Gaye LeBaron: Looking back at North Bay’s first ‘garden hotel’
The news is that the venerable Flamingo Hotel, two years into its seventh decade, is about to get a sleek makeover suitable for the elusive Wine Country image Santa Rosa has pursued for years. This revelation has burst bubbles of memories all over town.
The announcement indicates major changes. Certainly, a relocated entrance that brings people into the pool area has considerable merit. The lawns and gardens, with a shady side under some magnificent old trees from the time when the property was a plant nursery, will come out of hiding. And, hopefully, there will changes in the cavernous lobby that some suggest has a decidedly 1930s aspect.
The makeover, which sounds like much more than a facelift, won’t happen until next year. But Point Hospitality, a San Francisco hotel management company, is set to take over the daily operation from the Ehret family, father and son, who have owned the hotel since 1978.
Theirs is the longest ownership tenure for the “Big Bird,” as the citizenry called it in homage to the pink flamingo that revolves at the top of the sign. The Ehret era has served it well, coming after a couple of decades of decline. They added the busy Montecito Heights Health Club and welcomed wine tourists, including foreign guests, establishing relationships with European travel agencies in the ‘90s.
Health club members became accustomed to hearing several languages while using the hotel pool and often felt they were on a very short journey to France, Germany and even Russia.
Plans for the $20 million update hit the front page a couple of weeks ago. The news seemed to cry out for a look back on the hotel’s “ancient” history, which is a significant chapter in Santa Rosa’s 20th century narrative.
It was, as you may have guessed, Hugh Codding who came up with the plan for North Bay’s first “garden hotel.”
The 38-year-old developer was riding high in 1955. He had single-handedly engineered an annexation for his extensive (biggest-ever in the area) subdivision and shopping center on the city’s southeastern border and was seeking a new project.
Impressed by the explosion of real estate and commerce on a visit to Las Vegas, he planned a hotel near his Montgomery Village in the style of the ones he had seen along the Vegas Strip.
He bought a prosperous nursery across Highway 12 from longtime owners Ruth and Lloyd Cullen, who was a member of the county Board of Supervisors.
Expanding his vision with 22 acres of pasture and walnut orchard behind a roadside saloon called The Alibi, Codding lobbied the city fathers for an extension of Farmers Lane across the highway.
Hugh may not have known that much of his planned hotel site had been a “new town” more than a century earlier, a place called Franklin, which preceded but was soon eclipsed by Santa Rosa’s downstream plaza and rudimentary business district. He would have liked knowing that — and certainly would have found a way to use it in his promotions.
Codding described his chosen circular layout of rooms around a large and landscaped pool area, as “the exact design of the Lady Luck Hotel in Vegas.” But he named it for the first hotel on the Vegas Strip, opened a decade earlier by mobster Bugsy Siegel (who was murdered a year later). That Flamingo was iconic and Codding intended that his would be as well — without, of course, the mob connections.