A bygone Chico on display at Chico Museum’s Remember When: A Look at Chico’s Past
I had no idea until my recent visit. From 1918 until its demise in 1968, the grand six-story Hotel Oaks hotel stood downtown at the corner of West Second and Salem streets, on what is now the parking lot across from the Madison Bear Garden. Period postcards show the Hotel Oaks in comparison to Chico’s famous (now gone) Hooker Oak tree, reputedly the largest oak tree in the world in its day. At 105 feet tall, with a canopy that the advertisements contend could shelter “10,000 persons,” the Hooker Oak was still bigger than the Hotel Oaks, but the sizable hotel gave the big tree a pretty good run for its money.
Not only did the Oaks develop a reputation as a hotspot for locals to socialize, but famous Hollywood stars like Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper and Audie Murphy also frequented the lavish hotel, which boasted fancy ballrooms, a cosmopolitan restaurant and the only refrigerated cooling system north of Sacramento.
Photos of the old hotel (and a circa-1950s menu from its restaurant, the Acorn Room) can be perused, along with numerous other photographs and artifacts from Chico’s bygone days at the Chico Museum’s current exhibit, Remember When: A Look at Chico’s Past.
When asked about the circumstances of the Hotel Oaks being torn down, museum Curator Paul Russell explained that the upper two floors of the hotel, which were added later in its life, were becoming hazardous to the integrity of the building, and rather than spend the money to renovate, the owners found it more cost-effective simply to demolish it.
“That was before [Chico] had a Heritage Association,” he added, somewhat wistfully, that would very likely have fought to preserve it.
I am a sucker for old buildings. I love Old Sacramento—its beautiful preserved brick and wood buildings, wooden sidewalks and locomotives never fail to excite me. I love Virginia City, Nevada. And I really love Europe. Talk about old buildings! On a recent trip to Germany, I literally stood in awe, gazing at my favorite building in Heidelberg, the beautiful Hotel Zum Ritter, built in 1592, feeling a palpable sense of being in the presence of generations and generations of people and historical events.
The Europeans don’t normally bulldoze their history. Perhaps partly because bombs have taken out so many, Europe’s remaining old buildings are cherished over there.
So it was with a mixture of sadness and happy curiosity that I lingered for hours at the museum’s current exhibit showcasing memorabilia of buildings and businesses no longer with us, such as the Rotunda Bath and Amusement Company, a gigantic dome housing a swimming pool filled with water from Big Chico Creek and an upstairs skating rink, auditorium and ice house, which was located in the area across the street from the News & Review’s current office.
On Broadway near the Downtown Park Plaza from the 1920s until 1965 was Anna Moore’s Hattateria, “a place where style was never out of fashion,” according to the text accompanying the display of decorated hats and hat boxes. There one could purchase the “coordinating hats, accessories and complementary lingerie” that were “essential to a woman’s wardrobe.”
There was also the Denver Hotel at the junction of Ninth and Main streets, which housed the “Denver Rooms,” notorious as the place where prostitutes serviced their clients. And the list of what-once-was-there goes on: the modern-for-its-time, tree-surrounded Miller’s Market (U.S. Bank now stands in its place at Third and Broadway), Lee Pharmacy (downtown Starbuck’s), Garske’s Ice Cream (Duffy’s).
It is easy to imagine that there were “good old days” when viewing this exhibit. The glamour of the Hotel Oaks and the Hattateria; the large, inviting, indoor staircase with the shiny, curved brass banisters in the photograph of the former Oser’s Department Store (corner of Third and Main); the grandiose Rotunda bath house; and the turn-of-the century curative claims of the many products that the numerous local pharmacies carried ("McElree’s Wine of Cardui … The Most Astonishing Tonic for Women Known to Medical Science"!) all speak to a fascination with beauty, grandeur and radiant health.
What fashionable lady wouldn’t want to ascend the Cinderella-like staircase of Oser’s to shop like a princess? Or better yet dance the night away in the Oaks ballroom, spurred on by the amazing powers of McElree’s Wine of Cardui, in a stunning frock completely, correctly and enviably accessorized with net-and-flower-adorned hat and color-coordinated bag and shoes?
The Richardson Springs display area drew me in and kept me busy for a good long while. I had no idea that the present-day Christian retreat just north of town had such a colorful history. I read the labels and literature accompanying a well-preserved collection of green-glass bottles and jars from its world-famous medicinal waters ("Drink lots of it. It is good for you.") and “crazy water crystals.”
I sat down at length with a hands-on binder full of Springs history, and I examined the glass case’s contents of photographs, postcards and souvenirs-turned-artifacts (letter opener, ice pick, ashtray, etc.), all adorned with the Springs’ dated logo of a healthy-looking Native American man—"Chief Health Water"—sipping from a spring. Like the 65-foot metal version that used to stand near the resort’s entrance, the logo was supposed to attest to the waters’ healing powers.
I learned that in its heyday from the 1920s until 1942, the Richardson Mineral Springs Hotel and Resort was the place to go for Californians. People flocked to the Springs to partake of the sulphur waters from the Number One Spring, the Beauty Spring, the Radium Spring and the Montgomery Spring.
One photograph in particular, probably from the ‘20s, of a pretty flapper-style young woman posing next to the Beauty Spring was particularly precious.
Errol Flynn, who came to Chico in 1937 to film The Adventures of Robin Hood in Bidwell Park, stayed there with his wife Lili Damita, the “exotic French actress,” as a local paper put it at the time, which started the trend of Hollywood stars getting away to this area. A copy of Flynn’s hotel bill and a newspaper photo of him having just killed a local bobcat with a bow and arrow are on view.
I learned from Russell that Flynn’s archer stand-in actually killed the cat, but Flynn took credit—a little newspaper publicity stunt. Well, some things never change, but a lot of things have changed around this town. Go see for yourself.
There’s a Diamond Match Company display, too. Don’t even get me started!