By LANCE ARMSTRONG, Valley Community Newspapers writer
The hotel, which has undergone many changes and remains a very unique place, was constructed in an undeveloped area within the southern boundary of the historic Rancho del Paso Mexican land grant.
Located at 500 Leisure Lane, off Highway 160, the hotel was constructed as the dream of Frank F. Sebastian, who moved to Sacramento in 1938.
Sebastian (1896-1976) was well known in the hotel, club and restaurant industry, having operated the California businesses, Café Sebastian, which was located in Venice and featured French and Italian food, the Cotton Club in Culver City and the Hotel Senator at 12th and L streets, just north of the state Capitol.
Sebastian’s Cotton Club, which was the West Coast branch of the Cotton Club of New York City – there was also a branch in Chicago operated by Ralph Capone – drew big name jazz acts during the late 1920s and early 1930s such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Abe Lyman.
Partnering with George Artz, Walter E. Fazzio and Hal Ellis, Sebastian worked diligently to have the Hotel El Dorado
constructed on property that was provided by the North Sacramento Land Co.
On the ballot
The Journal, a now-defunct newspaper that was dedicated to covering news related to North Sacramento, did not shy away from promoting the then-future hotel, which needed to meet the approval of the majority of North Sacramento voters in order to be constructed.
In its Aug. 6, 1955 edition, The Journal presented an artist’s rendition of how the hotel would appear, along with a headline, which read, “North Sacramento wants this hotel!”
Whether or not the newspaper was effective in persuading enough of its readers to vote “Yes” on this issue to make a difference in the outcome of a special election, the hotel project nonetheless acquired the necessary number of votes needed to progress forward.
After voters went to the polls on Aug. 30, 1955 to cast their votes on the issue of whether the property that the land company made available for the project would be zoned to commercial status in order that the hotel could be built, the votes were counted.
Helping to influence the election’s outcome, prior to the election, members of the city council had gone on record in support of the hotel on the basis that it would increase the city’s annual tax revenues by $40,000.
On Sept. 2, 1955, The Journal reported on its front page that local voters had overwhelmingly approved the hotel’s construction by a final tally of 1208 to 270 and that work would soon begin on the $3 million, “modern, garden-type hotel.”
The election results were especially satisfying for Sebastian, since about a year had elapsed since he began leading the efforts of the Sacramento firm, Highway Hotels, Inc., to have the hotel built near a segment of the local portion of the historic U.S. Route 40.
Following delays in the project, a groundbreaking ceremony for the new hotel was held on Friday, June 28, 1957.
After the ceremony, a banquet was held in which speeches were presented by Sebastian, Artz, who was the secretary of Highway Hotels and the event’s master of ceremonies, State Senator Earl Desmond and Assemblyman Thomas J. McBride.
During his speech, Sebastian said that the Hotel El Dorado would be one of the best garden-style hotels in the nation, and added that he had toured motels of significance in 11 Western states.
Elegant El Dorado
The June 30, 1957 edition of The Sacramento Union provided details regarding the under construction hotel, which would include the following features: 260 rooms, each including a television and a push-button air conditioning and heating unit, a banquet hall to accommodate 1,200 to 1,400 guests, the Café de Oro restaurant with a charcoal broiler, a coffee shop, a four-acre lake, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and parking availability for more than 1,000 automobiles.
The hotel, which was constructed on a 17-acre site, opened in 1958.
In August 1961, construction began on a project that would result in an additional 125 hotel rooms and six private dining rooms that would also be available to be used as meeting places for business firms and organizations.
During its most successful years, the El Dorado, which remained under the continuous direction of Sebastian until late 1964, celebrated its fifth anniversary in May 1963 with a dinner and entertainment by Louis Armstrong and his All-Star Band.
Sinatra, Rolling Stones
North Sacramento Land Co. President Bob Slobe, whose grandmother Myrtle Johnston contributed the land for the hotel during her presidency of the company, said that through Sebastian’s connections and the hotel’s notoriety even after Sebastian’s departure from the hotel, Armstrong was far from the only celebrity to visit the hotel.
“I remember growing up and my grandmother would call, for example, and she would say, ‘Do you want Jimmy Durante’s autograph?’ or she would say, ‘Frank Sinatra’s at the hotel’ or ‘The Rolling Stones are at the hotel,’ or ‘The Lovin’ Spoonful.’ The hotel had this cachet. It was also the largest convention hotel in the region, which it still is today. It had the most resort hotel feeling of any hotel in the region. Its ‘ace in the hole’ during that era was that it was a big hotel and it had the lake and had all that going for it. It felt elegant, I guess you could say.”
With the heyday of the El Dorado in the past, the hotel was experiencing financial difficulties and Sebastian, who married Effie Hashow a year after the El Dorado’s opening, once again resumed leadership of the hotel in November 1968.
In March 1969, Manufacturers Life Insurance Co. of Toronto, Canada acquired ownership of the hotel through a foreclosure.
Two years later, the hotel entered a new era, as it became known as the Woodlake Inn.
Fred C. Sands, a realtor and developer from Los Angeles, purchased the Woodlake Inn for about $11 million following its foreclosure in early 1985 and was soon afterward working on what eventually became a more than $20 million facelift for the hotel.
The project included the construction of a new, 55,000-square-foot convention center, a business center, a 17,000-square-foot ballroom and exhibit showroom, a 200-seat restaurant overlooking the lake, a 2,000-seat amphitheater, a remodeling of all the rooms, a $50,000 fountain in the lake, a new swimming pool and the planting of about 30 palms.
Dick Williams, who was hired by Sands to work on the facelift project, said that an important element of the project was to include the large ballroom.
“My recommendation was, and Fred went along with it, was to have the biggest ballroom in town and probably, except for the convention center, it still is,” Williams said.
Following several years of negotiations, Sands agreed to have the Woodlake Inn become part of the Radisson chain in August 1988 – an arrangement that became official by early 1989.
A decade later, Sacramento’s Radisson, which has also served as an entertainment venue that has drawn such musical acts as Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, the Isley Brothers and Boz Scaggs, was acquired by PD Hotel Associates, a joint venture of Prudential Real Estate Investors and The Dow Hotel Company.
The hotel, which underwent a $3 million renovation, which was completed in 2001, is presently on the market, and awaiting the next chapter of its very detailed history.