The Darling Hotel in Downtown VisaliaNov 16, 2020 10:46PM ● By Rachel Trigueiro
Absolutely DarlingOctober/November 2020
By Rachel Trigueiro
Photos courtesy of The Darling Hotel
Turning an abandoned, run-down building into a crown jewel, Visalia native and lead developer Matt Ainley added a new niche to his engineering ventures in 2020: The Darling boutique hotel in downtown Visalia.
“Designing projects is what I do for a living, but it’s usually for other people – normally a new subdivision or Jack in the Box. What we’ve done here is much harder than brand new projects, but it’s been an outlet and very personal,” Matt says.
Over the last year, Visalia has watched in wonder as something dead has come to life downtown. The Darling is the talk of the town, with locals eager for a fresh scene and view. The excitement has been palpable. What many may not know is the dream of a hotel in the annex existed long before the building was ever on the market.
Matt recalls spending many Sunday afternoons downtown with his family. “We were having lunch at Pita Kabob years ago, and at 10 or 11 years old, my oldest daughter Reese would look across the street at the old building and say, ‘Dad, we should buy that building one day and turn it into a hotel and I’ll live on the top floor.’”
Reese Darlene Ainley, now 16, laughs and says the dream was really an ongoing thing in the family. “Anytime we’d walk by it, I’d say, ‘There’s my hotel!’ My plan was to go away to college, get an architectural degree, come back and refinish the inside of the hotel while my dad worked on the outside. I knew he did projects since he was an engineer and I thought this could be my little project.”
Going back even further to 1935, the concrete annex building was completed with the County Courthouse, which ultimately became the Tulare County Social Services building. Beautiful in its time, an earthquake leveled the courthouse and the annex faced years of disrepair, shaping its vacant future. Years after his daughter dreamed of a hotel, the county reached out to Matt seeking professional advice on the boarded-up building’s future.
Less than a year after Matt walked through the building, the county decided to put it on the market. “I walk through open doors until they close. And this one felt like too much,” he says. “It was such a big project to take on, so I decided to let it go.” Within the week, he and his wife were at a church conference in St. Louis and he recalls wrestling with thoughts of the old building. He heard God say, “You need to go home and pursue this.” Matt contacted his two brothers and within 24 hours they had a proposal for the county.
Robert Ainley, managing partner along with Matt, says the project has been a special one for the family, with each sibling having a voice, including sister Audra (Ainley) Wyngarden. “We’ve made difficult decisions together and it’s a very personal project. The county is really behind it, the city is really behind it and people are cheering it on.”
Robert says they’re just regular country kids who don’t come from money, but bring a lot of heart for the community. “We’re from here, we care about this place and that’s why it’s so important to us to keep things local. The architectural firm is in San Luis Obispo, the work on the building is all from local vendors and the investment group is made up of locals: a Kaweah Delta executive, a tech executive and a dairyman.”
Hotel manager Mike Seward says the five owners carry a strong passion for the community, and thoughtfully made every decision for The Darling’s aesthetic. “The group wanted to build something we could all be proud of, like a beacon in the downtown area. They kept that in mind through the whole process and tried their best to save whatever they could in the building.” Although much of the inside has been fully restored, some rooms contain original artifacts with whispers from another lifetime. One unique room’s closet is an original walk-in safe, with all the maintenance records still listed.
The 32-room hotel not only boasts beautiful artwork from local artists, but also includes local flora. Each flower painted throughout the hotel can be found in the outdoors of the Central Valley.
Opening a hotel in the middle of a pandemic hasn’t been easy, but they’ve found many silver linings. “We were able to plan and train for it all before we ever opened,” Seward says. “In a lot of ways, it was easier in that regard because we didn’t have to change our whole operation to cater to it.” Providing jobs in the midst of this difficult time is another great benefit. “We have an extremely friendly staff. They all grew up here and know the area well, offering guests a more personal experience.”
Opening a business that relies heavily on travelers and events is difficult in a season of limited tourism, but the locals have surprised them. “We’re getting a lot of birthdays, anniversaries and staycations right now because people are wanting somewhere to go,” Seward says. “It’s not the way we had planned it, but it’s nice, because the locals are really getting to enjoy it first.” Visalia residents have been the majority of their guests, keeping weekends booked.
Guests have praised a Gatsby-like era inside the building. “The Darling is the perfect staycation; there isn’t a place like it around here,” says Charis Alipaz of Visalia. “As you step into the lobby, you feel like you’ve stepped into another time and you feel the excitement of traveling without ever leaving town.”
The rooftop restaurant, Elderwood, is a highlight and booked full for weeks. Locals have enjoyed the handcrafted menu while seeing Visalia from a different perspective.
Although Reese doesn’t live on the top floor like she imagined, she works on the rooftop and enjoys it “because when guests leave and they’re so positive about their experience, I like thinking that my idea is a small part of it, bringing people joy.”
Whether Reese’s idea for a hotel was divine forecasting or mere coincidence, her dad is certain of one thing: its name. “Before we had investors or a clear idea of what the hotel would look like, it was always called The Darling,” after their late mother Darlene and his daughter with her namesake.
This unique hotel with a beating heart will be a place of respite and beauty for many in the days ahead. “Our hope is that when you come to The Darling, wherever you’re from, that you feel the space tell a story,” Robert says. •
The Darling Hotel
210 N Court St., Visalia
Find them on Facebook