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‘Worse than the city jail.’ SLO’s Park Hotel was home to drug addicts, criminals in 1980s

Learn San Luis Obispo’s secrets on this walking tour

Come along on a walking tour of San Luis Obispo, a well-preserved city that has retained much of its history. From outlaw tales to adobe life to railroad history, Secret SLO's tours satisfy the curious.
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Come along on a walking tour of San Luis Obispo, a well-preserved city that has retained much of its history. From outlaw tales to adobe life to railroad history, Secret SLO's tours satisfy the curious.

Take extreme care when adjusting the chronometer in your time travel device.

When headed to San Luis Obispo’s Park Hotel, for example, a difference in temporal coordinates could land a traveler in the midst of a successful Women of Moose card party or a drunken brawl.

Originally known as the Reidy Hotel, the first section was built in the 1800 block of Osos Street in 1906 to serve the nearby railroad trade.

With expansion and name changes, the Park Hotel became a destination for women’s club events in the late 1930s — an indication that it was one of the more reputable places to have a gathering.

The hotel eluded the fate of swankier establishments from an earlier era, such as the Ramona or Andrews hotels, which were lost to fire.

But change was already coming down the highway. The world’s first motel opened in San Luis Obispo in December 1925.

The Motel Inn once hosted the famous and glamorous, like Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, who stopped there during their honeymoon. Plans have been announced to rebuild the world's first motor hotel.

By 1953, the Park was a blue-collar destination essential to the workers on the eight passenger trains that arrived each day in San Luis Obispo. That was just before the freeway and diesel-electric locomotives terminated the era of steam locomotives and roundhouses.

“Since the railroad runs on a 24-hour schedule, there are no such things as ‘night’ and ‘day’ in the operation of the hotel. Its schedule is set according to the arrival of the trains,” according to a story published in the Telegram-Tribune on April 2, 1953.

“San Luis Obispo is the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and all the passenger trains change crews here,” the Telegram-Tribune reported. “The crew of the Daylight will rest here and then take the starlight back home to complete their round trip. The crews of other trains work similarly.”

For the hotel managers, the 1953 article said, “the heaviest work comes between midnight and 3 a.m. as four trains come and go during that period. As the members of one crew check out of their rooms the rooms are cleaned by the maid for the members of the incoming group. Sometimes all of the 42 rooms in the hotel are used several times in a single day.”

On Saturday, the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the golden spike link that completed the transcontinental railroad. The museum is located in a renovated railroad warehouse.

Just downhill, the Park has found new life as well — housing Bon Temps Creole Cafe and My Thai Restaurant on its ground floor. But the Railroad District building had to hit bottom before it was restored.

In 1982, the Park was known as a flop house. Larry Bauman wrote the story, published in the Telegram-Tribune on November 18, 1982.

Era Ends

For more than a decade, the Hotel Park has been San Luis Obispo’s most infamous address: the place winos, drug addicts and petty criminals have called home.

That seediness soon will end. The shabby Park is being remodeled, and the hotel’s most undesirable tenants have received the bum’s rush.

The Park, like a wrinkled old matron yearning to relive better days, is headed for a facelift. In fact, the rotting 80-year-old hotel on the edge of the railroad tracks is getting what amounts to an entirely new body.

No longer will it provide shelter for the poor and homeless vagrants drawn to San Luis Obispo only to wind up in one of the Park’s lonely little rooms.

No longer will the hotel’s halls ring with the shouts of drunks on a tear or fights between some of the young transients.

No longer will the Park be known as one of the most often listed addresses for suspects and incidents reported on the city police log.

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Park Hotel resident manager Roland Wilson reads in his room in 1982. Before the San Luis Obispo hotel was remodeled, there were 42 small rooms with shared bathrooms, without kitchen or elevator. Tony Hertz Telegram-Tribune

But the project holds good news for some of the Park’s long-term residents: Developer John King, who owns the building, is remodeling the hotel for low-income people and senior citizens. Once the work is completed those long-term residents will be offered new and enlarged apartments.

The rentals will be managed by the San Luis Obispo Housing Authority, which expects five of the nine residents it moved out to return when the work is done.

In the meantime, all of the hotel’s residents have been moved to other apartments in town. A city grant paid up to $100 to cover moving costs for each of the displaced residents. Another $100 will be available for each who wants to move back when the work is done.

And those who wish to return will have to pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income in rent because the new apartments will be part of a federally subsidized housing program run by the Housing Authority.

Only one of the Park’s tenants is expected to remain through most of the 10-month remodeling project, resident manager Roland Wilson.

Wilson, who has lived in and managed the Park for 1 1/2 years holds no bad feelings about the big changes expected at the hotel.

The luxury Andrews Hotel, built in 1885, was the jewel of downtown San Luis Obispo. It was the most expensive building between Paso Robles and Santa Barbara — and it was destroyed by fire in just 3 hours.

“Let’s be blunt,” he said in his small single room without kitchen or bathroom. “The Park Hotel has been about this far” —measuring an inch of space between his thumb and index finger — “above a flophouse.”

And many residents attracted to the hotel have been just as far above skid row, Wilson said.

“These people, as you say, aren’t the norm when it comes to John Q. Public.” said Wilson, slumped before his room’s one luxury, a color television.

Recent parolees from the California Men’s Colony, referrals from county mental health agencies, winos, drifters and various types of social outcasts have been among the Park’s clientele, said Wilson.

Although it has also attracted simply poor people who couldn’t afford anything better, it has also drawn troublemakers who gave the hotel its reputation, he said.

The remodeled Park would attract “a different class of tenants, a better class of tenants,” Wilson said.

And Wilson, whose hobby is the history and artifacts of ghost towns, said he is especially pleased to know that King Corp. plans to restore the building’s exterior in turn-of-the-century style.

A grand portico will be extended from the building’s northern end, where Church Street will be abandoned so the hotel may merge with the existing El Trianglo Park. A small gazebo will be added to the park.

Exterior shingles that have hidden the hotel’s redwood siding will be removed and the whole place will be thoroughly refurbished. A new entrance will be created on what is now the backside of the building.

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Park Hotel resident manager Roland Wilson walks through one of the larger rooms of the San Luis Obispo hotel as the remodel gets underway in 1982. Tony Hertz Telegram-Tribune

Inside is where the biggest changes will take place. An elevator will be installed for the disabled and four of the new 21 apartments will be fitted for disabled tenants.

The old Park has only a couple rooms with their own bathrooms, none with their own kitchens. All rooms of the new Park will have both.

When it’s all over $600,000 will have been invested in the residential portions of the hotel and another $100,000 in the ground floor commercial spaces, according to Keith Gurnee, the King Corp. planner who labored over plans for the remodeling.

He said that only Cafe Roma and Caboose bar are sure to remain as commercial tenants. Other existing businesses would like to stay but they’re not sure they can afford the higher rents they’ll eventually have to pay.

One of the hotel residents planning to return is Frank Gnesa, a 76-year-old retired railroad worker. Gnesa, like most of the other residents, was attracted to the Park because of the low rent. He paid $100 a month for a single room.

“It wasn’t much of a place, but it was cheap,” Gnesa said about his tiny room at the Park.

When he returns, he’ll probably end up spending more of his monthly income on rent, but that’s all right, he said, because he’ll have two rooms instead of one.

The railroad has been a part of the Park’s history ever since it was built in 1906, according to a historical survey by former owner William Wharton.

Originally known as the Reidy Hotel, it became the Axtell Hotel in the early 1920s and didn’t become the Hotel Park until 1938.

It was a boarding house in the early years, primarily catering to railroad workers. The hotel continued to serve railroad employees through the early 1950s.

One of the hotel’s most unusual residents in recent years is another former railroad worker, Robert Earl Brough, a writer, poet, painter, self-taught economist and former entrepreneur who was drawn to the Park for a variety of reasons.

Beat writer Jack Kerouac lived in San Luis Obispo during the spring of 1953. The "On the Road" author lived in the Colonial Hotel, which is now The Establishment, an 18-bedroom communal living residence on Santa Barbara Avenue.

“There was a sense of danger living there, but it was kind of fun,” said the 69-year-old Brough. “It was very much the seamy side of life. Like living in a volcano. It was San Luis Obispo’s skid row.”

Brough, who lived at the Park for the past five years, stayed there occasionally during his years as a railroad clerk, working out of Lompoc, San Luis Obispo and other stations along the Central Coast.

Brough said he returned to the Hotel Park in retirement to battle his drinking problem and be close to the Alano Club, a social club for alcoholics across the street from the hotel.

A large man and not one to be pushed around, Brough said he was an amateur boxer in his younger years. A few years ago he had what he calls his “last amateur bout” in the hallway of the Hotel Park.

He won the fight, although he was facing a much younger man, he said.

Fights were not unusual at the Park, but Brough said most of the young toughs who stayed there treated him with respect, perhaps because he dressed neatly and looked out of place among the ragged residents.

But Brough said he also kept to himself to a great deal. He creates abstract paintings and writes poetry about love and loneliness, not exactly the kinds of interests likely to be shared with other Park residents.’He remembers one resident — “a 19-year-old fire bug” who tried several times to burn the place down, but other residents quickly extinguished the flames. The man later committed suicide, Brough said.

Asked if he intends to return to the remodeled Park next year, Brough responds quickly with a simple “no.”

“I don’t miss the place at all,” Brough said. “You tell people you live in the Park Hotel and they size you up pretty carefully.

“It was the only address in town worse than the city jail.”

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