Two Historic Hotels Resurrected These California Gold Rush Towns

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Two Historic Hotels Resurrected These California Gold Rush Towns

Stepping into Room 1 at the Holbrooke Hotel  is like stepping back in time. The full-size king suite is decked out with a ​​restored vintage settee and chairs, an original marble fireplace filled with decorative logs, polished hardwood floors, plush rugs and time period-fixtures like an old-fashioned rotary phone—and, in the bathroom, the original, meticulously restored clawfoot tub. Two pedestal sinks, gold fixtures, and a massive king bed bring the room into the 21st century in some ways, as does a massive outdoor veranda overlooking the quaint main street of Grass Valley, California. Though a lot of places like to claim this kind of time-traveling capability, the Holbrooke’s building actually dates back to 1862, so despite the recent remodel, you can feel the ghosts of the gold rush era rattling through its walls at night. 

Just a few miles away, in Nevada City, a sister hotel called the National Exchange has been similarly restored, and similarly laden with whispers of the past. While it’s rare to find this kind of Victorian-era architecture preserved in California, it’s by no means impossible. Plenty of early west coast buildings from the 1850s and ‘60s were simply destroyed and rebuilt as more modern construction techniques became available, but just outside of Sacramento, this pair of historic hotels have been saved from the brink of destruction, and lovingly restored by the Santa Barbara-based company Acme Hospitality

In the process, these hotels have helped turn the former gold rush towns where they’re based into destinations for those looking to get out of Sacramento or San Francisco for the weekend, or as bucolic retreats for more ambitious SoCal road trippers. While Grass Valley and Nevada City might not be on the contemporary traveler’s docket for California hot spots, during the 1860s these towns weren’t just booming, they were the center of the action. As plenty of eager immigrants headed west to try their luck in the mines, and the mine owners and other wealthier residents needed infrastructure, a bank, and a place to stay, hotels in the respective towns sprang up to suit the needs of each group. 

First came the National Exchange Hotel, a sprawling building that has been restored in a “floor-to-rafters” renovation over the past three years. The original structure dates back to 1856 and the rooms have been somewhat modified to include their own bathroom, the modern plumbing that requires, and electricity. Given those confines, the National Exchange now offers 38 guestrooms, each with a slightly different layout and furnishings, and many of them as large suites. As the name implies, this hotel offered both upscale lodging and a bank; it was also the local bar, telegraph office, stagecoach stop, and a post office, as well as a center of gravity for a town that was the most settled of the gold rush mining camps. 

National Exchange Hotel

National Exchange Hotel

Nearby, Grass Valley was slowly but surely becoming another hub, this one geared toward the blue collar workers and actual miners in the area. A few years later, the 28-room Holbrooke Hotel opened in 1862 to meet the needs of this slightly different but essential community in the area. Because of their geographic proximity and historic similarity, it made sense to partner the hotels together, in an effort to help tell the story of this overlooked area of Northern California, as well as give visitors not one but two locations to spend the night and enjoy good, strong drinks and world-class food. The entire ground floor of each hotel has been reworked to serve as a hub for the respective townships. 

At Holbrooke, the Golden Gate Saloon serves classic cocktails, a comprehensive wine and beer list, and Chef Zachary Arenholtz’s ambitious smoked meats, among other inventive dishes like smoked chicken wings, pozole, queso fundido, and a churro ice cream sandwich for dessert. Down in the basement, the weekends-only speakeasy, The Iron Door, is a great, boozy hang in a cellar space that was rumored to be the former brothel. About 10 minutes away, at the National Exchange, a restaurant called Lola Dining is the anchor of Nevada City’s dining scene. Chef Alan Gosker works in a warm, contemporary American milieu that nods to his own Irish heritage with dishes like a lamb shank risotto with peas, mint, and feta. Separately, the National Bar is the kind of watering hole that brings the whole community together.

Like the Holbrooke, the roomy suites at the National Exchange have been outfitted with period furniture, all sourced and selected by a design and decor team composed of Director of Design Anne L’Esperance, Doug Washington of Doug Washington Design, and Bri Ingram. This trio also credits “contributions from dozens of local artisans and craftspeople” to bring both local and vintage touches into each of the properties. Both hotels received historic distinctions and protections decades ago, as the Holbrooke was declared a California State Landmark in 1974, and the National Exchange was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Only in the last three years do these buildings live up to their status, though, and the balance between preservation and modernization is what sets them apart from both big box hotels and newer boutique properties.

If you are in the area for a few days, a few local attractions to scout are the leisurely Buttermilk Bend wildflower hike, located in the South Yuba River State Park, and a bevy of bookstores in Nevada City—Harmony Books and Main Street Antiques & Books—along with the local cheese shop, Dedrick’s Cheese. (It might be the middle of nowhere, but Dedrick’s carries La Tur, which makes it civilized in my book). Other local shops Kitkitdizzi and Fur Traders sell the kind of witchy tchotchkes and stylized western wear that would help an outsider immediately fit in, and both do so at price points that are more reasonable than you might expect in a vacation town.

If you’re flying into Sacramento, or driving up from there, make sure to stop at Pour Choice Auburn, a locally-owned coffee shop, cafe and tap room in Auburn, another historic town along the way. With a little help from their Michelin-starred chef friend and co-owner, Chef Chris Barnum, Jordan and Melinda Minyard have carved out a little slice of foodie paradise in a town that has little else to offer—but being the bright spot in a deserted area has its perks, and if you’re looking to break up the drive, this is the obvious place to fuel up. 

That’s the highbrow option, of course. The lowbrow option, which is better suited for leaving town, is to pop into the Squeeze Burger, a burger joint tucked into a nearby gas station kiosk, and get a cheese burger with a “cheese skirt”—a griddled ring of cheese surrounding the burger that makes this an even more decadent sendoff—plus some onion rings before heading home. When you’re up north, anything goes. And it might not be Victorian, but this regional fast food hit is a reminder that northern California is very much its own destination. Whether you think you know the area well or not, there’s always something more to explore.

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