Planning Commission gets first look at art deco makeover of the old downtown courthouse building into The Darling hotel


By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – A plan to transform a dilapidated courthouse into a luxury hotel in downtown Visalia passed its first eye test. 

The Visalia Planning Commission approved the conditional use permit for conversion of the historic art deco building into a 34-room hotel called The Darling at its June 11 meeting. Commissioners also got the first peak at what the exterior of the hotel may look. As part of the permit, Matt Ainley, lead developer of Courthouse Square Ventures, included three renderings of different facades and signage. Signs include lettering mounted flat near to top of the hotel, a Hollywood-style sign with letters individually mounted to the east side, and a marquee sign just above the main entrance.  

The signs are only conceptual and will have to be approved separately by the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee before final approval by the Planning Commission at a later date. 

“I’ve seen this building empty for 10-12 years and I’m excited to see something in there and that will bring a lot of character to downtown Visalia,” said Commission Chair Brett Taylor. “It’s going to be a landmark for a long time.”

Rendering of The Darling, a 34-room hotel that will transform the art deco courthouse building in downtown Visalia. Submitted image.

Rendering of The Darling, a 34-room hotel that will transform the art deco courthouse building in downtown Visalia. Submitted image.

The project plans to tastefully restore the classic art deco architectural style of the four-story building to pay homage to its 1930s roots. A pool and bar would cover 1,800 square feet of the rooftop with the other half being dedicated for a bar and lounge. The 28 rooms would be luxury suites between 275 and 500 square feet on the second through fourth floors. In addition to a grand lobby, the  ground floor would feature a spa, wine cellar, two meeting rooms as well as 100-seat restaurant and lounge that will be open to the public.

The permit also established operating hours for the hotel and its amenities. The rooftop lounge will seat about 150 people and be open to the public from 4-11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday. Continental breakfasts for hotel guests only will be served from 6-10 a.m. with a future option to serve lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Acoustic music will be allowed when the lounge is open but any amplified music would have to come back for a separate conditional use permit to comply with the city’s noise ordinance.

Access to the hotel between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. will be limited to those with a key card. Only hotel guests will be able to use the fitness center.

The open lawn on the north side of the building will be converted into a ground level pool and patio surrounded by a hedge for privacy. The pool courtyard and garden courtyard will be open to the public from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

The only structural changes would happen inside the building and primarily include a secondary stairwell on the east side of the building for fire safety. A 7-foot wrought iron fence will be built along the perimeter of the property and a smaller wrought iron fence will enclose the rooftop pool and lounge. 

The Tulare County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the sale of the vacant four-story building on Court Street to Elderwood Capital LLC, a holding company for project developer Courthouse Square Ventures, at its Dec. 19 meeting. The sale also included a parking lot at the northeast corner of Court and Oak and an annex building that currently houses offices for the Tulare County Probation Department. Ainley said the single-story building could be a mixed-use project with retail or corporate office space or it could serve as a future hotel expansion, such as a conference space or event venue. He also presented renderings for the building to complement the hotel’s art deco architecture by adding large windows facing the street. 

The 82-year old building won’t be totally restored given its current state. The building’s main entrance and mezzanine-level restrooms do meet current ADA requirements, it contains hazardous materials such as lead-based paint and asbestos and may need structural renovation as it was built with poured-in-place concrete.

The four-story building was constructed in 1935 as an expansion of the original County Courthouse built in the 1880s. The 22,300 square foot modern structure is considered a gem of the Public Works Act of the New Deal with its “art deco façade and monument-like presence.” The building housed the County Board of Supervisors, Treasury, Auditor, Assessor and Purchasing departments until 1952 when it became the acting Courthouse after the original was damaged by an earthquake with an epicenter in Tehachapi.

When the current Courthouse was constructed in 1958, the building was used for a variety of purposes but has been vacant since 2008.

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