25 years

Owning (and loving) the Columbia Gorge Hotel

Boyd and Halla Graves, photographed in September 2007 on the north grounds of the Columbia Gorge Hotel.

November 21, 2007

Every year on day after Thanksgiving, Columbia Gorge Hotel invites the community to come visit, with a 500,000-light wink.

This year is no different: The holiday light display flashes on at around 6:30 p.m. Friday as the hotel celebrates the return of the holiday season.

What makes this year special for Boyd and Halla Graves is that it marks their 25th Christmas season as owners.

The annual holiday lights — which stay on and illuminated every night until Valentine’s Day — are a famous feature of the landmark hotel that has grown in prominence in the quarter-century since Boyd Graves bought the place under trying circumstances.

“December is more festive for the hotel than the Biltmore,” Halla Graves said.

Boyd Graves can sit back and look out the dining room window over the hotel’s panoramic view of the Columbia River and savor his chocolate ice cream with greater pleasure than ever. He sees a bright future for the hotel.

“I hope to be here for the 100th anniversary in 2021,” said Boyd, who wants more than ever to share his hallmark hostelry with the community, be it for the holiday lighting or any other time of year.

“This place deserves some local traffic. People are interested but think they have to dress up and act differently,” Graves said. The hotel has its dress-up events, yes, but to the Graves the high quality they strive to provide does not equate to stuffiness.

It is the Graves’ fervent hope that the Gorge community sees the hotel as a place for visitors and locals, not just a “special treat” place. (A locals’ special, just introduced this month, offers lower rates for Gorge residents for January and February.)

Boyd notes that for the most part, the menu at the hotel is comparable to many other upper-end restaurants in the area.

Earlier this year the hotel was ranked among the top 100 hotels in continental U.S. and Canada by Travel+Leisure magazine. In the category of “Top 15 Hotels for $250 or Less,” the Columbia Gorge Hotel placed eighth in the world.

Halla believes the ranking proves that the hotel is not only among the highest quality in the continent, but an affordable deal among hotels offering a luxury experience.

Boyd Graves started the way anyone starts in the restaurant and hotel business: washing dishes, for 25 cents an hour at age 10. His family had owned the nearby Snoqualmie Falls Lodge (now Salish and under different ownership) since 1937 He went to school at Cornell University and returned to the Puget Sound to work at the old Olympic Hotel, now the Four Seasons.

He started the Beef and Brew chain in Oregon and Alaska, which he expanded and later sold off, and was manager of the Sheraton Renton Inn in Renton, Wash. He came to Hood River, seeking a new challenge, in 1978.

The hotel was built in 1921 by lumber baron Simon Benson, and was a popular destination resort in its early years. Sternwheeler captains approaching the hotel dock would ring the ship bell once for each guest aboard, and the maids would make up the appropriate number of beds.

Over the years the hotel had many ups and downs. It was shuttered for many years, and served in the 1950s as a retirement home.

Former owner Paul Federici, who in a 1982 Hood River News article described the hotel as “a sleeping mistress,” had bought it in 1976. Graves and Helen Seals joined the partnership in 1978. After restorations they reopened the hotel. But the operation struggled.

Graves managed it until 1981, when it went into receivership.

“When the mistress awoke,” wrote the Hood River News, “she was an insatiable one, consuming more money in restoration and operations than anyone had planned for.”

The Graves have done several major renovations inside and out the hotel in their tenure, and are looking at expanding the guest rooms and its amenities.

“Boyd is the vision; I’m the operator, and it continues to be so,” Halla said.

The hotel has changed hands a few times since its construction in 1921.

“We’ve had it longer than anyone,” Boyd said. The hotel, like the town, has undergone a rejuvenation in the past quarter-century, the Graves note, and they are happy to have been a part of it. The hotel has had a big part in enriching the cachet of the Gorge, Halla feels.

“It’s amazing the turnaround in this community,” Halla said.

Like many people new to the Gorge in the 1970s, Boyd Graves came to Hood River with the question, “Where’s Hood River?”

It was 1978, and it was a town in transition. He came to check into purchasing a minority interest in the Columbia Gorge Hotel. He would later buy the hotel out of receivership; 25 years ago (see sidebar).

The purchase was official on May 10, 1982.

When Boyd first saw the historic hotel in 1978 it was deteriorating; it had concrete floors, a plain interior, and blackberry-choked grounds. But then Boyd saw that it had a feature that made him feel at home: a tall, dynamic waterfall, just like he knew at Snoqualmie.

“I was not impressed until then,” he said. Wau Gwin Gwin Falls, all 208 feet of it, was white. But the walls of the hotel were something else, an institutional hue.

“Everything was green,” Graves recalled.

In the early 1980s the hotel had a wood-stoked, single plan boiler, put in triple pass system. Working with then-manager Glen Brydges, “first thing, we met with an architect,” Boyd recalled. They upgraded the lobby and dining room, added air conditioning, and replaced the elevator, among other duties.

“I told Glen, ‘I know how to make martinis and talk to guests, but this other stuff ...’”

The hotel had no air conditioning and it used a guest room for an office; today it is air conditioned and has one room just to support its computer server and a recently expanded gift shop that Halla describes as “one of the area’s finest specialty women’s stores,” under the management of Luann Trotebas.

“It was an act of love to take on the hotel.” Halla said. “It was a huge gamble that still has not paid off.” But the Graves are looking at expanding and further upgrading a hotel that has been made over and upgraded several times in their tenure.

“I have refined tastes. I know what I like,” Boyd said. “One of the nice things about being a dictator is you make sure it’s what you want.

‘“I like simple things but I like nice things.”

 

In a tip of the hat to history, the hotel dining room was recently renamed “Simon’s,” in honor of Simon Benson.

Boyd’s favorite meal may involve lamb, but he said it is hard to come by premium cuts.

This summer, one of the menu specialties was a lamb, feta and rosemary burger.

Executive Chef Carl Rynecki, hired in March, brings a renewed talent for innovation that extends to valuing the ideas of his staff, a virtue the Graves say is critical.

 

“He’s inclusive. He recognizes the talents of other people. When you’re this small a business, you’re family,” Halla said.

Rynecki previously worked at Inn at Little Washington Virginia, and at the prestigious Yellowstone Club in Wyoming.

Rynecki’s approach is simple: “He lets the flavors come through,” Boyd said.

Both Rynecki and the hotel general manager, Glen Lewis, are “incredibly meticulous with great ideas.”

“It was hard to find good servers at first; now we bring in the best in the profession, from all over the country,” Halla said.

They include people who saw the beauty and stayed; former employees include Andrew McElderry and Mike Caldwell, who are owners, respectively, of Hood River Cinemas and Andrews/Skylight Theatre and Stonehedge Gardens and North Oak Brasserie.

Improvements this year included modern Dell computer-television units in every room. Rooms have been newly painted and repapered, as have hallways and stairwells.

This summer opened the tower, after a $50,000 renovation, wedding guests and small parties.

 

“We’ve spent on this hotel the way you spend on a loved one,” Halls said.

“The goal has always been more rooms; there were never enough rooms to support the public spaces,” Halla said. She said the hotel “can’t meet the demand in summer.”

Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations are popular traditions, and the wedding business is an ever-increasing focus for the hotel. But January to April is the slow time, leading to a growing appeal for group stays.

“Any business is good business, and you have to do the same good job for six as you do for 60,” Halla said.

Boyd said, “I foresee we’ll add rooms; the hottest buzz word is spa; we already have an in-house spa, and we need to build a larger one.

“Our customer is looking for an escape.”