Eureka: A destination with plenty of Victorian buildings

The Carson Mansion, anchoring the corner of Second and M streets in Eureka, is not open to the public, but is said to be one of the most photographed Victorian houses in the state. Legend has it lumber magnate William Carson used to sit in the tower and look down upon his toiling workers.
The Carson Mansion, anchoring the corner of Second and M streets in Eureka, is not open to the public, but is said to be one of the most photographed Victorian houses in the state. Legend has it lumber magnate William Carson used to sit in the tower and look down upon his toiling workers.

Overlook, for a moment, that a hot dog joint now occupies the ground floor. Better, in fact, not to get a first look at the lovingly restored, meticulously detailed Vance Hotel building close up, lest it lose its luster and historic sweep.

Keep the illusion of sepia-toned Victorian times alive by walking across Second Street, where it converges with G Street in a brick crosswalk in the heart of Old Town Eureka. From there, you can’t tell that a dermatology clinic resides upstairs and, more pungently, that today’s special at Wolf Dawg, at street level, is a heart-bypass-inducing all beef frank with mac & cheese, chili and Fritos.

No, Ray Hillman prefers to tell the story of the Vance from a broader perspective. He wants to have you take in a wider view, one that casts this handsome redwood four-story structure that spans a half-block as the emblem of the revival of Eureka, the former lumber and seaport hub. So you let him take you by the sleeve and narrate a tale far beyond what’s on the brass plaque out front.

“I can’t imagine Old Town without this building,” said the author, historian, retired museum curator and tour guide. “It would’ve been tragic if it were gone. You’re looking at one of the three largest all-wood-framed buildings on the West Coast. The others are the Hotel Del Coronado (in San Diego) and a blimp hangar near Tillamook, Ore.”

Still not impressed? Still itching to move on to see the Carson Mansion, that aristocratic beauty with jutting towers and turrets, located a half-mile north on Second? That’s the star attraction on every tourist’s check list, after all, one of the most photographed Victorian structures in the state. But be patient and hear Hillman out. The erstwhile Vance Hotel building, once a dowager down on her luck before a makeover of epic proportions, arguably is the cornerstone of Old Town Eureka’s national historic district, which features 200 restored 19th and early 20th century buildings over 350 acres.

“John Vance (lumber baron) built it in 1872, and it originally was two stories with an octagonal cupola on top,” he said. “It’s Second Empire (Napoleonic architecture). Now, it’s four stories, all wood-framed. Those aren’t brick or stone walls there. It looks like it, but it’s not. They actually disguised the fact it was made out of this beautiful redwood, because stone was popular in the day.”

Hillman pointed a gnarled index finger upward.

“Notice, on the second floor, the redwood siding has vertical and horizontal grooves. That’s to look like rows of dressed stone rocks. Back in 1870s, those walls were painted gray, not green like now, and the vertical and horizontal grooves were white to look like mortar joints. Look at the keystone arch. That keystone is made out of big blocks of redwood but for all the world it looks like something made out of stone.”

He paused, dramatically, to let the information sink in. Hillman, 72, lives to bring history alive. He was curator at Eureka’s Clarke Historical Museum and, years ago, the Haggin Museum in Stockton, and now in retirement leads architectural and Victorian home tours. He dresses the part, too, not in Victorian rags, but instead a rather official-looking outfit featuring a blue Navy ensign’s coat, a hat from a former Delta Airlines pilot picked up at an estate sale, and a 1929 chauffeur’s badge he found in Stockton 40 years ago.

Far from merely reciting dates and listing building styles, Hillman weaves a narrative, replete with anecdotes as colorful as the 1976 bicentennial tie he sported. He spent a good 20 minutes regaling his visitor with tales of the Vance and his neighbor across the street, the Oberon Cafe and Saloon. But first, he needed to finish telling about the revival the Vance and how it buoyed Old Town’s stature.

“When I first came up here (1986), the hotel was vacant except three permanent guests,” Hillman said. “The owner (Sam Stenson) was going to turn it into senior center, but the building was getting so weathered it was a real eyesore. The city told him to paint the building. He kind of resented having them tell him what to do, so he painted it purple. It stood vacant all through the 1990s. It could’ve been burned down.

“Then, the preservationists came and stenciled all the boarded-up windows, saying, ‘Save the Vance, Save the Vance.’ Then, here comes (Eureka’s) renaissance man, (builder) Kurt Kramer, with the Arkley Family, to buy (the Vance) at a tax sale. They put in a couple million, easy, to make it what it is today. Everyone’s just delighted.”

In no small part because of the efforts of civic-minded developers nudged into action by ardent preservationists such as the Eureka Heritage Society, Eureka has transformed much of its downtown from economically depressed blocks of crumbling structures to a tourist draw. According to Visit California, the state’s tourism office, Humboldt County has finished off a record year for tourism, generating $6.4 million in sales and occupancy taxes.

Much of that comes from Eureka – or, more pointedly, from tourists repairing to Eureka and its neighbor, Arcata, to look around after binging on communing with the Big Trees in the county’s national and state parks. And, when they find themselves in Eureka, they are likely to emit an exclamation similar to the city’s name when they see the charm of the downtown architecture and the increasingly trendy art galleries, restaurants and boutiques therein.

Jenni Lynn, a tourist escape the Calgary winters, came to town to visit friend Nick Wester and was pleasantly surprised by what she saw. Not just that the temperature was 65 degrees in mid-November as she walked the boardwalk by the bay in a T-shirt, but by the things to do.

“The other day (Wester) took me to the visitors center, and it’s not what you think,” she said. “It’s really awesome. They serve amazing local beers and fresh oysters. Yes, at the visitors center. They’ve got iPads to look up tours and stuff. I suggest the macadamia nut porter (craft beer). Fantastic.”

Drop in to the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center, kitty-corner to the Vance, and you can get a glimpse, in microcosm, of Eureka’s offerings. It’s not the official tourist office for the city or the county – that’s a short drive away – but it sells local coffee, beer and wine, shucks oysters for you fresh from the bay, at a bar made from reclaimed redwood and under track lighting built into a fallen redwood trunk. The north half of the building, which has chipped off the stucco from previous incarnations to expose the original brick facade, sells crafts from local artisans and provides information on tours ranging from kayaking to oyster farming to Hillman’s architecture walkabout.

“The three owners thought it’d be cool to combine a visitors center with a tasting room, since there’s so many people in Humboldt that make goods that it’s a good way to (display) them,” said Shelley Wells, a worker. “We’re promoting the city and giving people a great place to come. We get a lot of tourists, but come here at night – locals.”

Locals and visitors alike are drawn to Arts Alive!, a monthly street festival the first Saturday of each month, much like Sacramento’s Second Saturday.

“Yes, except, it’s much bigger, because we’ve been told we have more artists per capita here than in any other county in California,” said Joan Rosko, director of the Sewell Gallery of Fine Arts on F Street. “I’ve been here 10 years, and it was already thriving when I arrived. What we want people, outside the Redwood Curtain, to know is that we are a thriving arts community. That’s our claim to fame.”

Hillman, for his part, doesn’t begrudge the artists their lofty cultural status. But, to his mind, as well as to the waves of visitors pointing cameras at the Victorian buildings, nothing defines Eureka like its structures, its sturdy civic spine.

“We have more Victorians per capita than any other city in California except San Francisco,” said Hillman, good naturedly aping the artists’ “per capita” boast. “San Francisco has one up on us for ‘The Painted Ladies,’ but we tend to be more authentic here. See, back in the Victorian era, if you’d painted your house six colors, they would’ve thought you were out of your mind.

“Why Eureka? Well, unlike the rest of California, which is busy with the bulldozer, tearing down the smaller to build the taller, Humboldt County and its older communities pretty much held on to a lot of what they had,” he said.

Was it forward thinking preservation and regulations?

Hillman doffed his captain’s cap, ran a hand through his thinning hair and smiled.

“Mostly neglect and a poor economy,” he said. “Old-timers have told me they couldn’t afford to tear down the old buildings, the economy being bad after the lumber industry declined (the the 1950s and ’60s). Plus, these buildings are made mostly out of redwood, which is resistant to neglect, dry rot, termites. Indestructible. Redwood is the saving grace for our architecture.”

That’s not to say the city itself was so pristine.

“This was an awful skid row here in the ’60s,” he said. “I came here as a tourist in 1971, and it was pretty rough. Had been for years. In the ’70s, the city got some HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) funds to upgrade the infrastructure. That started it, a high tide of federal money. But then people started buying buildings and redoing them, not knocking them down. Not just (developers), either. Four school teachers saved one historic building.”

What makes Eureka charming is that it remains a bit rough around the edges; it’s hardly a complete gentrification. This is no Victorian theme park. Vacant lots along the water front attest to the continued economic challenges. Empty retail space is ample. Restaurants come and go with dizzying rapidity. This town will never be mistaken for a picturesque enclave like Mendocino or den of urban sophistication like the Bay Area and environs.

As he stood on the corner of Second and F streets, in the shadow of a brick-lined gazebo, Hillman did a half turn and waved his arms to make a point.

“First Street and Second Street were the playground for the loggers, fishermen, sailors, railroad men and the Indians,” he said. “On a Saturday night, this was a wild place. The trains would come in from the woods and they’d had just paid their men. Banks stayed open late so they could cash their checks, then it was off to the bars, bordellos, the gambling halls and finding someone on the street you had to settle a score with. There were 22 houses of ill repute in operation within three blocks.”

A head nod to the left.

“Right across the street (next to Queen Anne-styled building housing the Many Hands Gallery) upstairs, that was the Cairo (bordello),” he added. “They gave them all exotic names. Old timers’ girls would hang their legs out of the windows, New Orleans-style. No proper woman would be seen unescorted on Second Street.”

With that, Hillman proceeded on a three-block, three-hour lap that was a prelude to the Hotel Vance and the promised finale, Carson Mansion. He stopped at seemingly every other building to note its lineage and its architectural style.

Here’s the Oddfellows Hall on Second and F, a curious mix of Italianate and French Second Empire, but most noted, at least by Hillman, for its mansard roof and Ionic and Corinthian column. … Now we come to Second and E and C.W. Long Building, whose decorative Italianate cast-iron storefront prompted Hillman to kneel and run a hand along the columns. … Onward to the Eagle House Victorian Inn on Second and C, 126 years old and still operating as a hotel after its current owner restored and remodeled the interior (“It was a rambling wreck in the ‘70s,” Hillman said) but kept what he said is the best preserved 19th century barroom in the city. ... Over to Third and F to catch a glimpse of the Russ Building, an 1883 Queen Anne commercial establishment whose upstairs was used as a men’s club, precursor to the modern-day Ingomar Club at the Carson Mansion …

When Hillman got to 227 F St., he reached into his pocket and jangled a set of keys. He was in front of the Carson Block, a building lumber magnate William Carson constructed in 1892 during a recession that hit the milling industry. The facade is one of Eureka’s few examples of Sullivanesque architecture, named for William Sullivan who made use of terra cotta ornamentation on masonry walls. Hillman pointed to squares of chipped-away stucco, where the original rutilant terra cotta remains preserved, if a bit riddled with cracks.

“That’s not even the best part,” Hillman said.

He unlocked a side door, and climbed several grand, golden oak staircase brought in from Indiana, explaining that the building now is owned by a consortium of California Indian tribes, which is redoing the inside as well. With a certain conspiratorial gleam in his eye, Hillman reached another door and found the right key.

“Flick the light switch, please,” he ordered.

There, covering a wide expanse of nearly the entire third floor is what remains of the Ingomar Theatre, an opera house Carson had built to bring some culture to the rabble-rousing populace. In its day – closed in 1912, alas – it seated 1,400 and was named the Ingomar because “Ingomar the Barbarian” was Carson’s favorite work. The place has been gutted, all that remains are faint outlines of the proscenium arch and wainscoting.

Eureka’s pretense of high culture in that era extended back on Second Street to the Oberon Cafe and Saloon, an elegant Classical Revival structure, which in the early 1900s featured lush tapestries and landscape paintings, a stark contrast to the rough-and-tumble nearby watering holes. When Hillman completed the loop and returned to the Vance, he pointed a cross the street to the Oberon, so named after Carl Maria von Weber’s opera.

“See how close it was,” he said. “Remember what I said about Jack London. Happened right there.”

That, actually, was a reprise of Hillman’s first anecdote of the day, a doozy.

“They wanted to draw the well-heeled crowd from the old Vance, where all big oil and lumber companies did business,” he said. “… But in 1910, Jack London was attracted here because it was seedy, rowdy and had a lot of characters. Now, Jack struck up a conversation with one of the Murphy boys (Stanwood), whose family owned Pacific Lumber Co. in Scotia. So here’s Jack bestowing the virtues of socialism to none other than a Murphy boy. I don’t know who took a poke at who first, but they slugged it out in that elegant barroom for about an hour. It was declared a draw. That was the last they saw of Jack London in Eureka.”

Doubtful, then, that London ever stepped foot inside the Carson Mansion up the road on Second and M streets. More than a decade in the making, the mansion is Victorian architecture writ large – large and imposing. Story goes that William Carson used to sit in the tower in the center of the 16,000-square-foot manse made constructed in a mishmash of Victorian styles (Eastlake, Italianate, Queen Anne and Stick) and look down upon his workers toiling away at the lumber headquarters.

When Carson’s family divested itself of its Eureka holdings in 1950, it sold the mansion to a private group of businessmen for a club, which recently allowed women as members. The public isn’t allowed inside the building that tourist brochures claim is the most photographed Victorian in the U.S. No, not even Hillman has gained entrance, though he doesn’t seem too terribly disappointed.

“There are hundreds of other (Victorian) structures in Eureka,” he said, “not bad for what people think is a pretty obscure part of California.”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.