Sac Historic House Profile: The Citizen Hotel

Authentic, influential, surprising, eclectic, and all-American. These are the five words that developers of the Citzen Hotel in Sacramento gave to designers Candra Scott & Anderson when they decided to transform the neglected Cal Western Life building into a 198-room, boutique hotel. They felt the words characterized the typical Sacramentan and they wanted the hotel to reflect that character and personify a “citizen” of the city.

The much loved Cal Western Life Bldg. (originally Cal State Life Insurance) was built around 1927 and designed by California’s first state architect George Sellon – who also designed the Cranston Geary house as well as San Quentin. Talk about a diverse portfolio! The building thrived as business offices for many years but had taken a turn for the worse in recent decades.

Cal State Life Building circa 1927, copyright SAMCC

During my recent stay, I ran into building co-owner, Kipp L. Blewett, in the lobby and I have to say, his sheer enthusiasm for the property and the Joie de Vivre run hotel made me want to ask if I could be a permanent resident… like Eloise at the Plaza. He told me that when they purchased the building, it was in serious disrepair and largely not up to code. “You would open up an [electrical] panel and literally a giant ball of wires would fall on you.”

Lucky for us fans of old architecture, a top priority in the renovation was to preserve the building’s distinctive architectural elements, including its mansard roof, soaring ceilings, grand center staircase, marble panels, and the 1920s era clock in the lobby.

The law-library themed check-in area is a nod to the former tenants of the building as many local law firms got their start at 926 J Street… the Diepenbrock firms, for example. This was, after all, the Wells Fargo building of its time.

Another major theme of the hotel centers on politics – that’s where the word “influential” comes in to play. There are political cartoons serving as artwork in the guest rooms, quotes from Truman in the elevator, and hair dryers are stored in a bag marked “hot air” – certainly a reference to politicos on both sides.

Kipp says the hotel doesn’t lean one way or the other on the political spectrum. “You can see we’ve got Jerry Brown right across from Ronald Regan…” he says with a grin, referring to the photos just inside the main entrance.

My deluxe guest room (#903) had a classic feel, both sophisticated and formal. Black furniture and painted doors were accented by unexpected bursts of color from the mustard yellow striped wallpaper to the tomato red paint on the vanity. The view was impressive, streching out to the Ziggurat on the river and I liked seeing the weather-beaten bricks of neighboring old buildings – a scene that reminded me of downtown San Francisco. My favorite part of the room was the bed. Oh boy it’s nice to sleep in a bed that doesn’t sag in the middle. It definitely made up for the fact that the bathtub was a bit on the small side.

The private, penthouse-guest only Big Four lounge on the top floor of the hotel is a little jewelbox of a room with a bird’s eye view of the city. The name refers, not to the railroad tycoons, but to the four buildings that used to be the tallest in Sacramento – the Capitol, the Cathedral, the Elks and the Cal Western. The four penthouse suites are named accordingly.

The night I was there, the clubby bar Scandal was closed but I loved the décor elements. For some reason I was really taken with the chairs. And when they say Scandal, we’re talking more like 1930s newspaper scandal sheet than anything really scandalous as the room is more old-fashioned gentlemens club than strip club. I opted for a drink at Grange, the hotel’s restaurant, which definitely feels more “sceney” than the rest of the hotel. Which makes sense since it was put together by a separate designer.

All in all, I feel really proud to have such a top drawer hotel in Sacramento that I can recommend to visiting friends and relatives.  Check out the photos – clearly I liked that loaner red umbrella!

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