When Henry DeCorte bought the historic Washington Hotel in 1994, it had been sitting empty for more than a year. Smack in the middle of the small town of Washington, the majestic 1896 building was surrounded by barbed wire and a chain-linked fence. “Red-tagged’ by the county, an official sign in front deemed the structure “unfit for humans.”
But many of the townsfolk who knew DeCorte said he’d always brought out the best in people, so they weren’t surprised when he saw a historic gem in the empty, sagging hotel perched precariously above the Yuba River.
A Nevada City furniture maker by trade, DeCorte said he loved spending time in Washington on his days off over the years. So by the time he bought the hotel, he already had a tight circle of friends.
“I just got tired of my furniture making business and sold it,” said DeCorte. “I was only 55 and bored. The hotel’s previous owner sold it to me on the condition I would bring it up to code — that sure opened up a can of worms.”
It took 17 months, but the historical landmark was eventually renovated from the foundation up.
“It was amazing the way the community pitched in to help — they wanted the hotel to open,” he said. “I could not have done this by myself — hell no. Structurally, this will last another 100 years.”
It didn’t take long before the hotel once again became the town hub. The bar, restaurant, the gift shop, hotel, the back deck — even the horseshoe pits were bustling with activity. For nearly 20 years now, the hotel and restaurant have been packed to the gills during the warm months and slower during the winter. In the fall, the hunters show up, but DeCorte is not convinced they’re looking for deer.
“Well, maybe they’re looking for two-legged deer,” he said. “They just want to get away from their wives. There’s no cell phone service out here — you can really get away.”
While the flow of tourists ebbs and flows with the seasons, the townsfolk are always in the bar.
“This hotel is the center of everything,” said DeCorte. “If you come looking for someone and he’s not here, someone will be able to tell you where he went.”
Upstairs are 14 historic hotel rooms, which once accommodated the likes of Wyatt Earp and Grover Cleveland. The dining room is laden with antique paraphernalia, much of which was found in the walls and basement during renovation. A rolling bathtub, which dates back before plumbing, is bolted to the ceiling.
“Back then baths cost $1 if the water was fresh,” said DeCorte, with a smile. “Fifty cents if you were willing to bathe in already-used water.”
In the cafe, food is made from scratch and full breakfasts, lunches and dinners are served.
“This place is like the town living room,” said Lisa Redmon, who manages the Washington Hotel Cafe. “We’re like a big family. There are only about 160 to 180 of us who live here year-round. If I don’t know someone, I’ve heard all about them.”
On the hotel’s top floor is DeCorte’s 2,000-square-foot private residence, which includes a jacuzzi, steam room, office and more. It was once divided into 20 small rooms, each with barely enough room for a cot, he said.
But lately, life at the hotel for the owner/operator has begun to lose its luster. Not more than two years ago, DeCorte’s wife of 10 years complained of shoulder pain. A trip to Yubadocs determined she had terminal cancer. They had just 90 days to say goodbye.
“Every one called her Mama Su because she was known for taking care of people,” said DeCorte. “She ran the kitchen and Lisa worked for her — taught her everything. Everyone misses her.”
Today, a “for sale” sign hangs from one of the hotel’s upper balconies, but DeCorte insists a new owner will require certain specifications.
“First of all, the town has to love you,” he said. “The town is too small to have a hotel run by a corporation. There has to be an owner/operator on site. You make money in the summer and save for winter.”
While DeCorte may give up his beloved hotel, the town of Washington is not going to lose a friend. Chances are his ’56 Chevy will be spotted around town for years to come.
“I can’t run a hotel forever — I’m 71,” he said. “But I’m not going anywhere. I own 10 acres just up the river with a motorhome on it. With five acres on each side, the river runs right through the middle. That’s where I go to find peace.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4203.