Hostel territory

Sacramento’s hostel, perhaps the country’s best, is being displaced by the new City Hall

Sacramento International Hostel employees such as Jolene Kitchens say first-time visitors are usually surprised by the opulence of the 110-year-old Victorian mansion.

Sacramento International Hostel employees such as Jolene Kitchens say first-time visitors are usually surprised by the opulence of the 110-year-old Victorian mansion.

Photo By Larry Dalton

When weary, low-budget travelers enter Sacramento’s only hostel, most must surely assume they’re at the wrong place.

Such beautifully restored Victorian mansions are usually yuppie-owned bed-and-breakfast inns, or homes to the rich and powerful, inaccessible to those of lesser means. The ornate oak and mahogany interior, lavish sitting rooms and the old-world spiral staircase just don’t say “hostel.”

It’s a common impression. The mostly young staff at the Sacramento International Hostel are used to seeing this look of obvious confusion on the faces of their first-time guests.

“People always ask if they’re in the right place when they first walk in,” says Jennifer Olson from her post behind the check-in counter. “Our hostel isn’t like most others.”

This is something of an understatement. Originally built in 1891, the building that serves as the hostel has undergone a myriad of changes, both in function and location. Personal residence, funeral home, private men’s club and later a very popular venue for special events, the mansion has worn many hats.

Yet while the building’s role as a hostel seems to be solidified well into the future, its connection to the ground on which it sits isn’t. To make room for the new Sacramento City Hall project, the city will pay more than $2 million to move the hostel across the street and down the block.

The hostel management originally fought the city’s effort to move the building back to its original spot at 10th and H streets. But with the promise of a long-term lease on the new spot, and their existing lease on the city-owned property nearing expiration, it was an offer hostel operators couldn’t refuse.

Rich history
First constructed as a family home by prominent Sacramento businessman Llewellyn Williams, the mansion was considered one of the finest and most upscale residences in the area. Designed by the same architectural team that created both the Leland Stanford and Crocker mansions, it was then, as now, considered one of the best examples of 19th-century, Italianate-Stick style architecture to be found anywhere.

Oddly enough, this incredible building spent from 1907 to 1972 as a funeral home. In 1972, then-owner Mory Holmes retired from the mortuary business and leased the site to another group of people in black suits, a private men’s group called the University Club. A collection of Sacramento’s prominent men—mostly judges, legislators and attorneys—the guys-only group lasted at the mansion until 1978.

The phase that came after is how many people now remember the building. Re-opened as Mory’s Place, it became a popular venue for a variety of social events, from proms to weddings. Quite a few locals—including this writer—danced their first wedded dance with their new spouse on these immaculate wooden floors.

The building was finally sold off in 1988 and then re-opened again in 1995 as the Sacramento International Hostel. Through it all, the building itself has even been physically moved twice, eventually ending up at its current home on city property at Ninth and H, where it began its new life as a hostel.

Cheap beds
For those unfamiliar with the concept, hostels can be a strange experience. Essentially a network of inexpensive lodgings for travelers, hostels are a combination of a hotel and your aunt’s house in Des Moines. You can stay there cheap, but there are a lot of conditions you won’t find at the local Hyatt Regency.

For example, guests do their own laundry, cook their own meals, clean up after themselves and are responsible for taking on some chores around the building. While there are private rooms available at most facilities at extra cost, the more common arrangement is dormitory style, with several bunks to a room. Everything, including bathroom facilities, is communal.

This “Bohemian” shared experience can be anything from exhilarating to annoying, often at the same time; but a major positive side to the hostel atmosphere is the opportunity to meet people from around the world. Some become fast friends, others are not seen again.

Diane Wheeler and Amanda Trigg came to the United States from New Zealand, ostensibly to see America and to possibly find a job. Trigg stayed in hostels in both San Diego and San Francisco before winding up here in Sacramento; Wheeler hit Los Angeles before also moving on to the Bay Area.

They reconnected in San Francisco before moving on to Sacramento, which was not an original destination for either of them. But, as is often the case with many global travelers, Sacramento’s hostel has become a surprisingly welcome stopover where people are duly impressed with what they see when they get inside the huge oak doors.

While the building falls right into line with every other Hostelling International facility in terms of amenities and services offered—including offering Internet access and movie rentals—that is where the similarities end. Rooms are huge compared to almost anywhere else in the network, and everything is done in grand style.

“We had heard from other travelers that this place is like a five-star hotel,” visitor Dianne Wheeler says while relaxing on a cozy couch in one of the sitting rooms adjacent to the lobby. A short jaunt from San Francisco proved the advice she received about Sacramento’s hostel was accurate.

“We came here on a day trip and peered through the window at the polished wood floors and the chandeliers and knew this was special,” she says. She has a friendly demeanor, quick to grin and seemingly very happy to tell her tale. “Compared to all the other hostels, this place is pretty amazing.”

Rave reviews
Cleanliness is a big reason Sacramento’s hostel would get the seal of approval from mom. The site is immaculate everywhere you look. Floors are clean, the furniture dusted, and the very large kitchen is spotless. Rooms are kept in perfect order at all times, with great care given to making sure guests follow the rules banning alcohol and cigarettes from the building.

“This is simply the best hostel building ever,” Tim Yen, a 28-year-old native of Australia who has spent most of his time recently bopping all over the world, says over a game of ping-pong in the large basement game room. “I’ve stayed in every kind of place, including castles, but this is the best kept and the most beautiful so far.”

Sadly, not all hostels are quite so well kept, nor are they in areas of town as picturesque as downtown Sacramento. Hostelling time can always be memorable, but not always for the right reasons.

“I stayed at a place called Backpackers Paradise in Inglewood, “ Wheeler recalls. “It was nice, but we were advised not to leave the compound because the neighborhood surrounding it is so bad. Some girls there went out for a walk and were told by a police officer literally they needed to get back to the hostel because they just were not safe.”

Most situations are not that serious. Trigg says the more common difficulty is simple language barriers among guests and employees.

“Many hostels seem to hire employees who don’t speak English,” says Trigg. “You can’t understand them and they can’t understand you. This makes it a bit hard to get on at times.”

That’s not a problem in Sacramento. Olson, herself only recently returned from a two-year stint traveling around the world, runs the counter with a friendliness not normally seen even at fancy hotels. Like most of the people who work here, she is extremely enthusiastic about what she does.

“I absolutely adore my job,” she explains when asked why she is here. “After I came back to the States, I was afraid I would lose my connection to people. But now, I am in a position to help these people as they travel. After staying in hostels in various places, I know how helpful it was to speak to people who worked there to get information about the city, and to be made to feel comfortable about where you are. Being here, now I think I am able to help travelers because I understand what travelers need to know.”

Anticipating the move
Despite the impending move, and the at least eight months of closure such a move would cost the hostel and its employees, the mood is decidedly upbeat around the mansion. Olson is already at her post by 7:30 a.m., greeting guests with her ever-present smile. She makes small talk with them as they make their way to the desk to turn in towels or bedding and to get their chore assignments before they leave for the day.

“One of the best parts of this job,” she says, “is seeing the people who stop here for just a break in their travel schedule, and then they see how beautiful our hostel is and they decide to stay for a few more days.”

Rebecca Lang makes her way down the nearby stairs. She has managed the hostel since it opened, and her love and pride in the site is apparent in every word she speaks. Still, the thought of moving the grand old building again is an obvious sore subject.

“For this grand mansion to be moved again is just wrong,” she declares. Lang is a small woman, with short graying hair and round glasses. Her voice is strong with conviction, her tone firm. She became involved with saving the mansion more than 10 years ago when it was across the street. After enduring the last move, she is in no mood to go through it again, nor is she interested in the reasons why the move may happen.

“The bottom line is that the city should secure the land under this building as well as the mansion itself,” she says flatly.

Wayne McNally, another guest who is also a local, agrees.

“What is the point of moving this place again?” he asks. “Just from the angle of civic pride it shouldn’t be done. I would really like to have someone be able to explain why there should be such a disruption of services to the community. This building should stay right where it is at.”

That may be a long shot. They say you can’t fight city hall, and this time is not likely to be different, especially given the fact that the Sacramento City Council has chosen a design for the new City Hall building and that project is moving forward. It will cover the entire city block, cradled behind Sacramento’s historic City Hall building.

Still, regardless of whether it stays or goes, there is no doubt the Sacramento International Hostel will continue to draw attention, no matter where it’s located.