The Former Lives of our Hostels

Battery - fort mason

Sometimes, a hostel is just a hostel. But when it comes to HI-USA's Northern California properties, sometimes a hostel is a trip back in time. From Marin to Montara, San Francisco to Sacramento, our hostels' walls have stories to tell.  

HI San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf

HI-Fisherman's Wharf hallwayHI San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf gives guests a history lesson before they even enter the building. The hostel's located in Fort Mason, a beautiful stretch of green along the San Francisco Bay that's served as everything from a Civil War defense outpost to a refugee camp for survivors of the city's 1906 earthquake. Fort Mason is now a public recreation area preserved by the National Park Service

Much like Fort Mason, the building that now houses HI SF Fisherman's Wharf has been through several iterations over the years. The sprawling building was originally constructed in 1863 as barracks for Civil War soldiers. During later wars, building 240 was used as an Army hospital. Though the place is considerably warmer and more cheery these days, historic touches all over the hostel offer reminders of the important role the building has played in the country's wartime history. The long white hallways and checkered floors reminiscent of hospital corridors still remain, and a mural hanging over the hostel's entryway, painted in 1945 by artist Raymond McDonald, depicts white-coated doctors and nurses tending to patients. 

HI Fisherman's Wharf muralHI USA repurposed (and livened up) the hospital's various rooms before turning it into a hostel in 1980, but each spot in the hostel – from the bedrooms to the common areas – still has its own past. The old surgery room is now a private guest room, the one-time physiotherapy room is now a dorm, and the former dispensary has been turned into a cozy guest lounge. To the right of the front desk, immediately as you walk in, be sure to check out the images inside a set of vintage wooden viewers. As you crank the handle on the side of each one, you'll see images of how the building used to look, as well as pictures from Fort Mason's past as a military and civic gathering point.

HI San Francisco City Center

When you see it from the street, the HI San Francisco City Center hostel doesn't look anything like your typical hostel: the brightly painted exterior, tall stone façade, and uptown awning scream "boutique hotel." 

HI City Center interiorAnd in fact, the building started its life as the Hotel Atherton in the 1920s, founded by the same family that would later lend its name to what's now one of the Bay Area's wealthiest towns. The hotel became HI SF City Center in 2001, and while the lobby – and the rooms – have been updated with modern, retro-inspired décor, lots of the period touches from the '20s remain. Walk into the lobby and you'll still find the original marble floor; glance upwards and you'll see a mahogany-railed mezzanine overlooking the action downstairs. 

Ivy's PlaceBut the hostel's coolest historic touch, without a doubt, is its speak-easy-era bar, Ivy's Place. Prohibition may be long gone, but you can still sneak off to the dimly lit, wood-paneled pub and put on your best 1920s gangster accent over a glass of local beer or wine. (Ivy's isn't the only old-school bar in the neighborhood, either: check out our article on the Gangway Bar, a hostel neighbor that's been slinging drinks for over 100 years and hosts a stop each week on our tri-hostel pub crawl).  


HI Point Montara

The lighthouse on the grounds of HI Point Montara may be small, but it's got at least one big claim to fame: it's the only American lighthouse known to have beckoned seafarers on both coasts of the country. 

Montara lighthouse at Cape CodThe late-19th-century structure was originally built in a foundry near Boston, and then installed overlooking a Cape Cod beach. It remained there for nearly half a century, even spending 15 years under the care of the country's first known female lighthouse keeper. In 1925, the lighthouse was taken down and, everyone believed, destroyed for scrap metal. But about five years ago, researchers discovered the disappeared Cape Cod lighthouse had actually just been moved to the West Coast. The lighthouse went up at Point Montara in 1928, yet no one knows exactly how – or why – it made its cross-country journey.

The Point Montara hostel's other buildings have their own rich histories, starting long before the arrival of the cast-iron lighthouse. The United States government established a fog signal at Point Montara in 1875 in response to two high-profile crashes along the coast in the decade before. Initially, the site housed nothing but a 12-inch steam whistle, whose five-second blast could be heard from 15 miles away, and a two-story, Victorian-style innkeeper's dwelling that still stands on the hostel grounds. 

Point Montara todayIn 1902, a one-story fog signal building was added; a secondary building used for storage went up around the same time. Today, the same fog signal building houses one of the hostel's private rooms, and a large common area is used for movie screenings and weekly meditation nights. The storage building has been modernized and outfitted with more private rooms and guest bathrooms. A third building, where today you'll find the hostel's kitchens, lounge, and most of its guest rooms, went up in the 1960s to house members of the U.S. coastguard.

HI-Point Montara General Manager Chris Bauman has done a particularly great job documenting the history of this amazing property. Be sure to check out a detailed history of the property online, or ask the friendly hostel staff for more information when you check in! 

HI Sacramento

HI Sacramento exteriorBefore the gorgeous Victorian mansion at the corner of H and 10th Streets in Sacramento was a hostel, it was a private residence. And a funeral parlor. And a fancy-schmancy party spot. But we'll get to all of that. 

The building itself was constructed in the 1880s by Llewellyn Williams, a Maine native who came to Sacramento at the height of the Gold Rush. While Williams didn't find his fortune in the fields, he did work his way up from store clerk to part-owner of the successful Pioneer Milling Company, making his name – and his wealth – as a prominent local businessman. Williams built a grand, Italianate Stick-style mansion for himself and his family on H Street, then known as Merchant's Row, in 1885. 

After Llewellyn Williams's death in 1891, the home passed hands several times, serving as a private residence, a funeral parlor, and eventually a restaurant and events space. The building itself was also physically moved to several different lots during the century following Williams's death: workers chiseled the 350-ton building off of its foundation, propped it up on wooden beams, and pulled it, inch by inch, to three different locations on H Street over the years. But the mansion was returned to its original home at H and 10th Streets when HI transformed it into a hostel in 1994. (For a more detailed history of the building, check out HI Sacramento's website). 

HI Sacramento formal dining roomVisual reminders of the building's past still abound: this may be the only hostel in the world where you can eat your breakfast in a formal dining room complete with chandelier, or climb up to your room via a redwood staircase under a painted glass skylight. You can also see the building's original pressed-copper wallpaper in the entryway, its original stenciled ceiling in the parlor, and its original street number, 900, through the window over the front entryway.

If hearing these stories sparks your interest, come experience the history first-hand at HI SFFisherman's Wharf, HI SF City Center, HI Point Montara, or HI Sacramento!

And remember, our history doesn't end there: you can stay in former military officers' quarters overlooking trees and meadows at HI Marin Headlands, sleep at the foot of a still-functional 1872 lighthouse at HI Pigeon Point, or bunk down in former barns and ranch-hand houses on the site of an 1860s dairy at HI Point Reyes.


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