San Benito History

Plaza Hotel in San Juan Bautista undergoes restoration

Repairs to the 208-year-old building include replacing damaged wood and adobe as well as repainting.
Restoration work at the Plaza Hotel. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Damage to the adobe. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Restoration work at the Plaza Hotel. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Damage to the adobe. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Two-story outhouse. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Rich Winklebleck. Photo by Robert Eliason.

In the early days of San Juan Bautista, the stage carrying well-to-do travelers would have stopped in front of either the National Hotel, which stood on the site of Verutti Park on Second Street, or the Plaza Hotel, which still stands as the centerpiece of the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park.

Now, after four years of planning and a $30,000 state of California grant, long-needed restoration work on the 208-year-old hotel is underway to preserve the building and its unique history for generations to come. It is the third restoration since the park was created in 1968 and follows a three-year project that ended in 1981.

“That was a major retrofitting along with a restoration,” said the park’s lead interpreter, Marcos Vizcaino. “They made new adobe bricks for the walls; they replastered, repainted, and then they redecorated.”

The current restoration, which started in July and is scheduled to finish in November, is less extensive. 

“The exterior restoration on the Plaza Hotel includes fixing any of the damaged facade and the adobe framing, fixing any of the windows and doors, and then giving it a full paint job,” said Rich Winklebleck, park maintenance chief for the Gavilan Hills sector.

The restoration is complicated by the different construction methods used over the years as new owners adapted it to different uses.

“The building was built in two major stages,” Vizcaino said. “The first floor was built out of adobe in 1813 as a barracks for the Spanish soldiers and it took about a year to complete, with whitewashed walls, dirt floors and a red tile roof. Six soldiers were stationed there. When Mexico took over the area, the barracks were used for their soldiers.

In the 1830s, another barrack was built and this building became a private residence for the Anzar family.

In 1853, Angelo Zanetta bought it and remodeled it into a destination hotel. The tile roof was removed and the second story, of wood construction, was placed on top of the existing adobe walls.

“He had noticed that thousands of people came to town during the yearly San Juan Fiesta on the feast day of John the Baptist,” Vizcaino said. “He knew they needed a place to stay and he also wanted to have a makeshift saloon to sell liquor during the week-long celebration—and he made a lot of money doing that.”

Zanetta chose to open on the feast day, June 24, 1856. The hotel included a five-star restaurant. The bar was often patronized by the local Californios who remained on horseback inside while drinking or playing pool.

“There would be an alert when the stage was approaching the hotel,” Vizcaino said, “and it was the job of Zanetta’s young daughter to roust all of the horsemen out of the bar before new visitors arrived.”

According to Vizcaino, upon arriving, women and children were not allowed to stay on the ground floor and were escorted upstairs to a common drawing room. Men were taken to the bar to check in and drink or play cards. There was a special two-story outhouse built, with the higher level accessed by a covered catwalk.

The roof on that outhouse and the adjoining icehouse are targets for repair, as is the entire side of the building facing Mariposa Street, which is currently covered in scaffolding. There are repairs required to other parts of the building to replace damaged wood, eroded adobe and leaking roofs.

“There is nothing that is structurally endangered,” Winklebleck said. “It is more to preserve the historical fabric of the building itself. There are some issues with the condition and some past repairs have dilapidated because they were done incorrectly. There is also water intrusion and weather damage.”

With a well-documented architectural history and the records of previous restorations available, the work is thoroughly based on accuracy.

“We have plans for what the finished woodworking looked like so we have a good reference to that,” Winklebleck said. “The most difficult things are matching colors and getting the adobe right. We have paint analysis on the earliest layer on a piece of the original molding. But things like the adobe require using accurate materials and methods to be historically sound.”

While other buildings in the park are in need of similar repair, Winklebleck thinks the Plaza Hotel is a good place to start the work.

“This is where everything in the park is centered and where it all began,” he said. “If we let this building dilapidate, we lose the heart of the park. It is something people recognize from their childhood, from coming to the park on their mission field trips. It is an important part of our history and it is critical we preserve it.”


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.