National Register of Historic Places

Hotel Californian

Hotel Californian (1923)

851 Van Ness Avenue
H. Rafael Lake, Architect
Italian Renaissance, Beaux-Arts influence


The Hotel Californian stands at the intersection of Kern Street and Van Ness Avenue in downtown Fresno, California. In adherence to the Italian Renaissance and Beaux-Arts design tradition, the Hotel Californian’s primary façades are visually divided into a two-story base, a shaft of five floors, and a capitol formed by the eighth floor and roof parapet. The nine-story structure originally served as a fashionable hostelry and housed various retail and commercial office spaces. The building currently provides housing for low-income seniors and many of the ground floor spaces have been converted for use as retail storefronts.

Northeast elevation

Along Van Ness Avenue, the first floor is partitioned into a series of storefront bays and piers of white-painted cast stone formed to resemble massive ashlar blocks. The storefront bays, designed as part of a complete reconstruction of the hotel’s ground level in the 1970s, each consist of a patchwork of fixed-pane aluminum framed glass. The recessed doors, panels above the doors, and large showcase windows—all made from these materials—are representative of the period of their installation and not compatible with the hotel's original design elements.

A course of cast stone, ornamented with a repeating coiled floriated pattern in low relief, separates the first and second stories. Above this, the dramatic fenestration of the second story evidences the nine-bay format of the northeast façade. Each window on this level is set in an arched aperture capped with red brick voussoirs astride a white ancon keystone. The windows themselves have a tripartite design, each comprised of a large center segment set between two narrower segments. All three segments are double-hung with multiple panes and wooden sashes. The windows are framed in a Classical style, each exhibiting a molded wooden architrave, a paneled frieze, and a small cornice, atop which rests a simple half-patera of cast stone. Piers between the arched openings are clad in variegated red brick.

At the third story, the base of the building is crowned by an elaborate entablature resting neatly atop the ancomes of the second-story window arches. The lower portion of this feature is comprised of a cast cement frieze and architrave, the former ornamented with occasional rosettes and floriated designs. Above the frieze, a large denticulated cornice of white-painted galvanized iron creates a strong visual divide between the hotel’s base and shaft.

The hotel’s shaft consists of a basic grid of piers and spandrels of variegated red brick. All windows within the shaft and capitol are typical six-over-six vertical sliding metal shaft windows, most set atop simple sills of slightly extruding cast stone and capped by a row of solder-coursed bricks loosely imitating voussoirs. The surrounds of those windows on the third and eighth floors are differentiated from the others and help to visually “fasten” the shaft to the building’s base and capitol.

The third-floor windows are each framed by a white-painted cast stone architrave and topped by a cast stone cornice. Two scrolled consoles and a frieze panel, containing the same simple relief design evident in the half-paterae one level below, support each cornice.

The headers above the eighth-floor windows each include the faux-voissoir soldier course of brick, as well as a white-painted cast stone spandrel featuring a garland and rosette design. The lower window panes are partially concealed by simple balconettes, eaching consisting of a flat cast stone panel set behind an extruding iron railing. The balconettes rest atop a denticulated course of cast stone that spans the building's two principal façades. The course serves to visually separate the building’s capitol from its shaft.

Crowning the structure's capitol is a prominent entablature composed of a simple cast stone frieze and a galvanized iron cornice. In typical Corinthian style, the cornice has richly-formed modillions spaced by square coffers, as well as an egg-and-tongue molding supported by repeated consoles. Above the cornice, a cast stone parapet adorns the top of each bay with a rounded cast in a floriated design. Red clay tile of a typical Mediterranean appearance originally capped the parapet, matching the similar tile still visible on the loggia above. Galvanized metal sheeting has since replaced the tile in this location.

Northwest elevation

The symmetry of the Hotel Californian’s design is visible when viewing the building from Kern Street, the original primary façade, where the open portion of the “U” shape creates the impression of two parallel towers connected at the rear. Floors two through eight are shaped in this manner, while the façade of the ground and second stories occupies the full width of the lot. The portions of the two “towers” facing Kern Street are each three bays wide. They are nearly identical in exterior design to the building’s Van Ness Avenue façade, the chief exception being the dramatic cast stone surrounds of the windows occupying the middle bay of the eighth floor on each tower. Emphasis is placed on the windows by the extruding console-supported balconettes below, Corinthian columns on either side, and entablatures above supporting scrolled ornaments and a prominent central cartouche.

All nine bays of the façade’s ground level are occupied by 1970s-era storefronts similar to those fronting Van Ness Avenue. The storefronts in the centermost bay replaced the hotel's original grand canopied entrance. On the second floor, the three bays between the towers have also been modified from the building’s original design. Aside from an elaborate cartouche centered above the hotel’s original entrance, a tablet bearing the hotel’s name, and a simple framing of cast stone, these bays were originally open to a “garden balcony” accessible from the interior second-floor ballroom. This balcony has since been covered and filled with residential units, leading to the insertion of non-original horizontal sliding windows in the outer two bays and the filling in of the openings around the original central ornamentation in the middle bay. The original ornamentation remains intact.

Above the second story, where the building recedes to the deepest portion of the “U” shape, the exterior wall surfaces are defined by a basic grid of piers and spandrels of variegated red brick facing. The fenestration in this area is comprised of the same original six-over-six vertical sliding metal sash windows as characterizes the northeast elevation.

An enclosed free-standing penthouse centrally located on the roof gives the Kern Street façade the appearance of having a ninth story. This structure has cast stone walls and several small multiple-light windows, some of which have been replaced by fans or vents. Atop the structure stands the hotel’s most recognizable feature – an arcaded Italian-style loggia. The loggia was originally designed as a viewing platform. While almost entirely intact in its original form, the floor of the loggia has been perforated by ducts and vents for the building’s climate systems. The loggia's balustrades match the balconettes at the second-story bays below.

Southwest & Southeast elevations

The Hotel Californian’s alley and courtyard façades have a sparse utilitarian design. Covered by a coating of stucco, the elevation's reinforced poured concrete walls are otherwise marked by a regular pattern of windows identical in type to those elsewhere on the building, but lacking in ornamentation. On the southwest (alley) elevation, the arch configuration present in the second-floor bays of the primary façades is duplicated in the first six of nine bays in a much more simplified form. These arched windows evidence the fact that the architect did not ignore this portion of the building. Twin metal fire escapes descend the rear of the structure. A small boiler flue with a square cross section runs vertically along the building’s southern corner to a vent at roof level.

Historical significance

The Hotel California was constructed in downtown Fresno as a luxury hotel for city visitors and as a meeting place for city residents. Designed by H. Rafael Lake and constructed by R. F. Felchlin & Company, the building immediately became a symbolic landmark for the growing prosperity of the City of Fresno. In the ensuing years, the Hotel Californian gained a reputation as the best hotel between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and hosted a great number of famous individuals and important events. It remains emblematic of Fresno’s prosperity in the 1920s and is an outstanding example of the type of development that occurred in California’s Central Valley cities wishing to promote a strong sense of their success and urbanization during this period.

Celebratory articles in Fresno newspapers at the time of the Hotel Californian’s December 1923 opening spared no space nor words in touting the immense significance of the new building for the city and the entire state. The largest hotel in Fresno at the time and one of the three hundred largest in the United States, the Hotel Californian’s opening instantly increased the city's total number of guestrooms by twenty percent.

The hotel also had a reputation as being one of the city’s most exclusive venues. Travertine marble, Caen stone, oak flooring, crystal fixtures, concealed central air conditioning, and a pipe organ on the mezzanine level all contributed to critics' claims of comparability with even the most luxurious hotels in the West. For over three decades, the Hotel California reigned as the largest, best-appointed and only “three-star” hotel between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Much of the Hotel Californian's grandeur is evidenced in its distinctive Italian Renaissance design. Embodying the typical characteristics of a 1920s high-rise hotel, the setting, size and massing of the building are representative of this style, and it is comparable to other similar, noteworthy landmarks found in other cities. Many high-rise hotels constructed in the 1920s nationwide have a form and style similar to that of the Hotel Californian. Landmark California hotels constructed in this manner include San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel, San Diego’s U. S. Grant Hotel, and Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel, among several others.

The Hotel California continues to stand as a physical manifestation of the growth and prosperity of the City of Fresnho during the early 1920s. It is an outstanding example of the type of development that occurred during this period in California’s Central Valley, and represents the pride and promotional efforts of the community at that time. An imposing building in the city’s downtown district to this day, the Hotel Californian is also one of the community’s most important architectural landmarks, and a signature work of prominent California architect H. Rafael Lake.

Adapted and abridged from the National Register of Historic Places nomination, originally prepared by Christy Johnson McAvoy, Jennifer Minasian and Christopher Hetzel.