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Fantasy Found : Rooms in the 1880 Union Hotel's Victorian Annex are both romantic and bizarre, with some : beds in the shape of a '56 Cadillac convertible, Gypsy wagon and hand-carved Roman chariot.

October 29, 1989|JOHN DREYFUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ALAMOS, Calif. — Guests sleep in a Cadillac convertible. A former Ping-Pong champ makes balloon sculptures in the bar. You can't locate the bathroom until you find a secret door. A guest describes the owner as "kind of like the illegitimate son of Woodie Guthrie and Howdy Doody," and nobody argues that.

Welcome to the 1880 Union Hotel and Victorian Annex, the delightful, bizarre, romantic and incredible dream-come-true of Richard Wilkes Langdon, a sailor turned piano salesman turned ink salesman turned meat wholesaler turned hotelier.

His piece de resistance is the Victorian Annex, a bed and breakfast push-button fantasy land. Life was never like this.

Want to stroll into a mirage of the 1950s? Dick ("Everyone calls me by my first name") will show you the way. Want a night in an Egyptian tent (with running water, of course)? Talk to Dick. Or how about a night in a loft overlooking Gay Paree? Or in a Gypsy wagon surrounded by forest? Or in a Roman chariot or on a pirate ship sailing the seas?

For $200 a night Dick will furnish any of the above, right here in Los Alamos (population "about 950"), a blink of a town within shouting distance of U.S. 101, 50 miles north of Santa Barbara. Or you can cut off 15 miles and improve the views if you wind over San Marcos Pass (California 154) from Santa Barbara.

Los Alamos, founded in 1876, seems to be a clean, sleepy, pleasant country town. Its main street boasts a couple of restaurants bracketing a couple of gas stations, a couple of bars, another restaurant and a disproportionate number of antique stores (four), with a huge array of oldies and goodies for sale.

And there is Dick's 1880 Union Hotel and Victorian Annex.

The annex is a six-room B&B with each room extraordinarily decked out in a different theme. And each room is an electronic wonder, with wireless remote control regulating mood lighting, music, bathtub water, gas fireplace, video projector and TV set.

You'll hear a lot of adjectives used to describe the annex: unique, amusing, fun and, perhaps as often as any, romantic.

"The rooms transport you," said Laura Greenburg of Encino, who with her husband, Jon, has stayed in three of them and seen all six. "They support fantasy. They create a romantic, sensuous atmosphere."

Next door to the Victorian Annex, unremarkable by comparison but lively in its own right, stands the Union Hotel, a 15-room bed and breakfast dating from the 1880s, when Los Alamos was even more remote than it is today.

The annex is always open. The hotel operates Friday through Sunday nights.

Three hotel rooms have bathrooms ($100 a night). The other 12 have washbowls ($80 a night), with toilets and a shower down the hall.

Hotel guests schmooze in a parlor with a pool table covered in red felt or in a lobby where lollygagging is encouraged. Shelves offer hundreds of books and as many vintage magazines (a 1937 Sunset, a 1945 Saturday Evening Post). For those seeking spicier fare, there are enough Playboys to create a pile more than five feet high.

Next to the lobby stands a saloon (open to guests only) where you can drink beneath a ceiling advertising "The Peoples Store. A Safe Place to Trade." The ceiling once stood as the wall of an emporium.

Saloon enhancements include a beautifully finished wooden shuffleboard table, a couple of jukeboxes and wall hangings from a moose head named Bullwinkle and half a dozen ancient pipe wrenches to a 1932 tin Olympic Games pennant. Nonsense, but great fun--both of which are typical and plentiful around the hotel and annex.

A step from the saloon you'll find a room almost empty except for a Ping-Pong table. But what a table it is. A mahogany slab rests atop five marble legs. A sculptor transformed the marble into likenesses of Adam and Eve, Confucius, King Tut, a gargoyle and Triton (a Greek god--half fish, half man--who made the oceans roar). A needlepoint net emblazoned with "Union 1880 Hotel" stretches between two marble griffins.

At any moment a retired logistics manager, now a clown in mufti, may appear to teach you the fine points of Ping-Pong (he claims the 1957 national YMCA championship) or shuffleboard. Or perhaps he will blow up balloons that no ordinary human could inflate without a tire pump, and twist them into sculptures. Meet Mike Petlansky, 67, part of Dick Langdon's unlikely extended family that makes possible the improbable 1880 Union Hotel and Victorian Annex.

A decade ago Dick took racquetball lessons from Petlansky. As is usual with Dick, conversation developed, and Petlansky talked about his troubles: "I was literally falling apart from my divorce," he recalled, adding that in subsequent months "Dick sat me down and told me to 'take charge, no excuses.' "

They have been friends ever since.

Dick has a knack for making long-term friends, then involving them with his hotel and annex. His overt friendliness and off-the-wall imagination make the place what it is: an extension of Dick Langdon.

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