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More Changes Haunt Historic Hotel

September 29, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Someone familiar with the antics at the Glen Tavern Inn in Santa Paula might have dismissed the scene as stage-setting for the murder mystery weekends that routinely attract guests from as far away as San Francisco.

A more suggestible sort might have concluded that the hotel was, as its proprietors claim, haunted.

Promptly at 2 p.m. on a recent Friday, all the hotel's bed linens, a few dresser doilies and the comforter that had graced the bed of the inn's most notorious ghost disappeared. The hotel's staff and management also vanished.

The disappearances, however, were neither stage-setting nor hauntings.

Hotel manager Dolores Diehl had abandoned her 15-year lease, laid off a staff of 25 and returned the bed linens to a rental company. She had ended a two-year fight to make money on the hotel, a dark, rambling structure in which Alfred Hitchcock would have been more at home than Leona Helmsley.

"It was like losing a part of my family," she said.

The change marked yet another bump in the perennially bumpy road for the pre-World War I landmark that by Diehl's count has changed hands at least six times.

Having reverted to owner Mel Cummings of Oxnard, the hotel remains open to overnight guests but its dining room and bar are closed.

Cummings said he was negotiating this week with restaurateurs interested in managing the dining room and bar and an adjoining banquet room. He also is advertising in the Wall Street Journal and other publications to sell the historic hotel for $2.2 million.

In addition, Cummings was weighing offers to turn the hotel into a health spa or a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility similar to the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage.

"I would prefer not to have the use change," said Cummings, who bought the Glen Tavern in 1983. "But I'm a businessman. What can I do?"

Diehl blamed the inn's most recent troubles on last October's stock market crash and this summer's screenwriters' strike. As recently as two years ago, film and television crews shooting scenes in Santa Paula and Ojai accounted for 60% of the hotel's business, she said.

The crash and the strike forced Diehl to fall behind on her payments to Cummings, she said. She also fell behind on city bed taxes and had difficulty raising the hotel's already cumbersome annual fire insurance premium of $35,000.

"I feel that the business was successful," she said. "It's just that my overhead was tremendously high and with these other issues happening, I just couldn't make it."

The news upset some Santa Paulans, who noted that the hotel--a gem of the English Craftsman architectural style--is the only Ventura County hotel on the National Register of Historic Places.

"There aren't many grand old hotels left," Santa Paula historian Judith Triem said. "So many of them got torn down or burned down."

Apart from its historic importance, the inn embodied the sort of easygoing life style that has drawn people to the quaint town.

"It's a part of the community from the past that's operable in the present and that gives a nice, warm feeling," said Dana Elcar, artistic director of the nearby Santa Paula Theater Center. "I think it's important that it succeed."

At first, it did.

When built in 1911 by a consortium of Santa Paula investors, the Glen Tavern--then known as the Santa Paula Hotel--was the only game in town. A block from Santa Paula's train depot, the inn swelled with guests attracted by the town's newly established oil and citrus industries.

Later, the hotel profited from guests brought to Santa Paula by another burgeoning industry--the movies. The film industry often shot movies in the Santa Paula and Ojai areas, local historians said. Actors, directors and film technicians had to stay at the inn.

During Prohibition, according to some accounts, the inn's third story, which had an expansive view that could take in advancing law enforcement officers, was turned into a speak-easy that offered gambling and all the attendant vices.

In World War II, the inn was converted to housing for female war employees at Port Hueneme. Later, it became a boarding house, offering permanent lodging to unmarried schoolteachers, widowers and retired couples.

Times got tougher in recent years. Fairy McCann, whose stepfather, Charles Estep, took over the inn in 1917 and eventually turned it over to her, said she twice has initiated foreclosure proceedings since selling the hotel in 1974. Cummings said he lost a lot of money while running the hotel because he had no experience operating a restaurant or bar. And Diehl filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings just six months after leasing the hotel in May, 1986.

Diehl, a 54-year-old nurse and licensed nursing home administrator, originally planned to convert the hotel into a rest home but was deterred by the expense of necessary improvements.

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