Doomed luxury: Andrews Hotel in SLO destroyed in 1886 fire
San Luis Obispo is experiencing a downtown hotel building boom.
The Andrews Hotel in San Luis Obispo was the region's first luxury destination, the most expensive building between Paso Robles and Santa Barbara in 1885. It was built to save San Luis Obispo's reputation and almost destroyed it.
It took more than a year to build the hotel at the corner of Osos and Monterey Streets. The ornate wood building, which featured two wings with a large court in between, cost $150,000 to build — roughly $4 million in 2018 dollars.
The Andrews Hotel had 16 bathrooms for 112 "luxuriously furnished" rooms, which, judged by today’s standards, would hardly seem adequate. The hotel did have electric bells and hot and cold water, and was lighted with gas jets.
"All that could make a hotel comfortable and elegant was adopted," Tribune editor Myron Angel wrote in 1886.
Hotel investors included San Luis Obispo's wealthy land developers, bankers, railroad executives and shopkeepers — local luminaries J.P. Andrews, J. Millard Fillmore, Charles Goodall, Louise Marre, P.W. Murphy, C.H. Phillips Ernest Cerf and B. Sinsheimer.
Unfortunately, the hotel was built for all the wrong reasons — foremost among them embarrassment.
In the 1880s, San Luis Obispo was arguably the most prestigious city along the Pacific Coast Railway.
In the days before the automobile, the best way to take a Sunday excursion was to travel by rail. The new narrow-gauge railroad promoted the day trips as a way to generate revenue and promote communities along the line on the weekends.
The sleepy town of San Luis Obispo was unprepared for a hungry Sunday throng when they arrived on March 25, 1883. Only one small cantina was open and the existing hotels were cramped and unable to feed large groups, according to the book “Ships and Narrow Gauge Rails” by Gerald M. Best.
Shortly afterward, the village of Los Alamos impressed visitors with a superb dinner of roast turkey, rum omelets and as one diner wrote “succotash I have not seen equaled since we feasted with the Onodaga Indians.”
The Andrews Hotel was "constructed to supply the demand for a first-class hotel in this growing city that would invite tourists and visitors and stimulate capitalists at home and abroad to invest and prosecute improvements in our county," Angel wrote.
Sadly, the "handsome structure" had a fatal flaw.
"The construction of the building was most shamefully slighted, the foundation settling, the walls cracking and the joints opening," wrote Angel, criticizing the hotel's architect, W.F. Smith of San Francisco, and the builders, Veitch & Knowles of Oakland.
The fireplace flues were made of ill-fitting tile that exposed gaps as the building settled, resulting in a catastrophic fire.
Nine months after the Andrews Hotel opened, the town’s dreams laid in ashes.
The following are excerpts from a Tribune article published on April 23, 1886:
San Luis Obispo sorely stricken
The Andrews Burned
Also, the Bank of San Luis Obispo, the Post-office, Payne & McLeod’s Livery Stable
and other Buildings.
LOSS $100,850.— INSURANCE $10,000
At a quarter past 5 o’clock Sunday afternoon the City Hall bell sounded the alarm of fire. In a moment all eyes were turned to ascertain the locality threatened by the dreaded element. There was no need of inquiring nor a second look. From the high roof of the Andrews a dense volume of smoke was seen ascending into the air, and the lurid flames soon bursting forth in various parts at once gave conviction that the noble structure, the pride of the city, was doomed to destruction. The firemen with their hose and hooks and ladders were soon on the ground, while hundreds of citizens gathered at the scene and herculean efforts were made to save goods and furniture from the hotel and the neighboring buildings. The firemen found it impossible to reach the locality of the fire with their feeble streams of water, owing to the height of the building, and therefore turned their chief attention to driving back the fire from the front, and to the wetting of the buildings on the opposite side of the street. This although it did not save the opposite buildings, had the good effect of retarding the flames and lessening the heat, thereby enabling the removal of a great deal of material and preventing the further spread of the conflagration.
THE COURTHOUSE ON FIRE.
Great consternation was felt when smoke was seen rising from the roof of the Courthouse, which had been set on fire by the heat although over one hundred yards from the burning building. Then there was a rush of firemen and others to drag the heavy hose to the threatened Court House and to carry away the valuable books and documents from the building. Ladders were put up and the hose carried to the roof, and the handsome structure was saved with but trifling damage.
THE FLOURING MILL THREATENED.
The lofty flouring mill of Messrs. Steele & Wheelan, right in the direction the wind was blowing from the hotel, was seen to be in great danger, but Mr. Wheelan and a party of men mounted to the roof with a line of hose and continually plying a stream of water on it and on the sides extinguished the countless number of sparks alighting and the small flames that quickly started, and thus costly and splendid mill was saved.
CROSSING MONTEREY STREET.
But the great heat was too intense for the buildings on Monterey St., immediately opposite The Andrews. The great plate glass windows in the Bank building gave way before the heat and water and soon the interior was in flames. Immediately thereafter the wooden buildings in the block took fire and because of insufficient pressure on the water the flames could not be suppressed and all went down. The Bank was a strong brick building, standing on the corner of Monterey and Court streets while opposite the Court street was Loobliner’s brick, and those enabled the firemen to make a successful contest and the fire was got under control.
The great fire, starting shortly after five o’clock had done its work of destruction before eight or within two hours and a half. The Andrews was but a pile of burning cinders, the wooden buildings opposite were but beds of ashes and the flames were licking up the last of the interior of the late elegant Bank building. In that brief time $100,000 of value had been destroyed and the grand pride and ornament of the city swept from existence.
The buildings on Monterey street between Court and Morro streets were in such danger that the occupants deemed it prudent to remove their goods and [missing from microfilm] were saved, although slightly damaged by the heat, the breaking of windows and loss and injury to goods in their hurried removal. The losses, as near as can be ascertained are as follows: The Andrews building, $75,000, hotel furniture, $20,000; no insurance; San Luis Obispo Bank building, value $85,000, insured for $10,000; brick building adjoining belonging to the Bank, $10,000, insured for $5,000; Post Office, $1,000, belonging to the Bank, Payne & McLeod’s livery stable $1,900 or about $188,000 on the buildings and hotel furniture. It is estimated that $10,000 will restore the bank building as the walls appear as good as ever and vault in unharmed in the least.
The tenants of the various buildings and the guests suffered serious losses which it is difficult and in many instances impossible to estimate. The loss of the Messrs. Sharp, the lessees of the hotel, is estimated at $5,000; J.M. Fillmore, $9,000, insured for $1,000; C.H. Reed, clothing wedding presents, etc., $1,000; J.B. Staniford, agent Wells Fargo & Co. express, $250; U.S. Signal Service instruments, etc., $1,000; Col. R.B. Treat, $500; E.C. Watkins, Bazar, $2,000; D. Dunbar, saloon, $500; telephone office, $500; Kurtz drug store, $3,500, insured $2,500; Dr. Garrison, $1,500, insured $500; B.H. Bacon, $2,000; Dr. Hayes, $1,000; Dr. Nichols, $100; law libraries of Venable, Spencer, Woodside, Rhodes, Hamilin and Goodchild, $3,000, making a total loss of about $180,600, with $19,000 insurance. There are of course many individual losses of which no estimate is made or attempted.
ORIGIN OF THE FIRE.
The origin of the fire is attributed to a defective flue. The flues of the hotel were of terra-cotta pipes, with frequent joints and very carelessly put up. The defects have often been noticed and repairs made, but on such an imperfect system and with shabby treatment safety seemed to have been an impossibility. The fire appears to have started in the attic and spreading under the roof before breaking out, thus accounting for its so very rapidly covering the roof. Instances are told that while making repairs many disjointed and uncovered ruptured flues were discovered where flames and smoke had escaped and charred the adjacent woodwork. From this it seems the building has been in constant danger and its destruction by fire a certainty. The value of terra-cotta pipes as flues in a wooden structure will be greatly impaired in the consequence of their insecurity as shown by this fire. The construction of the building was most shamefully slighted, the foundation settling, the walls cracking and the joints opening. The architect and contractors were guilty of neglect of duty and should be exposed and punished. During the laying of the foundation we criticized it in the TRIBUNE in such a manner as to bring the anathemas of the contractors upon us, but we recollect it stopped the work and a show was made to reconstruct it, but it was merely an excuse of a repair. ...