Amber Woosley maintains the bar at the historic Golden Gate Saloon at the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley. (Photos by Steve Martarano)

Two Gold Rush Era Hotels Return to Glitz and Glamour

Back Article Jun 9, 2021 By Steve Martarano

This story is part of our June 2021 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Mark Twain was a frequent guest at both hotels, as was world-famous entertainer Lola Montez and several U.S. presidents. Gamblers, bootleggers and other personalities of the booming California gold rush roamed their rumored-to-be-haunted hallways.

The 169-year-old Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley and the 165-year-old National Exchange Hotel in Nevada City, located about 4 miles apart on Highway 20 in Nevada County, have survived fires and floods, ownership changes and structural decline in their long, storied histories. Today, both are fully restored and experiencing a rebirth.

The Holbrooke Hotel has been a prominent fixture on Grass Valley’s Main Street since 1852.

The renovation projects, taken on by Santa Barbara-based Acme Hospitality, provided a unique opportunity to simultaneously restore two landmark properties, significantly changing the downtowns of both historic foothill cities. 

Many of the 28 rooms at the Holbrooke Hotel features the old and the new – a vintage radio with Bluetooth connectivity, rotary dial telephone and iPad.

“I think it just made a lot of sense to be able to dive into both (projects),” says Sherry Villanueva, the owner and managing partner of Acme Hospitality, a company that owns and operates several food and beverage businesses in the Santa Barbara district known as The Funk Zone. Acme, along with Villanueva’s business partner, Eastern Real Estate cofounder Brian Kelly, acquired the National in early 2018 and the Holbrooke a few months later.

Ted Robinson, general manager of the National Exchange Hotel, and Sherry Villanueva, co-founder and managing partner at Acme Hospitality, in front of the National Exchange Hotel in Grass Valley on May 1.

The restorations began in 2019 using mostly local construction businesses and contractors. Other community groups, like the Grass Valley-Nevada City Cultural District, will see benefits from these renovations, says Robin Davies, CEO of the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The National Exchange Hotel’s main restaurant, Lola, was named and inspired after Lola Montez, a frequent visitor in the late 1800s.

“The impact of the renovation and reopening (of the Holbrooke) has been an astronomical boom to our community,” Davies says. “For both communities, having an elite accommodation experience is really remarkable.” She notes that The Center for the Arts, a 21,000-square-foot facility in downtown Grass Valley that includes theaters, galleries and classrooms, is just a block away from the Holbrooke. 

Grass Valley resident Jane Rubin and Angie Bettinelli, one of tour leaders for the National Exchange Hotel’s open house on May 1, take a break in the lobby on one of the hotel’s original sofas.

The 28-room Holbrooke Hotel, designated a California State Landmark in 1974, includes 17 rooms in the main building and 11 in the adjacent Purcell House. It reopened in November 2020 after an 18-month renovation, only to have to close again in December due to additional COVID-19 restrictions. When the county moved into a less restrictive tier in February, the Holbrooke reopened with limits again, including its iconic Golden Gate Saloon, which first opened in 1852 and has been called the longest continuously operating saloon west of the Mississippi.

The lobby at the Holbrooke as designed by Anne L’Esperance, who was the lead designer on both hotel projects.

Nevada City’s 38-room National Exchange Hotel, built in 1856, needed more infrastructure work, Villanueva says, and took longer to complete, reopening May 6. The National also features a restaurant and an upstairs bar overlooking Broad Street, Nevada City’s main thoroughfare. Both the Holbrooke and the National Exchange are ideal for special events, weddings and other large gatherings, Villanueva says.

The National Exchange Hotel in the final stage of renovation last April. It reopened on May 6.

“There’s some operational efficiencies we can gain by having two properties in the same vicinity,” Villanueva says. “They can support each other. It’s a lot of collaboration and cross-marketing of each property.”

Visitors tour the National Exchange Hotel in Grass Valley during its open house on May 1.

Anne L’Esperance was the lead designer on both hotels, and the goal was to keep the original structures intact as much as possible. Guest rooms and bathrooms at both locations have been completely redone, including work on features like brick walls, rich wood furnishings and outside decks. Most rooms have combined vintage decor with modern touches, such as functional rotary phones, retro-style radios with Bluetooth connectivity, and iPads where guests can view the menus of the in-house restaurants. Zachary Ahrenholtz heads up the Golden Gate kitchen at the Holbrooke, while Tom Bevitori runs the National’s restaurant, called the Lola after former guest Lola Montez. 

The basement bar The Iron Door at the Holbrooke was a speakeasy during prohibition and will eventually feature specialty cocktails and live entertainment.

“There’s literally nothing like them anywhere near, and the history and the stories and the level of detail on both properties is extraordinary,” Villanueva says. “We really see it as creating a destination in itself, as a reason to go to Grass Valley or Nevada City.” 

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