A large, neon hotel sign flashed above Third and Fourth Street. Its ‘20s-styled lettering and bright blue and pink colors stood tall above the neighboring buildings, proclaiming to its guests and passersby that the Dolly Varden Hotel had a bathtub in every room.
“At the time it was built, a bath in every room was special, that was why the sign was so big because it was unique and special,” Karen Clements, head of the awards jury of the non-profit education and advocacy group Long Beach Heritage, said. “So many of the owners in the past wanted to trash the sign and yet it speaks of the history of Long Beach that is still there in the environment.
Long Beach Heritage announced earlier this week that it will grant the Dolly Varden Hotel a preservation award on Feb. 26 at the 2015 Preservation Awards Benefit on the Queen Mary. Eight other historic structures will receive the same award, including the old Press-Telegram building just a couple of blocks down from the Varden.
Eight years ago, Charles Knowlton and Larry Black became business partners. Together they bought and rebuilt the old Dolly Varden Hotel, which was originally built in 1929 and fell into disarray after the Great Depression.
“Many of these old historic hotels have a lot of folklore with [it],” Knowlton said. “One of the stories is that Dolly Varden was a circus performer who loved to hoard jewels and she hoarded them in a hotel somewhere.”
The Varden has always had a history of provided to housing tenants or transients, in one form or another.
“My gut told me this could be something unique and special,” Black said, recalling the first time he walked into the worn-down walls of a forgotten gem. “I brought in Mr. Knowlton and someone else, and they said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ Because it was a disaster, and I said ‘Nope! We can make this work.'”
But first, they had to figure out what to do with the old tenants, including those who had leased monthly for several years.
“It was traumatic for them,” Black said. “They were asked to leave their homes no matter how small they are.”
Knowlton and Black were determined to not let their renovation plans for the Varden obstruct the tenants’ livelihood.
“If we couldn’t close our doors by the set date in January then so be it; no one is leaving this building without a place to go,” Black said, who had successfully housed the remaining guests.
The renovation process took eight months from when Knowlton and Black first closed their doors to reconstruct the 34-roomed, boutique hotel.
“It was a massive restoration,” Black said. He said he and Knowlton actually slept inside the unfinished hotel for several months during construction, overseeing it on a 24/7 watch. “We basically brought the insides out to redo it.”
After construction was finally finished, the new, European-style Varden opened its doors in 2008, welcoming its first night with one customer.
The original Dolly Varden Hotel open its doors 1929, but the famed Dolly Varden Sign was actually constructed years later in the early 1930s and has been painted and repaired by various owners for 80 years. In 1995, the sign earned its landmark status to go with the new formal recognition of its historic significance.
“As you might know,” said Black, “Long Beach was a navy town in the late 20’s and 30’s and a bath in every room was a big deal.” It was because of the lack of personal bathrooms in hotels that the Dolly Varden’s Hotel has cultural mert.
Now in 2014, with the help of Black, Knowlton and their team of specialists, the old neon sign has been restored to its original colors.
Since then, the Varden has been ranked the No. 1 hotel in Long Beach on Trip Advisor and has won several times on Traveler’s Choice, according to their respective websites.
“This is more of a lifestyle hotel,” Knowlton said. “We cater to the people who can appreciate the lifestyle you can experience in the hotel.”
“We celebrate the buildings in the environment, so the history will be preserved in it,” Clemens said, hinting to the organization’s common theme of promoting public knowledge. “We lost so many things that people have no clue to why people think its so important so we are trying to save we have left.”