For the Plaza Hotel it is safe to say, it has seen the best of times and the worst of times. It went from being one of the jewels of Napa's social scene to a condemned low-rent residential hotel only to be returned to splendor by a $1.5 million renovation project.
Taken architecturally alone, the Plaza, today known as Alexandria Square, is a bit of an oddity. Built in 1910 in the Italian Villa style, it features three square towers, which are its defining features. The present structure consists of the original hotel, discernible by its brickwork, and an addition from 1986, which extended the complex's footprint from Brown to Main St. The building was commissioned as a three story hotel by local businessman Charles Dreyer, also the one time owner of the Oberon Bar. It operated as the Alexandria Hotel through 1918 when it became the Plaza Hotel.
In mid-twentieth century Napa, the Plaza was a premier gathering spot. With its hotel bar and location just across from the County Courthouse, the building became a natural watering hole and conversation spot for lawyers, law enforcement and by extension journalists. The hotel also featured a banquet room in which a variety of local organizations and clubs held meetings. In fact, the Napa County Historical Society was founded here in 1948.
During its heyday the Plaza's barroom could be quite a rowdy place. One story recounts that a visiting fire eater traveling with a carnival was encouraged by bar patrons to let loose a stream of flame much longer than his customary one or two seconds. After a few drinks and at the crowd's urging he attempted a five second flame. At three seconds his hair caught fire and had to be put out with seltzer water from the bar.
On another occasion a young man claiming to be a football kicker was urged by revelers to attempt a field goal using the "Justice" sign on the courthouse as a marker. The kicker's first two attempts were wide. His third attempt got closer. While he did not manage to make the "field goal," he did send the ball smashing through the window of the law library. The crowd of onlookers made themselves scarce before the police arrived.
The peak of the Plaza's glamour days came during the filming of 1940's They Knew What They Wanted. While filming in the Napa Valley, star Carole Lombard spent some of her down time at the Plaza with her husband; none other than Clark Gable. The couple, (mostly Gable to tell the truth), attracted plenty of attention in Napa. Women thronged the Plaza Hotel to try to get a glimpse of Gable, including several women who had abandoned their posts at the courthouse across the street.
By the end of the 1970s the Plaza had fallen on hard times. Used as a low-income residential hotel, the building's owners and managers became embroiled in a standoff with the City of Napa over fines for numerous fire code violations. The city, worried the building had become a fire trap, wanted the building either shut down or brought up to code. With the owners and managers unable to reconcile, the hotel was forced to shutter.
Sold off to a San Francisco family in 1979 with the intent of renovating the historic building, the Plaza suffered further indignities. It was gutted and left for the pigeons during a long dispute between the family and their financier. The project was further complicated by a settlement that had to be paid out to former commercial tenants whose leases had been broken by the building's closure.
By 1983 the Plaza was at its absolute low. It stood empty and shuttered, frequented only by pigeons and the homeless and threatened with demolition by the City Board of Condemnation. The building changed hands again in 1985, going to Richard Simkalo, who reversed the building's trajectory toward ruin by moving forward with a $1.5 million dollar renovation and addition, re-branding the complex Alexandria Square after the first moniker of the hotel. His mixed office and commercial plan has proved successful by adding square footage out to Main St. while also restoring the historical portion of the building to its original glory.
One of the most dramatic images of 2014's South Napa Quake was the sagging towers of the Plaza Hotel and the piles of bricks, which covered Brown St. Despite a 2004 retrofit two of the buildings corner cupolas experienced severe damage. Inspectors noted that a deteriorated mortar likely led to the dramatic collapse. The damage to the building was estimated to be 30-40 percent of its total value.