The Dolly Varden Hotel in Downtown Long Beach is headed for another vote on whether to demolish the building to make way for a new housing development after the Cultural Heritage Commission was told Tuesday night that the building was not eligible for historic designation—although its sign is.

Planning Commissioners put off a vote in May to allow a developer to remove the historic sign and put it into storage while a new 141-unit housing project was built in favor of reassessing the historic nature of the 93-year-old building itself, something that had been done in the past with the conclusion that it was not historic.

A new analysis performed by a city consultant found the same. While the hotel is built in an Art Deco style, survived the 1933 Long Beach earthquake and offered baths in every room, something uncommon at the time, it is not eligible for historic status, the report said.

“The hotel itself is not known to have made a significant contribution to other broad patterns of local, regional, state, or national culture and history at the time of its original construction, or during the ownership of Leland F. Dolley through his death in 1935,” Susan Wood, a senior architectural historian the city hired as a consultant, concluded in her report.

Wood said she looked at historic maps, building records, ancestral records of Dolley, business records of the builders and other documents to gauge the historic nature of the building.

Wood’s report concluded that Dolley, a small business owner who died in 1935, was “significant adjacent” and not a big contributor to the city’s history. The architect of the hotel is unknown and its connection to Art Deco design was called “very modest” and “almost undiscernible” in the report.

Rumors that the Bixby family or Dolly Varden the performer were somehow tied to the building’s history were not substantiated, Wood said Tuesday.

Commissioners said Tuesday that they appreciated the update but questioned if the sign would lose its historic value if it was to be placed atop a new building, with a different purpose: long-term housing.

The Dolly Varden Hotel.
The Dolly Varden Hotel in Long Beach, Friday, May 26, 2023. The building is scheduled for demolition to make room for a new multi-story building. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

They also spent considerable time discussing the two murals on the north-facing wall of the hotel that were installed in 2015, the inaugural year of POW! WOW! Long Beach, which has recently rebranded to “Long Beach Walls.”

“I have serious heartburn of any action that we could take that would destroy an artists’ work without their permission,” said Commissioner Amy Bodek, who requested the additional analysis of the building in May.

The commission is now expected to hold a vote on the sign’s removal, which could allow the construction project to move forward, in late July. But questions over if there is any contract stipulating how long those murals were supposed to remain in place and if the developer will have those artists reinstall the same or similar murals remain unanswered.

The murals are not historic, and it’s unclear if the commission could require the developer to include artwork from specific muralists for the project to move forward. Other POW! WOW! murals have been painted over in the past.

Ryan Caldera, a senior project manager for Studio One Eleven, the firm designing the housing project, said his team has reached out to the artists through an intermediary and that the developer is open to working with them.

“From our perspective, we definitely want to incorporate their art into the new development,” Caldera told the commission. “Our intention is to definitely have them incorporated in.”

The 35-room hotel was completed in 1930 by Dolley, a local real estate developer, who hired the Barton Bros. construction company to build the structure that boasted a “bath in every room” from its illuminated rooftop sign.

A screenshot of a new rendering showing the Varden Hotel sign located farther south than the originally proposed placement of the historic sign. Photo courtesy of Studio One Eleven

City planning staff told the commission Tuesday that an application had been submitted to adaptively reuse the building and to convert the rooms into micro-units, but requirements for open space and other financial hurdles eventually derailed that proposal.

The sign is expected to be placed on top of the new housing development that is focused on providing smaller, more affordable units Downtown. The sign was designated as historic by the city in 1995 in part because of it’s a “visual landmark” that “recalls a time when apartment hotels without amenities were common in Downtown.”

“It is a visually prominent feature both during the daytime and at night because of its neon,” the report said. “Its design and materials embody a typical “thirties” stylistic character.”

In May, Caldera said that it would feature micro-units in addition to the 16 affordable units required by city law to be set aside for low-income households.

The micro-units would feature built-in storage and furniture, which could make it easier for people looking to live in smaller, more affordable units in Downtown to navigate tighter living quarters, Caldera said.

About 78% of the proposed units would be between 380 square feet and 440 square feet. The Dolly Varden sign would be placed back on top of the seventh story of the proposed building, where people traveling down Pacific Avenue in Downtown would be able to see it illuminated in blue and red after construction is completed.

Cultural Heritage Commission asks for reassessment of Varden Hotel amid demolition plans

Varden Hotel could be demolished for housing; sign to be saved

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.