December 12, 2006 > Historic gem lights Fremont hillside
Historic gem lights Fremont hillside
by Julie Grabowski
Hidden in the hillside along a familiar stretch of road, Belvoir Springs Hotel in Niles is a charming discovery, a sudden crossing into a bygone world. The property operates as an extended-stay guesthouse welcoming those passing through, experiencing a transition in their lives, or those just wanting a comfortable retreat to call home.
Built in 1884 by Giles and Emily “Nana” Chittenden, Belvoir Springs originally encompassed 150 acres of land purchased for $3,556. The Chittendens ran their property as a farm, but were soon receiving friends and family for summer stays, transforming the family house into a bustling hotel. Niles was a busy train depot with 24 passenger trains daily. Schoolteachers, railroad employees, and businessmen were all regular boarders at Belvoir Springs. Many people displaced by the 1906 earthquake also came to stay at the hotel.
Belvoir Springs was remodeled in 1913, gaining a second story, a more intimately arranged dining room, a player piano, and the luxury of sinks in each hotel room. The film industry was beginning in Niles at this time, and the hotel register from 1913-1918 shows the presence of Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery, Ben Turpin, and the entire Essanay Film Studio production company. But operations as a hotel and restaurant ceased in the 1920s as Nana Chittenden began to travel, and other families ran the property as a boarding house. Nana died in 1930 and the property was later sold to Joseph and Louise Grimshaw who continued to rent the upstairs rooms while living on the main floor. After Mrs. Grimshaw died in the 1970s the property became run down and was eventually condemned.
Belvoir Springs was finally offered for purchase in a foreclosure sale in 1994. Jim and Suzie Richardson, along with Colin Young, purchased the property and remain owners and proprietors. “Gruesome” is the word used by Suzie in describing their new property. No longer hosting families or local movie stars, Belvoir Springs now had alcoholics and drug users living behind windows covered with old newspapers.
“They were having tire fires in the garden,” says Suzie. The water was contaminated, the grounds wildly unkempt, and the historical and structural integrity of the house disregarded and compromised. “It was just trashed,” she says. “We went through it with a dumpster.”
Thanks to the endless efforts of the Richardsons, those dark days of Belvoir Springs are now just a part of its long and colorful history. Today Belvoir Springs is a serene country hideaway that has no problem finding guests. Eleven fully furnished rooms are offered for extended stays, equipped with microwave, refrigerator, and cable television. Most rooms are shared-bath with in room vanities, and all units are uniquely comfortable and homey with a nice view of the grounds. Cleaning services and other amenities are available to the original rooms. Guests have use of the living room, library, dining room, and kitchen, and are responsible for their own meals and clean up. The decor throughout Belvoir Springs is a mix of the Richardson’s own furniture, some from family and friends, and others purchased from downtown Niles, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere that immediately feels like home.
Belvoir Springs has been pared down over the years to its current 21 acres, flourishing with guava and orange trees, purple sage, and delightful waterfalls. A charming garden calls for relaxation and daydreaming. Animals abound, from chickens, cats, and two bounding black and white spaniels named Niles and Otis, to the regular appearance of wild pigs, foxes, skunks, possums, and deer. Stone steps lead up the hillside past a majestic sycamore tree over 100 years old to a private mystery spring that produces 22 gallons of water a minute. “We have no idea where the water comes from,” says Susie. The spot also delivers a wonderful view of Fremont with a patchwork of treetops in red, green, and gold.
Susie has opened Belvoir Springs for small parties as well as a recent fundraiser for the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, and she hopes to host more events for groups not exceeding 40 people. Though taking a break from the Niles House Tour this Christmas, Belvoir Springs will be participating in the annual Flower Tour in May for those desirous of an inside look.
Although Belvoir Springs is recognized as a historical site, the property is not eligible for public money because it is privately owned. This leaves the Richardsons with the hefty cost of repairs and renovation on top of the over $1 million already spent in restoring the beauty and dignity of Belvoir Springs. The property is a never-ending project with thousands of dollars going to monthly maintenance alone. Suzie says that getting funding would be great, and though all their enquiries have been denied, she still hopes for a way to help preserve the setting and building. “It’s a tremendous historical resource,” she says. “It should be preserved. It’s beautiful and I love it.”
Past guest John A. Morris III clearly concurs. He wrote: “Shambhala is a mythical Tibetan Buddhist story of the perfect place in the physical realm to seek a release from the World. Shangri-La is a mystical, harmonious valley, brought to the West in the novel Lost Horizon. The Belvoir Springs environment captures the nurturing and isolation of those two mythical escapes from a very busy life style created around today’s modern existence. Interaction with critters, people and nature almost have the feel of the original lodgings found when the structures were put into place. To have endured intact required much love and dedication. If by chance I find a need to dwell in this area again Belvoir Springs will be my preferred Shangri-La once more.”
Belvoir Springs hosts adults only, for a minimum of 30 days, costs range from $700-$1,200 per month. Interested parties must go through an application process. For an application or more information call (510) 791-5711 or visit www.belvoirsprings.com.
Extended-stay; events; weddings
36990 Mission Boulevard, Fremont