Moke Hill hotel gets TV debut

Written by Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat January 08, 2013 10:30 am

The historic Hotel Leger in Mokelumne Hill shined on camera Monday night in the latest episode of “Hotel Impossible” on the Travel Channel.

A touch-up for television cameras is already paying dividends at the inn, a town landmark built in 1851.

 

Chef and restaurant manager Chuck Swisher said a quick peek at the former county jail converted into a banquet room as a centerpiece of the show’s revamp is often enough to draw business.

Show host Anthony Melchiorri figured as much.

“I can get people to come from all over California for this cool space,” he pledges during the episode.

A major uptick in the number of groups planning weddings, parties and other gatherings has come thanks to the renovated space, Swisher said.

The remodel came a long way in a very short time thanks to the many hands that joined in the work. Many of the more than 150 local volunteers who pitched in on the project in September — after a town hall meeting turned pep talk from Melchiorri — returned as guests for a viewing party of the episode’s airing on a 90-inch flat-screen TV in the restaurant.

“You used to not be able to walk in that jail,” Swisher said.

A collection of decades’ worth of stored odds and ends littered the dirt floor and Melchiorri, along with show designer Blanche Garcia, could tell from the outset that they had their work cut out for them.

“The conga line of volunteers had that (cleaned up) in about two hours,” Swisher recalled Monday.

Hotel owner Ashley Canty and her staff were touched by the eagerness of the community to be a part of the makeover.

“When they didn’t have anything else to do, the volunteers just went up and started dusting, anything to help out,” Swisher said.

The building includes the county courthouse of more than a decade before the county seat controversially moved to San Andreas in 1866. It still looms large as it makes up its own block downtown and is easily the most recognizable structure on Main Street.

“It’s always been kind of the heart of the town,” Canty told Melchiorri when they first met on camera.

She told him the town has undoubtedly struggled since its Gold Rush heyday when it was one of 10 hotels in a bustling burg of 15,000 that has dwindled to less than 1,000 and left the Leger as the lone hotel.

“In this town,” Canty said, “you save the hotel, you save the town.”

Artists designed a massive historical mural for the lobby — created by knocking down a wall and converting a billiards room — as well as a paint-by-the-number scheme that let lay people bring it to fruition, said innkeeper Leanne Sparvel.

The remodel is especially appreciated by those like Sparvel, 50, who grew up in town and can recall as a child exploring the tunnel that once ran beneath Main Street to the other side.

Though for structural purposes the tunnel had to be filled in decades ago, she said it had once served a more risque purpose of permitting discreet passage to a brothel opposite the hotel.

The refurbishment of the jail retained the bent iron bars “where a couple of hoodlums squeezed through to try to escape,” Sparvel said.

The swimming pool area and top floor balcony were also spruced up and a section of wall cut out to add a front desk window. The latter addition Melchiorri insisted upon after getting a lousy first impression of the place by entering the noisy bar to check in.

“No guest should have to fight for a bartender’s attention just to get their keys,” he groused.

His vision for the hotel finally even won over bookkeeper and manager Debbie Rangell, who said she knew cameras would reveal her reluctant instincts against giving up the revenue-generating pool tables for a gamble on the lobby.

“Mostly I was against this lobby. That was my role,” Rangell said. “It turned out fine.”

She acknowledged she experienced some “dread” in anticipation of the airing.

“I’m not a public person. That’s why I work in the back,” Rangell said. “I’m a worker bee.”

Besides, even Melchiorri expresses his doubts, particularly early on in the show. He tells Canty his first instinct is to just sell the property before committing to the remodel effort.

“This is the biggest renovation and repositioning I have ever done in my career,” Melchiorri told an assembly of volunteers when the full remodel is revealed to them.

So far, it seems to be taking. As the show’s epilogue notes, bookings have increased 20 percent at the Leger since September.