A handful of legendary grande-dame hotels around the country continue to define the classic elegance of bygone eras. For that reason alone they're attractions, like visiting art museums.
Of course, multimillion-dollar "modernizations" have helped keep them competitive.
Consider the St. Francis in San Francisco (1904), the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego (1888) and the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., (1896).
Add to the list La Playa in Carmel, a Mediterranean villa-themed, 75-room showplace perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean. It was designed in 1905 by landscape artist Christian Jorgensen as a residence for him and his wife, Angela Ghirardelli (as in chocolates), and served as a salon for entertaining their writer and artist friends.
The devastated couple left town shortly after their niece drowned in Carmel Bay in 1909. They leased their mansion to San Francisco holtelier Agnes Signor, who ran it as a boarding house until 1916, when she bought it and opened it as a hotel.
Over the decades La Playa has undergone expansions and facelifts under various ownerships. It was purchased by Classic Hotels in 2011 and closed for eight months while it underwent a $3.5 million makeover.
"The renovation was green and very eco-friendly," said general manager Mary Crowe on a recent walkabout. "We tried to keep a simple palate so people can enjoy the architecture and ocean views, which are quintessentially Carmel."
Gone are the rusting gazebo in the lushly landscaped half-acre garden, along with an eyesore outbuilding. A cluster of nearby cottages was sold.
"The rooms were redone while trying to maintain the historical aspects," Crowe said.
New are all the furnishings (largely rattan), carpeting, cabinetry and wainscotting. Accents of bamboo add an organic feel. The bathrooms were replumbed and remade in travertine and granite.
Still, the past has been well preserved. In the rooms, wooden shutters cover screenless windows that open with metal hand cranks, and 1930s pendant seashell lights glow softly. The plastered hallway walls are decorated with framed vintage posters and black-and-white photos.
More from the past: tall French doors, arched doorways and windows, handmade metal sconces and chandeliers, wrought-iron staircase bannisters, exposed wood beams, stained glass, dark-wood paneling, tile floors, hand-cut stonework and a fireplace mantel that reaches the ceiling.
In the men's room off the lobby is a 5-by-5-foot framed painting of Sacramento's Buffalo Brewery, dated 1895.
You needn't be a hotel guest to view the lobby and gardens, and sit at the bar and on the terrace, maybe by the firepit on a chilly night, said Crowe.
The bar offers a new six-item bruschetta menu and flights of Monterey wines, 2 to 10 p.m. daily.
The bar also features one more original touch that survived the makeover. The Bud Allen Hour was named after La Playa's owner in the 1950s, who ran a weekly special that continues today: Martinis are only a dime from 5 to 5:10 p.m. Sundays. Exact change, please.
La Playa is at Camino Real and Eighth Avenue; (800) 582-8900, www.laplayahotel.com.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.