When the refurbished Hotel Elliott opened its doors to a gawking public, it was commented Astoria had never seen the likes of it before.
Nothing, the story goes, was ever this fancy in working-class Astoria. Not quite. In fact, the motivation to revive the Hotel Elliott resembles that for the construction of Astoria's premier establishment, the Weinhard-Astoria Hotel.
Exactly 100 years ago, businessman William W. Whipple declared Astoria's greatest need was a new hotel: first-class accommodations competitive with any leading Northwest city. "A new hotel must be built," he said, "and the people of Astoria must shake off their lethargy and pull together to this end."
Thousands of dollars were lost each year because the "wealthy class of tourist" had nowhere to stay. If given the opportunity, they might stay days, weeks or months. The aim was to attract people who had money to invest in job-creating enterprises.
Businessmen rallied around the vision. A hotel guaranty company was proposed; 27 men answered its call. Two years passed and Astoria's needs were not met. Financing Astoria's dream proved troublesome; locals were unable to raise the $75,000 needed to construct a high quality edifice.
One year later, Astoria was still without a hotel. On Feb. 27, 1907, Astoria got its break: a stranger answered its call. Representatives of the deceased, Portland multimillionaire, Henry Weinhard purchased a 100 by 100 foot site on the northeast corner of 12th and Duane for $8,500. The Weinhard-Astoria Hotel was designed by Portland architects William Whidden and Ion Lewis. Both Whidden and Lewis were educated at MIT in Boston. Whidden went on to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he was drenched in Classicism. He returned to New York and joined McKim, Mead and White, the firm credited with popularizing the Colonial Revival in United States. Meanwhile, Lewis joined Peabody and Sterns in Boston who later won a silver medal at the Paris Exposition in 1900.
Whidden and Lewis reunited in Portland around 1890. Their projects included Portland Public Library (1891), Portland City Hall (1895) and the Multnomah County Courthouse (1911). According to the Journal of Architectural and Design in the Northwest, they invoked a change in the color palate of Portland's commercial structures - moving from dark red brick and brown stone to bright glazed terra cotta - much like the Weinhard-Astoria Hotel.
The hotel was constructed on a site old-timers remembered as John "Dad" Farrell's saw mill. Every day after school, boys congregated around the mill with wheel barrows, gathering box wood to heat their family's home. Many days after school, the nearby river bank was lined with boys who constructed a spring board from which they would run, jump and summersalt into a pile of wood shavings.
This was also the site from which the 1883 conflagration began. Shivering boys built a fire outside the mill after swimming in the log pond. The fire spread and enveloped the east half of the commercial district. In 1907, as workers readied the site for the hotel, pilings which once supported a boom leading to the mill were still visible.
On July 18, the first pile was driven for the foundation. A public ceremony marked the occasion. A bottle of Weinhard's Columbia beer was placed on top of a pile decorated with flags and ribbons, then smashed by the driver's massive hammer.
Several months later, contractors Hildebrand & Gerding began filling the site for the hotel's foundation. It was estimated 4,000 yards, at 35 cents a yard, were needed to complete the work. Earth was secured from a street improvement project east of 18th and Irving Avenue. Dirt was hauled to the site in wagons.
In January 1910, the hotel was still under construction. The second floor interior was proceeding, but the exterior brickwork was delayed, frustrating both its contractor, C.G. Palmberg, and an anxious public.
Framework erectedBy May, framework for the "roof garden" was erected. Accessible by elevator, the enclosed sun room was wrapped by windows which could be opened during pleasant weather. In storms, the space was warmed by steam heat. At night, overhead electric lights cast a soft glow, illuminating the space without marring the view of the city and river below.
The Weinhard-Astoria Hotel opened on November 21, 1910, nearly 4 years after the Weinhard estate purchased the site and more than 6 years after Whipple outlined his plan before area merchants. The $100,000 building was exceptionally handsome.
Designed in the American Renaissance style, the four-story facade blended gray pressed brick with terra cotta molding and detail. The lobby was eye catching too. Its tile floors, oak paneling and boxed beam ceilings were classic. They surpassed "anything of the kind on the coast."
The 81 guest rooms were up-to-date luxury: steam heat, electric lighting (even in the closet) a phone connection to the main office, and "private baths" - shared in suites - with porcelain fixtures. Brussels carpets graced the floors beneath beds, which were almost certainly wonderful. Bedsteads were brass, both gilt and enamel finish. The mattresses were silk floss. Beds were made with fine linen "and other articles needed to insure sweet rest to those fortunate enough to sleep in them."
A successThe Weinhard-Astoria Hotel was a success. Within four years, it was overflowing and a fifth floor and annex were planned. But the magnificent hotel was also ill-fated. On Dec. 8, 1922, Astoria's downtown was savaged by fire. Although the hotel was of fire-proof construction, frantic firemen dynamited it in an attempt to block the spread of encroaching run-away flames.
Virtually all that remained of the Weinhard-Astoria Hotel was its Duane Avenue entry: two Ionic columns supporting a cornice and frieze incised with the hotel's name. The columns were salvaged, thanks to the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, and erected in Shively Park. These columns, our Portals of the Past, are a reminder of both the fire and grand visions preceding it.
The rebirth of structures like the Hotel Elliott captures the best of those visions. Combined with numerous other commercial projects, it is shaking off the lethargy which numbed Astoria for so many years. And, it is drawing our city into a revival.
John E. Goodenberger is a historic building consultant who lives in Astoria.