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Storied Past

The Holbrooke Hotel, first built in 1862 in California’s historic Gold Rush Country, is a reminder of Grass Valley’s storied history as a gold mining boom town. The 28-room hotel has undergone a renovation to create an experience that honors the property’s past and that can appeal to the modern traveler.

Gambling and gun fights, fortunes made and lost, and visits from Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant and Lola Montez—the Holbrooke has seen a lot in its time. The project team, helmed by lead designer Anne L’Esperance of Portland-based Lightning Bar Collective, worked to incorporate this history, uncovering and restoring design elements like vintage lighting fixtures and underground tunnels used for transporting gold through town.

“The inspiration for the Holbrooke’s restoration was to distill down the essence of this historic 160-year old building, which was built during the California Gold Rush,” L’Esperance said. “This has been a real labor of love, and we’ve had to take extreme care to preserve the hotel’s unique historic elements while bringing it up to current health and safety codes.

“We were inspired not only by the building itself but by the stories it holds and has been a part of for the last 160 years,” she added. “If the walls could talk, who and what would we hear? We decided to dive deeper into the story of the journeymen, the travelers who found a place within the Holbrooke to rest their weary bodies, take in the decadence of a hot bath, a rich meal, enticing conversations and revelries. In the Holbrooke’s prime, it was updated to offer the modern amenities of its era, and we wanted to do the same in our time, all while honoring the past. Modern touches mix with vintage furniture and fixtures so guests are immersed in history with the comforts of our modern day.”

L’Esperance noted that the original character of the building was beautiful and elegant in its simplicity, “but to reveal it we had to strip away a century and half’s worth of layers of paint, wallpaper and some design choices that had not withstood the test of time.”

She added, “Once we were able to strip away the layers and complete the needed repairs, we were blessed to uncover beautiful original stone, brickwork and design elements that we used as inspiration in the redesign. The end result is that we have achieved a timeless and inviting atmosphere while incorporating the level of amenities and comforts guests expect in a present-day hotel.”

Credit for all photos: Kat Alves

Wherever possible, the team looked to original features like the property’s clawfoot tubs, exposed wood beams, and antique lighting to inform its design choices.

“The art throughout the hotel now reflects the town’s heritage as well as the natural environment of the surrounding Sierra Nevada foothills,” L’Esperance said. “We’ve restored original lighting fixtures, chosen archival photography to decorate the guestrooms, and hired many local artists and craftspeople like Sarah Coleman and Brianna French who painted an extensive mural on the second-floor landing featuring the region’s natural landscape. From the beginning, our intent has been to honor the character of the original building and, through this extensive and carefully conducted restoration project, we believe we have achieved that.”

The team opened up the ground floor, exposing elements and making the main floor into a space that just seems to flow together. “The lobby, bar and dining room were very segmented before and now feel like one big space you can walk through from moment to moment,” she said.

Both bars have been given a rebirth with restoration and new features. “These will both be places for new memories to be made by both travelers and locals alike,” she said. “Detailed wood ceilings in both bars add to each one’s unique character. The historic back bar of the Golden Gate on the main floor is sparkling like new and the Iron Door speakeasy in the basement is ready to serve classic cocktails, host parties and have live shows into the late hours of the night. Our contractors from Lightning Bar Collective brought their magic to make design dreams come true, not only in the two bars but by creating handcrafted furniture pieces in the lobby and built-in seating and cabinetry throughout.”

The hotel’s largest event space, the North Star Room, offers white-washed brick and a neutral color scheme, which create a bright and airy feel.

“The new registration desk is a fun moment to experience right when you walk in,” L’Esperance added. “We opened the wall under the stairs adjacent to the main entrance to share a fun vignette of a space that used to house a one-chair salon.”

Another key element of the design is the lighting. “It is a curated mix of vintage and new fixtures that sets the tone for the entire property,” she explained. “With the grand ceilings of the main floor, our choices were made to make a statement. When we took over the building, we discovered some amazing fixtures that were restored and wired into our system to help create the ambiance throughout the day and night.”

Some of L’Esperance’s favorite features include the stone wall that runs down the middle of the hotel from the front to back and the double arches leading from the lobby to the North Star Room. “You can’t deny their magic,” she said. “Most of the wall used to be plastered over, the arches were filled and there was a wall dividing the main lobby. It is now a space that celebrates the architectural elements and you can’t help but just stand in the space and look up in awe at the ceiling heights. I love the Iron Elevator in the middle of the main spaces and, of course, the Iron Doors that lead into the basement speakeasy.”

The second floor is home to the main hotel’s 17 guestrooms, which offer a masculine-yet-inviting aesthetic with white walls, rich wood furnishings, and top-of-the-line new bedding including pillow-top mattresses and premium linens. Many of the bathrooms feature restored claw-foot tubs that were original to the property, while others offer new white-tiled walk-in showers accented with period-appropriate brass plumbing fixtures. The adjacent 11-room Purcell House, which sits on a corner of the property, is also being restored.

Overall, L’Esperance said, “The ambiance is warm, inviting and airy with a timeless feel and an appreciation for the past. The combination of a light, bright color palette juxtaposed against restored stone and brickwork evokes a sense of calm and tranquility that a guest might experience in a more modern hotel. Yet, the vintage detailing throughout is a reminder that the building has withstood the test of time and has many stories to tell.”