Monday, November 21, 2016

Eclectic Art, Conversation, and History Converge at the Swan Levine House in Grass Valley

Swan Levine House in Grass Valley
I have fond memories of Thanksgivings spent visiting family in Grass Valley. The streets of this Northern California Gold Rush town is steeped in history, which comes alive each holiday season with its Cornish Christmas celebration. A tradition for nearly 50 years, Cornish Christmas started as a way to preserve Grass Valley’s Cornish heritage and holiday traditions. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving and running each Friday night through Christmas, the streets of downtown Grass Valley are filled with the sights and sounds of an old-fashioned Christmas: carolers dressed in Victorian garb singing from the steps of historic buildings, chestnuts roasting over an open fire, and all of downtown trimmed in twinkling lights and holiday splendor.

For my family’s part, we always went to Cornish Christmas the night after Thanksgiving. We’d bundle up—and despite some eye rolling and mutterings of “Corny Christmas” from certain family members—we all went: the aunts, the uncles, the nieces, and the grandparents. We’d buy traditional Cornish pasties and cups of Mexican hot chocolate and wander through the streets and the crisp night air. We’d hum along to the music and peruse the multitude of crafts and gifts made by local artisans. When my nieces were small, we would keep our eye out for Santa.

Deer sculptures in the front yard
Afterwards, walking back to the car, a grand Victorian home on Church Street would sometimes catch my eye. I noticed it at other times, too, when I was visiting Grass Valley for various holidays and events. The Victorian was painted cream with red, brown, and white trim and was among of the largest homes in town. It had a turret, an inviting porch, and a comical collection of deer sculptures in the front yard. One deer was painted with black and white splotches like a Holstein cow; another had a bike wheel for its hind leg.

I no longer have family in Grass Valley, and almost a decade had passed since I last visited the town, but I had the chance to return this fall and meet the owners of that eye-catching Victorian: the Swan Levine House.

In the mid-1970s, two printmaking artists from San Francisco were looking for a place to build a printmaking studio, show their work, and accommodate guests. Friends had told them about the old Jones Hospital in Grass Valley, so Howard and Peggy Levine drove up in their orange Volkswagen Bus to take a look. Sharing a passion for history and historical preservation, they saw potential in the shuttered hospital with an eclectic past.

The house had originally been built in 1867 by John and Catherine Fahey, who were partners in the Alison Ranch Mine. They sold it to William Campbell, a local merchant who made his fortune selling general merchandise mining equipment. After a damaging fire in 1895, Campbell remodeled the house to its current Queen Anne style. Following Campbell’s death, two doctors who were also brothers, Doctors Carl and John Jones, acquired the house in 1906 and turned it into a hospital named for their father, Dr. W.C. Jones.

The Surgery Room
Howard and Peggy purchased the house in 1974 and began the work of renovating it—taking up linoleum, sanding floors, repairing plaster, and painting walls—before opening to guests as the Swan Levine House.

The Suite
The former hospital surgery room was converted into a spacious, sunny guest room with enormous turret windows, bright fuchsia walls, white hexagon tile floors, white wicker antiques, a king-size bed, and cabinets filled with curiosities from the house. The private bath features the original surgical scrub sinks and a claw foot tub with a shower.

The original master bedroom of the house, called the Suite, is decorated in traditional Victorian style in soothing hues of pale blue and cream. Light streams in from the large turret windows surrounding an intimate seating area—perfect for curling up with a book. A separate sitting room features a beautiful antique-tiled fireplace trimmed with oak. The private bath offers an inviting claw foot tub with a shower.

The Green Suite
The Green Suite pays homage to the hospital colors of the period with pale green and yellow walls, an antique four poster bed, a comfy seating area with a pull-out sofa, and a large private bath with a claw foot tub and shower. The inn’s fourth room, the Apartment, was part of an addition the hospital built in the 1930s and it has a time capsule quality. The Apartment has kitchenette, a queen and two single beds, and is furnished with kitschy 1940s and 50s antiques and memorabilia.

All through the house, the rooms and halls are brimming with art and antiques that reflect Howard and Peggy’s humor and eclectic tastes. “We don’t do the Hilton look,” said Peggy as she gave me the tour.

In addition to renovating the former hospital into a guesthouse, Howard and Peggy also converted the home’s former carriage house into their printmaking studio. The studio is equipped with one litho press and three etching presses. They also have silk screens, tools for wood engraving, and plates for monotype and monoprint. The studio can be rented for $50 per day plus materials; instruction is available by arrangement.

Parlor and gallery of the Swan Levine House
The parlor of the Swan Levine House serves as a gallery for Howard and Peggy’s fine art prints spanning five decades. In addition to creating art and hosting guests, they also raised three children in the house. One son was a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. Another is a infographic journalist with the Sacramento Bee. Their daughter teaches high school in Sacramento.

Howard and Peggy’s involvement in the local community runs deep. Howard is the vice mayor of Grass Valley and teaches drawing and printmaking at Sierra College. Peggy is on the Board for the Center for the Arts and is active in the restoration of The North Star House, which was designed by Julia Morgan. Both have volunteered or served on the boards for a number of local fine and performing arts organizations.

Kitchen of the Swan Levine House
Chatting with them in their cheery kitchen with its rich, cobalt blue-painted cabinets, the conversation ranges from family to art to history to architecture. As innkeepers, this is what they enjoy most: talking with their guests. Each morning, Howard cooks breakfast over a vintage stove and guests gather to indulge in the conversation. Sometimes, Howard and Peggy find it difficult to shoo their guests out of the kitchen long enough to enjoy their breakfasts in the dining room.

Wrap-around porch at the Swan Levine House
Over the past 40 years of hosting guests, about a hundred former guests have since moved and made Grass Valley their home. With Howard and Peggy as their introduction to this historic, arts-infused town in the Sierra Foothills, it’s easy to understand why.

Swan Levine House
328 S Church Street
Grass Valley, CA 94945

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Exploring the Alpine Wonderland of Idyllwild and Two Rustic Inns along Strawberry Creek

Strawberry Creek in Idyllwild

While living in Big Bear Lake in my early 20s, I hiked nearly every trail crisscrossing Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains with my friend, Trish. At the time, she and her husband were fresh transplants from the East Coast and who had purchased a bed and breakfast in Big Bear. I had recently moved from the Midwest and was keen on exploring my new alpine home every chance I could. After her guests would check out on weekends, she and I would pick a trail and set off with her dogs through the pines and the fresh mountain air. We talked about everything on our hikes. When I moved away a few years later, our hikes and talks were the things I missed most.

We kept in touch over the years as we moved onto different cities, different jobs, and different phases in our lives. And then last spring, I found out I had the opportunity to return to Southern California and visit another mountain town: Idyllwild.

Inexplicably, neither Trish nor I had ever been to Idyllwild. It’s located south of Big Bear, in the San Jacinto Mountains, closer to Palm Springs, but still just two hours from either Los Angeles or San Diego. While living in Big Bear, Trish and I had both thought of Idyllwild as the more artsy, sophisticated distant cousin to Big Bear. Idyllwild had a summer music festival and a jazz festival. Big Bear had Oktoberfest.

When I told Trish I was headed to Idyllwild, she enthusiastically agreed to join me.

Leaving the traffic-choked I-10 freeway, I zipped up the winding mountain highway in my rental car, into the pines and clear blue skies. The landscape was at once familiar and different. Mountain ridgelines were covered in pines, but here they seemed closer, steeper, and more rugged than what I remembered from Big Bear. I arrived in the village of Idyllwild to find a charming collection of wood-shingled buildings housing art galleries, shops, and cafes. I immediately spotted Trish’s bright red Prius parked outside of an antique store.

We wandered through town, got our bearings and some coffee, and then headed to nearby Idyllwild County Park to hike. On the suggestion of a local, we pieced together a longer loop hike by combining several trails within the park. From the parking lot trailhead, we climbed steeply through wildflowers and blooming manzanita along Perimeter Trail to some incredible vistas of the granite rock-outcroppings rising above town. Climbing further up, past the nature center, we hiked along Summit Trail lined with large boulders. We eventually dropped back down along a shady creek and a meadow paralleling the campground. It was refreshing to be back in the mountains and rehashing life with a dear friend. We arrived back at the parking lot spent from the hike and seriously hungry.

Strawberry Creek Inn


Strawberry Creek Inn

I was staying the night at Strawberry Creek Inn near the village. We were greeted by Rodney Williams, who was an amiable host with a soft-spoken, low-key vibe. He gave us a quick tour of the inn and pointed out the trail along Strawberry Creek leading to the village, where we planned to have dinner at Ferro.

Garden at Strawberry Creek Inn
The inn’s main house—a large, wood-shingled cabin--was built as private residence in 1946. In the 1970s, the house was turned into a restaurant, and then opened as a bed and breakfast in the mid-1980s. Rodney and his partner Ian Scott purchased the B&B in 2004, fulfilling their dream of owning a B&B in a small town surrounded by nature.

The Country Gentleman
The rustic, charming inn includes five rooms in the main house, a row of four courtyard-facing rooms along the back, and a charming cottage overlooking the creek. Each of the courtyard rooms is decorated in a different theme, tastefully blending textures, colors, and other elements.

Hammock at Strawberry Creek Inn
The chicken coop
My room, the Country Gentleman, was a bit like sneaking into the cozy study of a well-educated, well-traveled grandfather. An antique Smith-Corona typewriter sat on table near the door. A framed papyrus painting from Egypt and large gilded mirror hung on the dark, wood-paneled walls. The tin-stamped ceiling reflected the warm glow of the mission-style mica lamps and a flickering chandelier. The comfortable bed with a beautifully hand-carved wooden headboard was furnished with a Burberry-esque plaid duvet cover, a pile of coordinating pillows, smooth sheets, and a red chenille blanket at the foot of the bed. Across from the bed, bookshelves filled with a thoughtful selection of antique books lined either side of the brick fireplace with an electric insert. A pair of binoculars and glass sherry decanters stood on the wooden mantel. A leather armchair sat in the corner beside a chess table. Beneath the chess table, I found microscope and a magnifying glass. The room also had a small refrigerator, coffeemaker, and DirectTV. The room opened to a courtyard with comfortable outdoor seating.

The inn sits just off the highway on over an acre of a certified wildlife habitat with extensive gardens and hammocks for lounging beneath the pines. There’s also a gazebo and more outdoor seating overlooking the creek. A chicken coop with an assortment of hens—Polish Crested, Ameraucana, Copper Marans, and Rhode Island Reds—provides entertainment for the guests and eggs for breakfast. Just before Trish and I left for dinner, we stood giggling at the chickens and snapping their pictures.

Baked Peach French Toast
From the gazebo, a trail leads down to the trickling waters of Strawberry Creek. We followed the path in the dappled sunlight beneath the tall pines and cedars along the boulder-strewn creek. In town, we had dinner at Ferro, a modern Italian osteria with a romantic ambiance. We sat outdoors on the back patio in the fading light and worked our way through several delicious courses and glasses of wine.

Breakfast was served the next morning on the glassed-in veranda of the main house of the inn. It was a delightful treat: baked French toast topped with caramelized peaches, silvered almonds, powdered sugar, and warm maple syrup served with a side of chicken apple sausage. The recipe for the French toast appears in the cookbook, Memorable Mornings from the Strawberry Creek Inn.

Strawberry Creek Inn Bed & Breakfast
26370 Highway 243
Idyllwild, CA 92549

Creekside path  at Quiet Creek Inn

Quiet Creek Inn

While in Idyllwild, I also visited the Quiet Creek Inn. It’s located just a mile and a half from the heart of the village, but feels like it’s a world away. The inn is a collection of 10 woodsy cottages on seven acres along Strawberry Creek. The property is also a certified wildlife habitat with towering pines, cedars, oaks, Japanese maples, lilacs, juniper, and wild roses. Natural wildlife includes squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, bobcats, mule deer and a variety of birds. With two hammocks strung beneath the trees and countless pairs of Adirondack chairs spread out along the edge of the creek, it’s an idyllic place to unwind and get lost in nature.

One of the guest cabins at Quiet Creek Inn
A mile-long path along the creek extends from the inn to a Boy Scout camp. Just a few blocks from the inn, guests can access the western reaches of the hiking trails in Idyllwild County Park, which can connect them to the village, the nature center, or more challenging climbs into the high country via the Deer Springs Trailhead.

Quiet Creek Inn’s property was once a horse ranch. The original barn was converted into a guest lounge outfitted with games, books, and a piano. Just outside the barn, guests can try their hand at throwing horseshoes at the horseshoe pit.
King Premium One Bedroom Suite

The guest cabins were built in the late 1980s to resemble the historic rustic cabins of the 1940s, but with modern plumbing and amenities. Each of the 10 cabins have vaulted ceilings with clerestory windows, wood-burning fireplaces built from river rock, and sliding glass doors that open to private decks overlooking the creek. Each of the one-bedroom suite and studio cabins are also equipped with WiFi, HDTV with complimentary on-demand movies and shows, coffee makers, small refrigerators, microwaves, glassware, dishes, utensils, and basic kitchen implements.
Queen Studio Cabin

The one-bedroom suites feature king or queen beds, kitchenettes with two-burner stoves and sinks, and queen-size sofa sleepers in the living room. The premium king suite offers an expanded private deck with air conditioning and the best views of the creek.

Queen Studio Cabin
Innkeepers Marc Kassouf and Nathan DePetris took over management in 2013 and have been making upgrades ever since. In the first six months, they replaced all of the bedding and linens. The new linens include smooth white sheets, sage green duvet covers with a silky texture resembling rippling water, modern-patterned accent pieces, and premium cotton towels. They also upgraded other amenities and began a series of landscaping projects to transform the grounds. In the next six months, they renovated the cabins with new flooring and paint. They sanded and re-oiled the exteriors of all of the cabins to bring back the deep honey-hued color and sealed the decking with a green stain. They also brought in new beds for all of the cabins and luxury sleeper sofas for all of the suites.

Private deck overlooking the forest and creek
In one of the rooms, I noticed a paper bag filled with peanuts and asked the innkeeper about it. She smiled. “For the squirrels,” she said. “Guests like to feed the squirrels.”

A few moments later, I noticed a gray squirrel peering in from the deck railing. He was framed in the window against a beautiful backdrop of pine trees, boulders, and the creek… just hanging out in a mountain wonderland waiting for his next meal.

Quiet Creek Inn
26345 Delano Drive
Idyllwild-Pine Cove, CA 92549

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Vestiges of Gold and Ghosts at the 1859 Historic National Hotel in Jamestown

1859 Historic National Hotel in the Gold-Rush town of Jamestown, California

In the sun-dappled shade of the cottonwoods, I sit on a white plastic chair in a shallow creek, trying to swirl dirt around in a pan. My prospecting guide, Tom Tomasevich (a.k.a “Tom Cat”), is upstream from me, shoveling mud and rocks from the creek into a five-gallon bucket. Tom calls out above the rushing water, “Did you find any gold?”

Jimtown 1849 Gold Mining Camp on Woods Creek
I study the pebbles and dirt in my pan, but I’m not really sure I know what I’m looking for. “I don’t think so,” I call back.

Tom stops shoveling and sloshes toward me through the creek, carrying the bucket. He’s a soft-spoken, wiry slip of a man with salt-and-pepper stubble and tattoos across his shoulders. His great-grandfather was a gold miner. As a modern-day equivalent, Tom prefers metal detectors to the old-fashioned gold-panning adventure I signed up for, but his panning technique is impressive. With a couple quick, angled slips through the water, Tom skims more rocks from my pan. Then he shows me again how to swirl water through what’s left. He sighs with disappointment at the pan. “Tom Cat’s got to find you some gold.”

Reaching into the bucket, he piles more dirt and rocks into my pan, and then sits down in the creek with me to keep searching.

Gold Rush Saloon at the 1859 Historic National Hotel
The current price of gold, as noted in the saloon
I’m staying at the 1859 Historic National Hotel in the Gold-Rush town of Jamestown, and I’ve jokingly told Tom I want to try to pay for my hotel room with gold. Over 150 years ago, paying for a night’s stay at the hotel with a purse full of gold dust was commonplace. Earlier this year, the hotel’s owner, Stephen Willey, brought back the practice for overnight guests bearing gold flakes and nuggets. He purchased an old-time brass scale with weights and backs it up with the digital model required by county weights and measures, courtesy of Gold Prospecting Adventures across the street. Stephen notes the daily price of gold inside the hotel’s authentic Gold Rush-era saloon, which still features the original back bar from 1859 and a stamped tin ceiling. The night of my stay, gold was valued at $1,336 an ounce.

I signed up for a gold panning lesson with Gold Prospecting Adventures, which operates a historic mining camp on one of the richest creeks in the Mother Lode.

I skim the rocks from my pan and start to gently swirl the water. Tom is watching closely. “There!” he says, “That’s gold!”

He points at a tiny speck clinging to the bottom of the pan that gleams in the sun. It’s no bigger than a grain of salt. “That’s gold?” I ask doubtfully, trying to calculate how many salt-sized specks of gold it would take just to pay for a drink at the bar.

He produces a tiny vial, fills it with creek water, and then shows me how to pick up the speck of gold with the tip of my finger and place it in the vial. He screws the cap back on and hands it to me. “Your first piece of gold!”

I spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out in the creek with Tom: soaking up the late summer sunshine, listening to the soothing rush of the water, and occasionally finding more salt-sized specks of gold.

Eventually, I return to the hotel with my tiny vial of gold specks, but unfortunately, the hotel’s scales are unable weigh an amount so small. Stephen tells me the gold’s value is probably less than a dollar. I laugh. Fortunately it’s not 1859, and I can still use my American Express gold card.

*  *  *

Hotel balcony overlooking Main Street in Jamestown
The 1859 Historic National Hotel has been in continuous operation since it was first built, having survived two fires in the early 1900s. Stephen is only the third owner of the hotel, which he purchased with his brother and a friend in 1974. They hotel’s saloon had been a place that he and his brother would stop for drinks on their way back from ski trips and backpacking trips. When his brother learned the hotel was for sale, he convinced Stephen, who was in graduate school in San Francisco at the time, to move to Jamestown and run the hotel for at least six months.

The original six-month commitment has turned into a 42-year restoration and modernization project. When they purchased the building in 1974, the aging hotel had 12 rooms and just one bath. Working room-by-room, they tore the hotel down to the studs, upgraded the electrical, plumbing, insulation, and more, added bathrooms, and restored the rooms in keeping with the vintage of the hotel. Upgrades and modernization projects have been ongoing ever since.

Room #10 at  the 1859 Historic National Hotel
Instead of the original 12 rooms, the hotel now has nine elegant guest rooms, each with private baths. The rooms feature high coved ceilings, dark-stained wood trim, and beautiful period details. The rooms are furnished with fine antiques, opulent wallpapers, and lace curtains befitting of the era. My room, #10, was a quiet, cozy space tucked at the end of the hallway with a queen-size brass bed, pillow-top mattress, and triple-sheeted bedding with a matelassé coverlet. The bath featured a pull-chain toilet, pedestal sink, tiled shower with two shower heads, and plush bathrobes.
Private bath for room #10

Next door to room #10 is the soaking room: an inviting space with an antique claw-foot soaking tub for two. The soaking room is available for use by any guest upon request. A door at the far end of the hall opens to the balcony overlooking Main Street with comfortable outdoor seating.

Soaking tub for two
Downstairs, the hotel’s restaurant and saloon bustled with lively mix of locals and visitors. Stephen and his attentive crew of servers moved fluidly among the tables. The restaurant is led by Executive Chef Tom Callahan, who has been at the helm for 20 years. His menus feature Mediterranean cuisine with top-quality ingredients including USDA Choice beef, fresh fish, fresh pastas, house-made breads, local produce, and fresh herbs picked daily from the restaurant’s own herb garden. The restaurant has the largest wine list of Sierra Foothills wines, with more than 100 selections and awards from Wine Spectator. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily in its formal dining room, and weather permitting, outdoors on its vine-covered patio.

I enjoyed dinner and a glass of wine on the patio beneath the glow of lanterns and twinkle lights. I ordered medallions of filet mignon prepared in a burgundy mushroom sauce. The dish was served with a green salad, sautéed vegetables, fluffy garlic mashed potatoes, and warm house-baked breads. For dessert, I couldn’t resist the temptation of the apricot bon bon: apricots sautéed with butter, brown sugar, and apricot brandy, flambéed tableside, and served over Ghirardelli chocolate-covered bon bons with pecan praline pieces. It was a divine combination.

The restaurant's garden patio
As I finished dessert, Stephen pointed out the back of the garden patio, where a rectangle is cut into the concrete floor. He explained it’s the entrance to an old gold mine shaft, a vestige of the hotel’s earlier days. These days, it’s usually filled with water and Stephen has plans of turning it into a water fountain.

The gold mine shaft isn’t the hotel’s only vestige of the late 1800s. The spirit of former guest named Flo has lingered long past her check out time and occasionally creates mischief at the hotel. Many guests have shared accounts of doors slamming, lights going on and off, clothing being dumped from suitcases onto the floor, and a woman’s sobbing coming from the hallway in the middle of the night. Stephen tells me that the most adamant of non-believers have been known to change their convictions about the super-natural after they wake in the middle of the night to find Flo sitting at the foot of their bed. He says Flo just looks at them, not saying anything, and then she stands up and floats right through the door.

The second floor hallway of the hotel
The background on Flo is sketchy, but it’s believed that she had traveled to Jamestown to marry a young attorney she had met on a train just six weeks before. They arrived in Jamestown a few days before Christmas and were staying at the 1859 Historic National Hotel. She hired a local dressmaker to make her wedding gown; he gave her a diamond ring on Christmas Day. The very next morning, a shot rang out. Flo raced downstairs to find her fiancé lying at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of blood, shot dead by a drunkard who had stumbled through the front door of the hotel. Day after day, she sobbed uncontrollably upstairs in her room, and then on New Year’s Eve, there was silence. The hotel staff found her dead in her room, wearing her wedding gown, presumably having died of a broken heart.

I had hoped to meet Flo, but she must have sensed I was a journalist with a camera and long list of questions for her, so she avoided me. At breakfast, however, I learned that she made herself known to the other guests. One couple had lowered the shade for an afternoon nap only to have the shade spring back up as they were lying on the bed. They also described walking through the hallway and feeling an icy cold waft of air pass alongside of them. Another woman said she, too, felt a cold waft of air pass her in the hallway. She also described seeing chains that were strung across the open doorways of unoccupied rooms all swinging although there was no breeze to cause such movement.

As I packed to leave after breakfast, I looked around for signs of Flo, but everything was exactly where I had left it.

1859 Historic National Hotel
18183 Main Street
P.O. Box 502
Jamestown, CA 95327