walnut Creek to Sycamore Valley Road in 1964, and from there to Dublin in 1966, said Beverly Lane, curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley. On May 27, 1976, the property was purchased by Jerry and Aileen Carter, according to "The History of the Danville Hotel and McCauley House," a brochure researched and produced by Neuron Enterprises. The Silver Dollar Room was renamed the Danville Hotel Restaurant and Saloon, redecorated with antiques, new lighting fixtures, furniture and carpeting in a 19th-century theme, and the cuisine was early Californian. It reopened Dec. 3, known as the Danville Hotel Territory. This, along with the restaurant's name, caused some confusion as to where the historically important Danville Hotel really is. Now owner Tom Baldacci says the property has the potential to be redeveloped as a major draw in downtown Danville. He sees it as an opportunity for a well-known regional retailer to set up shop, which would draw folks downtown where they would discover all it has to offer. He noted that the present courtyard does not generate much foot traffic. The first step was taken last week, when the Planning Commission held a public hearing on rezoning certain downtown properties for a three-year period into a new Special Opportunities District to allow more flexibility for their developments. It will probably go before the Town Council in September. So far plans call for retail businesses downstairs and offices on the second floor. They might also include underground parking. "We want to replace the sense and the feel of what's there," Baldacci said. "We're not going to do anything until everyone feels comfortable with it." Beverly Lane, who has also been a Danville council member and mayor, said the most important thing is to preserve the historic Danville Hotel and the McCauley house next door. "Buildings should be saved, not reproductions," she said. But she wonders whether the old Danville Hotel Territory structures are symbolic to people who have moved here in the last 40 years. Its false fronts are often used in Danville literature, including a community guide published by the Chamber of Commerce. Danville's Old West ghost town is fading into the sunset. But Russel Glenn's dream of a thriving downtown has certainly come true. History of the Danville Hotel The original Danville Hotel, built in 1858, was located at the north end of Front Street, according to "San Ramon Branch Line of the Southern Pacific," a local history book by Irma M. Dotson. It burned down in 1873, so Danville had no hotel until the present hotel was built in the 1890s sometime after the San Ramon Branch opened in June 1891. Dotson states that although 1891 is usually given as the building date for the Danville Hotel, her research shows that it was more likely built in the fall of 1892. Its first owners were Edward and Mary Bridgett McCauley, who purchased four lots from John Hartz for $500 when he had the Hartz Addition in Danville surveyed and sold lots. The hotel was originally painted white and faced Railroad Avenue. Throughout the years family members helped to run the hotel. Edward died in 1916, and in 1920 his widow deeded the property to daughters Mary Jane and Nellie (Sarah Ellen). In 1911, these daughters also bought lots on Hartz Avenue, where the Danville Hotel building and the McCauley home are located today. In 1927 the hotel was moved slightly north and completely turned around to face Hartz Avenue, which had become the town's main street. In the 1930s the hotel stopped serving overnight guests although it kept the name Danville Hotel. The McCauleys leased the property to a German chef named Paul Zeibig. He had previously worked in San Francisco, and he concentrated on fine dining. Patronage came from further afield after the Bay Bridge was completed in 1936 and the Caldecott Tunnel opened the next year. World War II meant gas rationing, which impacted its patronage. In 1945, the property was sold to W.A. Fischer, which later passed to his widow. It was purchased by Russel Glenn in 1952.