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The burning of the Barbara Worth

January 26, 2001|By DONNA HAMPTON, Contributing Writer

Her doors opened on May 8, 1915. The five-story hotel, named after the gracious heroine in the Harold Bell Wright novel "The Winning of Barbara Worth" was a "Spanish Renaissance" beauty with classic, fine features.

Tall and stately, she graced the northwest corner of Seventh and Main streets in El Centro with a grandeur that turned heads and commanded respect.

She was well-dressed. Four murals, depicting events in Imperial Valley's history as well as scenic locations, decorated her walls, murals painted in oil by two artists from Chicago. Edward Vysekal and Luvena Buchanan lived in the desert for several weeks sketching details in order to make their pictures real, then worked from a studio built on the roof of the new hotel.

Local people were used as models. Marjorie Paris of El Centro, draped in white, posed as Barbara Worth. Prudence Perry, the 4-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. C. N. Perry, posed as a pioneering child.

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Dark red and rich gold-colored carpet flowed throughout the lobby and the hallways. If you entered off Main Street, the registration desk, the switchboard operator and the elevator were on the left. A massive skylight extended high above the center of the lobby. Huge crystal chandeliers sparkled in her dining rooms, where a different, freshly typed menu (remember carbon paper?) was offered each day. Rotarians and Kiwanians met weekly for lunch. High school proms and wedding receptions were held at the Barbara Worth Hotel when she was young and fresh. In the 1920s and '30s it was the social hub of town. The rooms were "air-cooled."

According to "The First 30 Years In Imperial Valley," a chronicle of the history of the reclaimed desert, the hotel was built by the Bell Development Co., comprised of several Imperial Valley investors including W.F. and Leroy Holt. In 1931 Maj. W.R. Irwin, a Texan, bought the hotel and moved his wife and four children to a ranch two miles west of El Centro on the San Diego Highway. Irwin, a vice president of the Hilton Hotel company, brought to the Barbara Worth a hospitality, style and elegance unique to the desert community.

Hotel diners celebrating a birthday in July 1934 had a choice of eight entrees including baked stuffed lobster thermidor or grilled lamb chops with pineapple, as well as ripe olives, beverage and a choice between two soups, two salads, biscuits, rolls or rye bread. Potatoes and zucchini came with the meal. There were 13 dessert combinations — all for 90 cents. In addition, the chef's specials for the day (fine food, just fewer frills) numbered eight. Among these was a "cold Dutch plate lunch with bottle beer"— 50 cents for that delicacy. Local parents often took their children to the Barbara Worth so the youngsters could get practical experience of what fork to use and when.

In the 1950s the hotel was an elegant oasis for movie stars who visited El Centro in dove-hunting season or attended movie premieres at the United Artists theater across the street. Dignitaries stayed there as well as a number of businessmen who grew, bought and sold Imperial Valley produce. There were several offices on the first floor, an annex and a parking garage to the west.

By the early 1960s new owners had remodeled the lobby of the aging hotel. The carpet came up, Mexican tile went down and overstuffed couches in an "I Love Lucy" orange were moved in. The owners opened a bar in the basement. But the murals, a visual history of the Valley and a testament to the conquest of the desert by the early settlers remained. Until …

The El Centro Fire Department got the call at 3:16 on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 21, 1962. Fire departments from every Valley city and the Navy base responded. Over 100 men battled the blaze throughout the night. Embers, blown by a cold west wind, touched off several other fires on the east side of El Centro. Downtown merchants placed wet sandbags on the roofs of their stores and hosed down the car lot and the gas station across the street. The bright yellow halo of the fire was visible to residents as far north as the Salton Sea and to drivers coming down Mountain Springs Grade, 60 miles away. The Barbara Worth Hotel was being destroyed by a catastrophic fire.

Roy Byrd Sr. of El Centro was the El Centro fire captain on duty that night. Capt. Norm Heil was off duty, but he showed up to help.

"We'd done some practices and training in the building because it was so tall," Heil said.

"But when it went, it burned just exactly the opposite way we had practiced. Oh, it was definitely the biggest fire I ever fought," said the 30-year veteran firefighter who retired in 1979 and lives in El Centro.

Joe Stein, 96, of El Centro lived at the Barbara Worth Hotel. He remembers the rich wood finishes on the staircases and the mezzanine and how tenants would sit around the lobby in the evening and have lively conversations. Joe, a long-time employee of Abatti Farms, was out of town on produce business the night of the fire.

"I heard the news bulletin on a Los Angeles radio station," said Stein.

Goldy the cocker spaniel was rescued and returned to her grateful owners.

Dale Holder, a volunteer firefighter, was trapped in the basement and died in the blaze. He left a wife and four children.

A prestigious part of downtown El Centro was gone. Damage was estimated at over $1 million and the Barbara Worth Hotel, which once maintained an atmosphere of history and romance, remained a shell for over 10 years. Ultimately the site was cleared, filled, paved and became a used car lot.

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