Monday, Jan. 29, 2007 | The high-ceilinged, train-station-style lobby is one cue that the Golden West Hotel is unique among the other tenants, mostly trendy shops and cosmopolitan eateries, on the 4th Avenue edge of the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego. High-backed wooden chairs flank the hotel’s entranceway, leading to the information desk where uniformed attendants offer information from a slot in a window.
In nearly a century of existence, the hotel has gathered some history, both remembered and tangible. The lobby still holds the old switchboard once used to alert guests of visitors or telephone calls, a couple dozen solid wooden chairs and writing tables made by the famed Stickley furniture designers, and other vestiges of decades gone by. Photographs framed on the wall depict the block at the time of the hotel’s construction in 1913. A wooden crane lifts beams in one of them. Today, cranes seem like permanent fixtures on San Diego’s skyline, but the hotel construction project was one of the first ever to use that technology, says Shearn Platt, the hotel’s owner.
Developer heavyweight John Spreckels built the Golden West to house the construction workers he employed for his various projects around San Diego in the early part of the 20th century. Rates at the former “Workingman’s Hotel” have increased from 50 cents per night, but the handful of owners in almost a century have maintained the hotel’s repute as an inexpensive place to live, a symbolic and practical gesture to the working-class people who built the city. Now, its tenants, many of whom are retired and living on Social Security, pay from about $40 a night to $145 a week to about $500 a month to live there. It’s a bastion of affordable shelter in downtown San Diego, where new condos and revamped retailers have attracted a new, hip, deeper-pocketed demographic to the area.
The owner since 1968, Platt has turned down persistent would-be buyers seeking to convert the single-resident occupancy hotel, considered part of Horton Plaza, into a boutique hotel for visitors to the city’s Gaslamp Quarter.
“We could’ve sold the place a thousand times,” Platt said. “But we resisted because we want to maintain a service. And where would these people go?”
The hotel runs near-full occupancy rates most of the time for its 324 rooms, Platt said — some are 8-by-11 feet, and a few are double that size. Most rooms hold a single bed, a yard-wide coat rack, a sink and a mirror, a phone and a cable for television. Shared bathrooms, for all guests but 20 who pay more for personal restrooms, are down the hall — showers, tubs and toilets to be shared among members of the same gender. The rooms are made for sleeping, and that’s about it. “Socializing takes place someplace else,” Platt said.
The lobby often proves to be that someplace else. Fifteen wooden chairs — some rocking, some stationary — are aligned in a perfect grid facing a community television, where sports events usually draw a crowd, Platt said. In one corner, alongside a dozen coin-operated candy machines like the ones at the front door of a grocery store, a handful of residents sit on benches, smoke cigarettes and shoot the breeze.
“I’d rather they didn’t smoke anywhere,” Platt said. “But for these old people, it’s one of their few pleasures in life.”
Across the lobby, near a maid dressed in a pale green uniform mopping the tiled floor, Les Voorhies sat reading the newspaper one recent morning. He wore a yellow hat and a black-and-blue coat and white sneakers. His heavy grey eyebrows barely moved while he described the way the Golden West has changed since he first moved in, a half-century ago.
Born in Ohio, Voorhies grew up with dreams of one day owning a nightclub. He began an eight-year stint with the Navy when he was 17, then moved to San Diego, where he “loafed around” and worked odd jobs such as selling popcorn and peanuts at carnivals.
He moved into the Golden West a few years later, when he was 27 or 28, paying about $8 a week, he recalls. Soon after, he got a job there as a janitor and de facto security guard. His duties included rousing drunks from wee-hours naps on the hotel lobby’s couches. The neighborhood at 4th Avenue and G Street had plenty of bars then, like it does today. But those bars were different.
“They were regular bars, hole-in-the-wall bars,” he said. Today’s bars are too showy, too bright, he said. And he preferred the card rooms, anyway.
His work ethic earned him a promotion to desk clerk, and when the manager fell ill with cancer, Voorhies started filling in. When Platt bought the Golden West in 1968, he asked Voorhies if he wanted to be the manager.
“I told him the truth,” he said, “that I gambled a little, drank a little — I wasn’t in any trouble or anything.” So Voorhies became the manager, and stayed in that role until his retirement. That was 13 years ago, and 78-year-old Voorhies still lives in the Golden West, bets on horses, and people-watches in the hotel lobby.
“There’s a lot of lonely people in here,” he said from his perch in the corner of a group of chairs. “A lot of ’em don’t get out much. They’re not harmful, they don’t say nothing.”
Voorhies and the other long-term residents of the hotel have noticed a change in the area since the Horton Plaza mall was built in the mid-1980s and condos have come into downtown, sometimes knocking down other hotels like these.
“I think the poor people are getting shoved out,” he said. “Even at the Ralphs and the Albertsons, the small guy like me won’t be able to afford the prices.”
But here, at the Golden West, Voorhies said low rents and a lack of hurdles to jump over for new tenants — they can pay just a night’s rent and a $5 key deposit upfront — make it a haven for low-income people. The dearth of affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying downtown has been scorned by advocates for the elderly and the working class. As low-wage downtown jobs in tourism, retail, government and other services have grown, the number of apartments within those workers’ reach has dwindled. And the gap only widens when they retire.
Platt, a real estate attorney by profession, said the shifts in downtown’s demographics haven’t changed the tenants who stay in the hotel, except perhaps the number of them.
“It keeps us busy,” he said of the winnowing effect new development has had on this type of housing downtown. “But our people haven’t changed significantly. They like the conditions. People stay here.”