JACKSON – They pipe in music here on Main Street, mostly tunes from the '20s.
Audible but faint, it could have been Gershwin, or maybe an Irving Berlin ditty, wafting and swirling in the wind one recent winter afternoon. It is a nice nostalgic touch, no doubt meant to convey a sense of endearing quaintness for tourists as they stroll the raised Gold Rush-era sidewalks, bop into antiques stores, press cute blouses to their chests in boutiques and ogle all manner of artisan crafts.
Given the musical motif, this Mother Lode town's chamber of commerce types might consider cueing up "Someone to Watch Over Me" or maybe "On the Sunny Side of the Street" whenever stately, plump Stanley Lukowicz makes the short walk from his pawn shop, Trader Stan's, to the National Hotel, the centerpiece of Main Street and the nexus around which Jackson's renewed economic hopes swirl.
Come to think, playing "Hail to the Chief" might be a good choice, too.
Lukowicz, 65, doesn't hold office in this city of 4,651, the Amador County seat. But he does hold ownership title to, by his own last count, 24 of the 61 buildings lining historic Main Street – not counting the large shopping plaza on Highway 49, the seven convenience stores throughout the Mother Lode and, of course, his chain of nine pawn shops in the Sacramento area, called Capital City Loan and Jewelry.
The man clearly is a mover and shaker – and we're not just talking about his jiggling jowls when he laughs, which is often. He makes things happen. And his 24th purchase, surely the most audacious and ambitious by far, is his 2010 acquisition of the 161-year-old National Hotel, which Mayor Pat Crew likes to call his city's Old Grand Dame.
In its time, the National has hosted presidents (Garfield and Hoover), senators (Alan Cranston was a regular), Hollywood types (John Wayne and director John Ford once staged an epic $50,000 poker game there), mob figures (Mickey Cohen's "associates") and generations of ladies who lunch and ladies who, uh, mostly worked evenings. The walls don't talk at the National; they swear.
By 2010, though, the National resembled more of a dowager down on her luck, having been shuttered for more than two years at that point.
Into the fray swaggered Lukowicz and his two sons, Stan Jr. and Dan, with a grand plan to transform both the National and the city's financial fortunes with a grand gesture. He bought the dilapidated historic husk and pumped $4 million of his own money – "We don't owe any (bank) anything," he says – into what he dubbed a renovation, not a preservation.
Blend of old and new
That's an important distinction because some in Jackson, most notably the Amador County Historical Society and Jackson Planning Commission, had assumed Lukowicz would hew to a careful, museumlike period-specific restoration.
But Lukowicz, who didn't become a multimillionaire by bowing to others' wishes, forged ahead on his specific vision of the four-story, 28,500- square-foot space, namely to "build a luxury hotel that looks as historic as it can but has the modern luxury conveniences. I want it to last another 160 years."
He mostly got the blessing from Jackson officials, the mayor said. Lukowicz arches his pointy white eyebrows and gets a certain twinkle in his eyes when he talks about the city's "generosity" and hassle-free streamlining to enable the major renovation to be completed in just more than two years. (The hotel reopened in late August.)
"I had to have all the permits and do it legal, but they gave me some lenience," Lukowicz said.
"They gave us the benefit of the doubt because, if this thing works, the city's going to receive a minimum of $100,000 a year in direct revenue. The whole city now is only doing $600,000 in sales tax revenue and $200,000 in TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) revenue. So that'll be a lot of money."
Money talks, as they say, but there were occasional interruptions by people Lukowicz called friendly skeptics.
Some cried foul when Lukowicz wanted to put in modern windows and frames. He wanted to change the design of the front doors and reduce the number of rooms from 44 to 36 by essentially gutting most interior walls. He wanted things like modern plumbing, bathrooms in every room, electrical hookups – Wi-Fi, even.
"We were very concerned about the historic end of it," said Walter Hoeser, chairman of the planning commission. "(The National) is part of the logo of the city, you know. The hotel to us is like an anchor store in a big mall. It's very recognizable. So we had a couple of issues come before the planning commission – concerns about how it would look – but after hearing from contractors and suppliers of materials, we took care of those, no problem."
Hoeser's colleague, Kathryn Devlin, the commission's vice chairwoman, declined to be interviewed because her previous comments "caused a stir." All that City Planner Susan Peters would say is that, during the vetting process, factions developed between "purists" and "modernists."
But, as the mayor said of the local objections, "Those were just hiccups."
What helped grease the wheels of bureaucracy, it seems, was that whenever possible, Lukowicz went local. Local contractors. Local skilled workers. Local decorators. Local suppliers. Call it Stan's Stimulus Package.
How interwoven are Jackson and Lukowicz?
"A guy who rents from me in my shopping center sold me this carpet," he said, looking down at his black loafers. "Even if it cost us more money, we wanted to use local people whenever we could."
What's in it for ol' Trader Stan? It's twofold, touching on his sentimental and sensible sides.
"People probably walk in and think, 'Who'd spend all this dough in the middle of nowhere in a little jerk town,' " Lukowicz said. "I don't think anyone who graduated from college would've done this."
A consummate self-made man who boasts about having only a 10th-grade education, Lukowicz moved his wife, Doreen, and eight children to Jackson from Southern California in 1971 to escape the San Fernando Valley sprawl. He already was a pawnbroker and started to dabble in real estate. His first purchase: a brick building in nearby Drytown that was built for William Randolph Hearst Sr. in the 1850s. "Cost me $2,500."
The sentimentalist in Lukowicz drew him to saving the National.
"I came here in 1971 with $65,000, and the area's been very good to me," he said. "I've taken that money I came here with and pushed maybe $25 million more on my plate over the years. The area made me a wealthy man, so investing back in the community that made me wealthy is the right thing to do."
It's not all altruism, though. The move tapped into Lukowicz's sensible side.
"I own a lot of (Jackson) property, but I've had to cut rents," he said. "So I'd like to see the town (economy) improve, too."
Crew, the mayor, put it more bluntly.
"We get more TOT money and get more sales tax revenue" if the hotel succeeds, Crew said. "Stanley's view is if the National brings people to town, his return will be to raise his rents, which at the same time will be more sales tax for the city, kind of a snowball rolling downhill."
It does not strain the metaphor, however, to say that right now Lukowicz and sons are seeing a financial avalanche because, as Stan Jr. said, the hotel opened too late last summer to take full advantage of the tourist season. This spring and summer will be the first real test of its popularity and financial viability.
Other Main Street business owners are cautiously optimistic. Lenny Hendricks, owner of Treasures Mercantile, said, "Stan did a nice job and everything, but some thought they'd see an initial (economic) increase. I think it's going to take time. It's a gamble, but anything's better than watching it be dilapidated."
Lukowicz has the steely nerves of a riverboat gambler, which has served him well in previous ventures. They don't call him Trader Stan for nothing. The man built an empire in the risky pawnshop game, taking others' misfortune and turning it into his gain. It's not a career for the faint of heart.
"In our business, bad news isn't bad news, you know what I mean?" he said. "I remember the (first) Trader Stan's. It was in (the) Skid Row section of Pasadena, terrible part of town. The sign out front had a red heart on it. The slogan: 'The working man's friend.' All kinds of funny sayings. I guess I've come full circle with Trader Stan's (in Jackson). My sons run the ones in Sacramento (Capital City Loans and Jewelry, started in 1992 and employing 75). They let me fool around with the one here."
Lukowicz, who resides in Sacramento, has started spending more time in Jackson because of his work with the National and his real estate holdings with longtime partner Mike Spinetti.
Where does he stay?
He stretched out his arms and flashed a smile as bright as the gold medallion nestled into his graying chest hair.
"I've got two big rooms right here," he said. "I always tell people you should live in the biggest place you own, and this is my 28,500-square-foot home."
There was no scrimping, either.
"For my personal ego, I wanted a little more luxury than usual," he says of the National's accoutrements. "I don't know of any other hotels in Amador County that have heated marble floors in all the bathrooms.
"I tried to explain to the Historical Society and other people that we have to build a hotel people will come to. I mean, (we) didn't legally have to put in an elevator, but we spend 150,000 bucks putting in one because, if I'm going to (ask) $200 a night for a suite on the fourth floor, who'd want to schlep their stuff up?"
A vision becomes real
Lukowicz had the overall vision for the hotel – a mix of tradition and modern luxury – but he left to others decisions such as moving the bar away from the front doors, and adding a wine cellar next to the restaurant (Stanley's Steakhouse). General contractor Nick Seidler and wife Patty (a furniture restorer) played big roles, he said.
But Lukowicz's longtime friend, interior design consultant Angela Mastagni, was charged with preserving the past without coming off as musty or, worse, exuding a Disneyfied version of Gold Rush chintz.
"Everything I picked had today taste but old-time feel, but (didn't) go over-the-top with heavy drapes and dark walls," Mastagni said.
But she made use of century-old chandeliers and a lamp in the lobby that originally ran on kerosene and had to be wired for electricity. She lined the lobby ceiling with distressed copper, covered the downstairs walls with tastefully ornate silver wallpaper and painted the 36 rooms a muted greenish-gray.
She put a large oil painting of the original National, with horse-drawn carriages parked out front, on the stairwell heading down to the restaurant. The painting had been moldering for decades on the wall and was so damaged from decades of smoke and dust that, before it was restored, you could barely recognize the National's distinctive white facade.
"Stan doesn't do things like most people do," she said. "He didn't have an architect. He knew what he wanted, and I tried to give it to him."
In most cases, owner and designer's taste jelled – with one notable and audacious exception. It seems Trader Stan is a passionate collector of an artistic genre called "bar nudes." As its name implies, these are oil paintings of women lounging au naturel. They usually hang behind the counter of a certain style of gentlemen's bar.
Stan owns more than 100 bar nudes, including two rescued from the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas before it was razed in 1993. He told Mastagni he wanted them displayed in the National.
The result is a private dining room adjacent to the main restaurant in the basement, resplendent in red and brimming with bare bums.
"He loves it, just loves it," Mastagni said. "Keep in mind, I've know Stan for 30 years. My take is, it's his $4 million, and if Stan wants nude pictures all over his room, he gets to do it."
THE NATIONAL HOTEL
2 Water St., Jackson
Phone: (209) 223-0500
Rates: Suites: $295-$350; Honeymoon Suite: $325-$350; Rooms: $200-$275.
Amenities: Wi-Fi, light breakfast, flat-screen TVs. In some rooms: Jacuzzis, fireplaces, balconies. Free early-evening wine or beer with appetizers.
Restaurants/bars: Stanley's Steakhouse, The National Hotel Bar, National Deli.
History: Built in 1852, and rebuilt after a fire 11 years later. Thrived during Gold Rush. Counted author Mark Twain and bandit Black Bart as early guests. Presidents James Garfield and Herbert Hoover stayed there, as did many California governors as well as actor John Wayne. Before being bought by Stan Lukowicz, it had been owned since 1985 by Nancy Banducci and Bill Smith. But it had been closed for several years before Lukowicz's 2010 purchase.