My Time at the Palace Hotel
By John Mattingly
The winter of 1992 was so brutal in the San Luis Valley that I bought the Palace Hotel as a place to come where it was warm. I really liked the Hotel basement. My son and I had our private hibernaculum down there with a pair of old hospital beds, a poker table, and a black-and- white TV that got one channel. Water ran in a stone-lined trough along the north wall of the basement. We sometimes snuck out through the coal chute to get sandwiches from Danny at Mama D’s. And, my son had the only 25-cent pop machine in Salida, stationed in the Hotel’s north entry, so when we needed a ginger ale, we took a quarter from our war chest, and bought one from ourselves.
The boiler sounded like a herd of porpoises when delivering steam heat, but it warmed you to the bones. Lisa Star, who did a stellar job of managing the Hotel for me for a while, thought it humorous (perhaps weird is closer) when I told her to “plan on disaster” when managing the Palace. My admonition was based on prior experience with the wiring and plumbing, but did not exclude various concerns regarding the roof, vents, guttering, windows, boiler, or brick work.
Someone in need of random revenge had done most of the wiring in the building, such that switch legs were hot, and line-feeds were not. The attic still had steel wire wrapped in a kind of tar secured to posts, and the number of sub-panels and fuse boxes made it clear that the electrical work had not been done by one person, or company, working from a plan. There were jobbers in Salida who refused to do work in the Palace in the early 1990s, and for good reason.
It took me two years to figure out that the cold water was plumbed into the hot water in a concealed first floor chase such that there was no cold water in the building. People complained about that, which is kind of understandable. When I finally discovered the feedback loop, the gas bill came down by about 75%.
There were worrisome cracks everywhere, leaks here and there, and just looking at the windows, let alone trying to open them, made me shudder. But the residents served as a continuous distraction from dealing with the larger problems. Sarge lived on the second floor, first place on the right, through the double doors. Sarge and my son were buddies, trading coins, baseball cards, and War stories. Sarge preferred side pork, which he cooked in his underwear with the doors open, which was a real selling point for people coming from Denver to “spend a night in a room with Victorian charm” — a marketing idea we tried for a couple of weeks to see if we could stimulate the overnight business to augment the residential business.
Whenever I spoke with Sarge about closing his doors, or at least putting on his drawers, he reminded me of the guy who liked to go up on the roof to bleed his lizard, or the fellow who dressed out a deer on the third floor, plugging the drain system with the guts, or the bohos growing pot out the south windows, or the gentleman who stood naked in the southeast window facing the Vic, or the FIPs (Formerly Important People) from the railroad who refused to pay more than $25 a month for their apartment. Every time I sat down with Sarge to talk about amending his behavior, I ended up feeling he was the most normal person in the building, that I should consider myself lucky that he cooked his side pork with the doors wide open.
Todd Sigmier managed the Hotel for most of the time I owned it, and gave good weight toward starting a gallery in the main lobby. Obviously ahead of its time, the gallery effort had the virtue of causing us to remove a lot of the 1950s patina, such as the paneling that had been placed over elegant plaster, the acoustical tile hung over the ceiling, and various other period cover-ups. Todd did a great of job of holding the Palace together and lived in the south unit.
I sold the Palace to Liz and Bob I remember Liz always called it “the Hotel she’d always wanted.” For her, it was personal. Though a Southern woman, anyone who knows Liz knows she can whip her weight in wildcats. Bob had all the skills needed to keep the Hotel in one piece and improve it to the point where they sold to Fred Kline, who is the brother of my old high school buddy, Bill. Hats off to Fred and wife for all the work they’ve done. It’s a tricky building and the building regs are intimidating. I know that I would’ve had to do a lot more in the way of code compliance if Verle hadn’t liked to hunt antelope.
I remember when Pat Brooks came after me for putting up the front awnings without a permit, and Danny, then the mayor, spoke up for the awning as a positive addition to the town. Thanks, Danny. And thanks to Tom Bainbridge, who helped me a lot in the early going with his knowledge of the building, and trusted me to pay the mortgage. Tom and Pat are still good friends, and we get together about once a year to talk about the Palace, and a few of the world’s lesser problems.
Finally, owning the Palace gave me, in one time and in one building, all the instant and enduring landlord karma I needed for the rest of my life. Many things happened in the building that aren’t suitable for publication, or even repeating, but in the end, I would do it again.
When I bought the Palace, the owner, Driff, took me around to introduce me to all the residents, who, to a person, told me Driff was the worst landlord they’d ever had. Mainly because he wanted the rent paid on time. When I sold to Liz and Bob, I took them around to introduce them to the residents, and . . . no surprise, they all told Liz and Bob that I was the worst landlord to ever walk the face of the earth because I, too, expected the rent to be paid. Not one word of thanks for putting up those nice awnings.
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