RIO VISTA — The city’s bats had to find a new place to hang after Jack Hirsch bought the nearly 100-year-old Hotel Rio Vista.
If the 400 pounds of bat guano shoveled out is any indication, the critters made themselves right at home for quite a while in the 45,000-square-foot building on the corner of Main and Second streets.
“At dusk, when I was closing, you could see the bats fly out of the hotel,” said local business owner, Sue Conklin, laughing.
Since Hirsch, a Bay Area real estate agent and investor, joined two partners in purchasing the real-estate owned building in April for $475,000, crews have been busy cleaning tons of garbage from the basement, prepping, updating and planning.
First to open will be the ground floor to retailers, and subsequently the two upper floors for office space will open. In an effort to rid the town of the monolithic pain in the eyes, Hirsch worked a bit backward and painted the building much sooner in the process than usual.
“Generally, painting is the last (thing done),” he said. “When we came in, it was such an eyesore.”
Conklin was so pleased, she said she walked across the street to thank the painters.
“Everyone is just so relieved,” she said.
Earl Edwards, owner of Chef Edwards Bar-B-Que, directly across from the hotel, said his restaurant fed the painters while they worked.
“It was a mess,” he said of the hotel. “It wasn’t painted at all. They’ve done an outstanding job.”
Edwards said he thought for a while they’d tear the building down because, he said, “it looked so bad.”
That’s quite a fall for what once was the gem of the city.
“You can tell when it was built it was quite a sight here in town,” said Phil Pezzaglia, the town’s historian, whose family was one of the first settlers in the area in the 1800s. “It was the fanciest hotel.”
Completed in 1914, the grand opening banquet took place Sept. 26. The hotel, also called the Rio Vista Hotel, took care of the steamship travelers who disembarked in Rio Vista. Among its amenities, it had a restaurant and a clothing store.
Hirsch’s current plan of downstairs retail space is nothing new. Pezzaglia said the bottom floor has always been a variety of businesses – Hite’s Pharmacy, Rio Vista Cash Store, Pezzaglia’s Toggery, a Sears catalogue ordering store plus assorted barber shops, hair salons and clothing stores.
In 1917, fire roared through downtown Rio Vista. While many business were left in ashes on the ground, the exterior walls of the hotel rose intact from the tragedy. Its structural soundness is something Hirsch noticed nearly 100 years later.
“My biggest fear is we were going to have a Pandora’s box of structural problems,” he said. “Structurally, it’s built like a bomb shelter.”
The fire gutted the hotel’s interior but it was up and running for a grand re-opening on April 5, 1919.
Two entrances graced the hotel. The primary entrance is where the clothing store Bellissima is located. It used to go straight into the lobby, Pezzaglia said.
“In the 1930s that turned into an actual business space – that left only the Second Street entrance,” he said.
That Second Street entrance will remain a lobby area serving the upstairs professional offices, Hirsch said. The original front lobby desk is still intact and in good shape. Hirsch plans to leave it in place; he envisions it becoming a kiosk of some sort, selling anything from coffee to newspapers.
Hirsch also envisions a Starbucks or Peets Coffee & Tea in the corner store – something that could become a community gathering spot. Full-scale marketing should begin next week to lease the spots, he said.
Once the downstairs businesses are self-sustaining, Hirsch will begin to develop the upstairs. The stained, dirty and dusty carpeted stairs leading to the second floor give nothing away concerning the disrepair of the upper floors. Upstairs smells musty, historic – rooms adjoined by what used to be shared bathrooms, archaic electrical systems that Hirsch said are Smithsonian-worthy, water marks, cracking plaster, a window or three boarded up, narrow darkened hallways with subflooring stripped with aged linoleum.
The building’s downfall can be forgotten momentarily with a look out the eastern-facing windows – a bird’s-eye view of the bucolic Sacramento River and of downtown.
“These offices will be beautiful,” he said, looking out a room window at the river.
The entire project, he estimated, will cost about $2.5 million with $1 million to $1.5 million needed for the upper floors. He said he’s easily already put about $100,000 into the project. He said he plans to keep the historic integrity while bringing the building into the 21st century.
The grand dame of Rio Vista, the once-storied historic hotel has had a succession of owners in the past 15 or so years, Pezzaglia said.
The last owner with any longevity was Virginia Brown, who took ownership in 1966 after her husband died. When Brown died, it was willed to the daughter. When the daughter – a local girl – died, it was willed to a couple of her high school friends. It’s had several owners since then.
It was last used as a hotel in the mid- to late 1990s, Pezzaglia said. He said it became more of a weekly venue with transients – much like the boarded-up Ram Hotel down the street before it was shut down in 2005.
“I think transient would be the best term,” Pezzaglia said. “People would appear in town and suddenly they’d be living there.”
Since then, businesses in the downstairs have come and gone. The lobby has even been used for rummage sales. Most of the business space is unoccupied. One of the most long-standing businesses in the lower portion has been Striper Cafe and Bar. The historic fish and cocktail glass marquee still marks the original Striper.
Raul Rodriguez bought the business about six years ago and continues to lease the restaurant space – he changed the name slightly to Raul’s Striper Cafe. He’s not about the get rid of the marquee, he said, although he doesn’t serve alcohol.
“I would like to get it fixed,” he said. “I haven’t had the money to fix it, (but) at the same time, it gets people’s attention so I’d like to keep it up there.”
So far, Rodriguez said, the most recent sale of the hotel has been a good thing. He’s hoping when the restoration is finished, some people might come out and take a look.
“When the building looks nice, it gets people’s attention,” he said. “I do think it will help out (the downtown) in the long term.”
According to Fairfield Realtor Denise Kirchubel, real estate records indicate that in 2010 it was listed for $1 million. It went into foreclosure on June 16, 2011, and Metropolitan Bank emerged as the new owner. It was eventually listed at $700,000. According to the Solano County assessor’s website, the land and building are valued at $780,300.
Hirsch had been watching the building for a couple of years but it never made sense to buy it until recently, he said. Simply crunching the numbers convinced him he’d be successful at doing something no one in the past couple of decades has been able to do.
“When you buy right, you have a much stronger chance of success,” he said.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.