Kurt Kramer stands in front of the Vance Hotel
But this four-story Victorian landmark has been a lifeless hulk for nearly 10 years. No warm evening light shines from its tall upper-floor windows. No music comes from the Vance Log Cabin saloon. And the building's once-elegant streetfront looks like 60 yards of skid row.
The Vance may soon rise from its long sleep, however. Two Eureka developers bought the building in June after the county sold it to make up for unpaid property taxes. Kurt Kramer and Robin Arkley II plan to spend $2 million renovating the Vance, leasing the space to shops and restaurants on the first floor, with offices above.
Old Town merchants are flushed with hope and optimism for the Vance's rebirth. "It could be the best thing to happen down here in 20 years," said Ted Andersen, owner of Kokopilau on Second Street. "It will open up that end of Old Town and connect the waterfront all the way to the Adorni."
The prospect of a Vance renaissance stirs feelings all over town. Arkley's wife Cherie highlighted the renovation in her winning City Council campaign.
But two big obstacles stand in the way of the Vance Hotel's return to well-lighted prominence.
One, there's no parking. The Arkley-Kramer partnership already lost one prospective tenant the District Attorney's Family Support Division due in part to the lack of parking.
The other barrier is the Vance's former owner, Sam Stanson. He's suing the county and the developers, claiming the property was stolen from him by a fraudulent tax sale. His claim was thrown out of Humboldt County Superior Court in November, but he will appeal, continuing his 20-year tradition of fighting local government in court.
Built in 1872 (or perhaps 1874; sources disagree) by pioneer businessman John M. Vance, the hotel promoted its "Modern improvements pertaining to a First-class Public House, gas and water and elegant furniture in every room," in The Daily Humboldt Times.
By 1885 it was wired for electricity, becoming "the first nonindustrial building in the county to have electric light," said historian Ray Hillman. "It was powered by `The Electric Machine,' as they called it, the generator at Vance's sawmill at the foot of G Street." Another important historical distinction: "The Vance is the second-largest all-wood building in California," said Hillman. "The largest is the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.
"The curb opposite the entrance is where the stage to and from Willits would stop, the major stage stop in the downtown part of the city," said Hillman. "That helped establish it in a very prominent way. It maintained that prominence from the time it was built up into the 1950s.
"Even in the mid-1950s the old place still had enough traditional grandeur to attract Signal Oil Co.'s annual banquet," said Hillman.
By the 1960s, the Vance, like downtown hotels all over America, found itself far from the main tourist drag and evolved into low-rent, single-room-occupancy housing.
What the next era holds for the Vance Hotel depends on Stanson's lawsuit, who leases space in the building, and how the parking problem is solved.
In an interview, Kramer declined to mention any prospective tenants. "We're negotiating with some folks," he said. "The configuration of the space, as well as the timing of renovations, will all be driven by what the tenants want."
The two-story section of the building (to the left as you face it) could be developed pretty quickly, he said, while renovations of the main four-story section would take longer. The Vance Log Cabin could possibly be opened again as a nightclub, he said, "if somebody steps up and wants to do something in there. I'm not going to run it."
Inside the former Log Cabin bar today.
The developers are committed to retaining as much of the historic architecture as possible. And Eureka's preservationists will surely look over their plans closely. They've already removed a partition that had cut the lobby in half for a card room. "In the '60s or '70s, someone put a card room in there. ... We've got the lobby opened up to where it was originally," Kramer said.
But before the developers started work, they gave Stanson a week of access to remove personal property in the building. A chance encounter with the voluble Stanson during that week led to an impromptu tour of the hotel.
We entered through the rear alley, picked a path through the cluttered garage, went up a service entrance and through some musty hallways into the main lobby. Despite the modern fire sprinklers hanging from above and mounds of dusty furniture and junk on the floor, I could still imagine the scene 100 years ago: A well-off couple checking in at the finely tooled hardwood counter. Uniformed bellboys hustling the guests' trunks off the horse-drawn coach. The air outside full of smoke, the smell of green lumber from waterfront sawmills and the clippity-clop of horse-drawn wagons.
But Stanson insisted on showing me progress, not history. "We reinforced these studs and nailed and glued one-and-an-eighth inch plywood over them," he said, pointing to a section of the first-floor wall framing. In the Vance Log Cabin, he shined a light down a large opening in the floor to illuminate big wedges of concrete in the basement. "Those footers are 30 inches wide at the top and over four feet wide at the base," he said. "One-inch bolts go from the floor plate to the bottom of the footer where they're attached to a steel plate.
Former Vance owner Sam Stanson
"You've never seen construction like this because there's never been construction like this," he said. "I spent $1.8 million to retrofit this building so it could withstand a 9.2 earthquake on the Richter scale. Do you know how powerful a 9.2 is? College of the Redwoods requires (that buildings be built to withstand) only an 8."
His plan, he said, was to renovate the building into senior housing that would stand up through the strongest earthquake. College of the Redwoods was later interested in housing foreign students in the hotel, he said. He showed me a few signs of the aborted renovation: A communal kitchen half built; some larger suites partitioned into two rooms.
We viewed the Vance's main claim to celebrity cachet the second-floor room overlooking Second Street where Lloyd Bridges' grandmother lived for many years. Mrs. Bridges' entered her bathroom through a massive arched doorway. The huge door still hung perfectly from its brass hinges.
"They were ship's carpenters," Stanson said, as I marveled at the quality of the 125-year-old work. In the hallway, I asked Stanson what his next move was going to be to get the building back. "Big time litigation," he said, nudging an old clawfoot bathtub leg with his toe. "That's what I've been doing down south, making money to fight this."
During this tour and in subsequent telephone interviews, Stanson related the details of what is, in his view, a frightening story of fraud and corruption by politicians, city and county staff and attorneys and judges, culminating in last June's tax sale of the building. Eureka city leaders, he said, were out to get him soon after he purchased the Vance in 1975, "on April Fool's Day," as he likes to say.
"They wanted their $300-a-night Victorian hotel. They already had the brochures for it. `We don't care where you put the old people,' they told me. `Put them on the sidewalk.'"
Most of his original antagonists have long since moved, retired or died, but his battle against the system rages on. The highlights of his argument against the tax sale are: A) Humboldt County unfairly raised the assessed value on the Vance Hotel "from $5,000 to $600,000" after he bought it; B) He asked for and never got an appeal hearing on the assessment; C) He paid part of the tax but was never credited for it by the county ("I have the canceled check," he said.); D) His tax bills should have gone to the City of Eureka after 1989 when the city "drilled the locks and took possession"; and E) He had an appeal request pending at the time of the tax sale.
City and county officials will only tell their side through their lawyers, since Stanson is contesting the tax sale in court.
Views from inside the hotel
"Mr. Stanson filed a legal action against the county basically claiming that the tax sale was improper and invalid," said Paul Brisso, of Mitchell, Brisso, Delaney and Vrieze, the firm contracted by the county to defend the Vance tax sale. "He was seeking to have the property restored to him. ... (It) was basically thrown out of court."
Brisso said Stanson's claim was invalidated by the statute of limitations. "The action by the county of foreclosing on the overdue taxes went back 10 or more years," he said.
Stanson, who is representing himself in the litigation, called the statute of limitations argument bogus. "Look at the Jessie Short case (in which Yurok tribal members claimed income from Hoopa timber sales). They didn't have that settled for 32 years."
He will take his case to the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco and beyond. "Right is right and wrong is wrong," he said. "I'm not giving up. I've been to Supreme Court four times." (After this interview, he faxed me a news release about Stanson v. Mott, the 1976 California Supreme Court decision in which he won a landmark ruling against the state director of Parks and Recreation for spending public funds on a bond election.)
Developer Kramer says he's not worried about Stanson's lawsuit. "When I bought it I knew we were facing a certain challenge out of him and he's entitled to do whatever the law allows. I try not to anticipate what he's doing. I try to worry about what I'm doing.
"This project has a lot of support behind it. As a developer, that's kind of new to me. Generally when I go in to develop properties, there's some level of opposition. This thing has sat there and been a problem to the city of Eureka and Old Town for such a long time that we've gotten an overwhelming amount of support to see this project finished."
When asked about Stanson's earthquake retrofit, he said, "Sam and I have become friendly in a weird kind of way. The workmanship is pretty good ... but it's not necessarily done to an engineer's standard. We're evaluating everything in the building from the basement to the roof."
Parking is by far a bigger headache, he said. "There's 53,000 square feet in that structure, and there's zero parking right now," he said. "We're not required to do parking because we're an existing building in a parking district. But in terms of marketing it, you need some parking. ... The building won't get redeveloped until there's parking.
"Probably the reason we were unable to lease to the DA's Family Support Division was our inability to answer the parking question," Kramer said.
District Attorney Terry Farmer confirmed that parking was an issue, but not the only one. "The Family Support Division has 75 employees, twice that of the criminal division. ... We need parking for our staff and our customers."
Farmer chose instead to lease space in the Mall 101 building in south Eureka, which is being redeveloped by Humboldt Bank. The division will have 90 parking spaces there.
To solve the parking problem, Kramer is backing a proposal floated by the city to erect a three-level parking structure behind the Vance at the corner of First and G streets. "We'd be looking at relocation of the Snug building onto another lot in the Old Town area and probably demolition of the existing Rendezvous Music building."
The parking structure would hold about 175 cars, the equivalent of five or six existing Old Town parking lots. "There's some opposition out there, people who don't want to see parking in the waterfront area," Kramer said. "There's a certain amount of concern that this parking structure will block views. ... (But) it wouldn't be any taller than the building that's there now. And the top level would be a great place to watch the fireworks," said Kramer.
"The city is working with all the stakeholders in the Old Town area to develop some kind of parking structure," said Eureka Senior Planner Sidnie Olson. "There have been a lot of meetings and discussions."
A parking structure is a big-ticket item for the city up to $5 million. But with the Vance restoration on the line and other Old Town and downtown developments waiting for parking, the city is feeling the urgency.
"If you go down there in the middle of the day now, almost all the parking is taken," said City Councilman Jack McKellar. "Most of what you might call empty property is being planned for. We've got to make some kind of move."
But finding parking may turn out to be a lot easier than finding a solution to the Stanson problem.
District Attorney Farmer said the county counsel saw possible "legal problems" with a Vance lease. And other potential tenants may be reluctant to commit to a building that is still in the shadow of such a tenacious anti-government litigator.
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