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The latest plans to turn downtown Santa Rosa’s historic Empire Building into a boutique hotel have grown into an ambitious $18 million effort that would dramatically reshape most of the west side of Old Courthouse Square.

Drawings submitted recently to the city’s Design Review Board reveal that developer Hugh Futrell plans to renovate the interior of the 1908 Empire Building, add a third-story terrace café to the largely vacant building two doors down and create an attractive courtyard between them by demolishing the narrow building that stands there now.

“This hotel is a critical piece of the transformation of the city’s core, in conjunction with several other initiatives,” Futrell said, citing the reunification of Old Courthouse Square, his Museum on the Square project and other proposed downtown housing. “It also preserves, in an environmentally sensitive way, an iconic historic structure.”

The design of the 62-room hotel, called Old Courthouse Square Hotel, has evolved since Futrell acquired the historic building in July. He partnered the following month with Zach Berkowitz, owner of the largely vacant 19 Old Courthouse Square, and Greystone Hotels, a San Francisco-based boutique hotel management company,

At that time, Futrell said no decisions had been made about the role the narrow, nondescript building between the two would play. The building is owned by real estate agent and landlord David Poulsen.

Futrell is now in the process of buying that structure, which previously but briefly housed Seed to Leaf restaurant on the first floor, with an eye toward knocking it down to create a courtyard meant to draw visitors off the square.

The area would be called the Poulsen Courtyard, would contain an ornamental garden, and would serve as the primary entrance to the building for public access to the new third-story terrace café, Futrell said.

The idea for a rooftop terrace originated with Futrell brainstorming novel uses for the roof of the clock-tower-topped Empire Building. But once Berkowitz joined the project, it became clear his building was the best location for such a feature.

“Rooftop bars can be extremely successful, and we think in that location there will be considerable demand to go up there and have a glass of wine,” he said.

The proposed third story has enough room for two suites, a workout area and a café to serve the terrace, Futrell said.

The second story will feature 21 guest rooms, while the first story is slated for two restaurants and a coffee shop, Futrell said.

The courtyard between the buildings will serve several purposes, Futrell said. It allows the Empire Building to “stand more clearly as the iconic building that it is,” he said.

It also allows more natural light to reach the lower stories of the building, provides a place for first-floor conference rooms to open onto, and allows for the construction of a covered hallway connecting the two buildings, he said.

The design of the three-story building, by Healdsburg architect Jon Worden, pays homage to the Empire Building’s beaux-arts architecture without trying to mimic it.

“The architect felt, and we strongly agreed, that to do a design that pretended a building was old when it wasn’t is a bad approach,” Futrell said. “You want harmony, but not pretense.”

He noted that the partnership is in the process of getting the building, built after the 1906 earthquake leveled much of the city, recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

Because the Empire Building will need no significant exterior changes, the interior work will begin there first.

Futrell said he will be submitting building plans to the city soon for the 39 guest rooms, conference rooms, lobby and wine bar.

The three-story building will need approval by the Design Review Board, which is expected to consider the application early next year.

Futrell said he hopes the reunification effort, which is now expected to extend through March, goes smoothly so work can get underway on the full hotel soon thereafter.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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