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Youth hostel in Toscano Hotel complex?

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While squabbles over tasting rooms, pink doors and pirate flags dominate downtown discussions, a prominent feature of the Plaza is quietly being considered for a transformation.

The Toscano Hotel Complex, on the north side of the Plaza between the Cheese Factory and the Barracks, has been the subject of an eight-month study. Commissioned by its owner, the State of California, the study catalogued the history of the buildings on the site, evaluated their condition and made recommendations for possible future uses.

Michael Garavaglia Architects, of San Francisco, unveiled the results of its study to stakeholders – State Park employees, volunteer organizations and other interested parties – during a two-hour meeting Wednesday.

And while no decisions have been made, it was clearly stated that the final disposition of the properties will be decided by the state – the city has no say in the matter.

Reached after the meeting, Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison acknowledged the city has no say in the final decision. “The city recognizes that State Parks is not subject to local zoning regulations,” he said, “but we support the efforts to maintain and revitalize the historic parks within the city and we appreciate the open dialogue and spirit of partnership that State Parks has shown with the city, and with the community as a whole.”

The goal of the study was to identify, assess and evaluate the Toscano Hotel and Complex, and to provide detailed understanding of the history, integrity and significance of the buildings. Based on that information, recommendations were made for possible new uses and maintenance priorities.

These uses, outlined by Becky Urbano, State Parks preservation services manager, were tailored to each of the buildings in the complex, based on the buildings’ size, condition and historic use. But all would have to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, which means ramps and altered door widths would be required, and many would need upgrades in electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, seismic safety, roofs and foundations.

“The hotel and kitchen would have the widest reuse considerations,” said Urbano. “Low impact options would be a youth hostel or small hotel. The Annex and the second floor of the kitchen are set up for a hostel, with small rooms and a shared bathroom.”

Pat Pulverenti, an employee of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, said the hostel idea would be welcome in Sonoma. “This state park exists in a significant city – more significant than Monterey. The thought of turning the Toscano into a youth hostel is an excellent idea. We get lots of visitors from Europe and they don’t mind bathrooms down the hall, or small rooms.”

Pulverenti said use as a house museum was OK in the past, but now California has no budget for major renovations and anything that generates money is good, because the buildings cannot remain empty. “We don’t want buildings to be demolished through neglect,” she added.

Preservation activist Karla Noyes disagreed. A longtime advocate of keeping the state’s remaining Sonoma buildings as house museums, she said weddings and receptions could make a substantial contribution to retaining the buildings for tourists to view.

The only two areas that are definitely to remain museums in the plan, according to state officials, are the Servants Quarters, a building next to the Cheese Factory, and the barn. Both will soon contain exhibits.

Other ideas generated by the plan were a restaurant, with this being in either the kitchen and dining room or locating a new kitchen off site and using the dining room only; offices, which would be low impact; a visitors center, perhaps in the Tank House; and retail space, which would also be lower impact and could utilize the courtyard area recently paved over. The final use recommended was as a house museum, but Urbano pointed out that could be costly to the state, requires a lot of volunteers and does not maximize visitor use.

The study identified two distinct periods of significance. The first was the Servants Quarters, which dates back to Gen. Mariano Vallejo’s time and is tagged at 1835 to 1851, and the Hotel Complex period, from 1852 to 1877.

According to the report, the site has historically been used for retail – the Nathanson store and the Leiding’s store. It was also used for lodging as the Eureka Hotel before it was purchased by the Ciucci family in 1886 and became what we now call the Toscano Hotel. In 1902, it was expanded from a single building to incorporate a kitchen and annex. The upstairs of the hotel was remodeled, with rental rooms in the annex. Amelia and Jack Walton sold it to the state in 1957.

The Toscano Hotel, as we know it today, was remodeled to look like an old hotel in the 1960s and 1970s. The kitchen was remodeled in the 1980s.

Among maintenance priorities will be roof repairs and tying upper walls to roofs for seismic safety, according to Urbano. The buildings are wood frame, not adobe.

The study, which is still ongoing as other buildings in the complex are reviewed and evaluated, will be completed sometime in the summer.

Figures were not given, but past studies have indicated work to upgrade buildings for new uses would be costly.