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Ashland Springs Hotel: 95th anniversary stories

Without Doug and Becky Neuman, the 1925 Ashland Springs Hotel might today be decaying apartments or even a pile of concrete rubble.

Thanks to their vision and guts, the hotel is celebrating its 95th anniversary this year, finally becoming the iconic Ashland spot its founders envisioned in the early 1920s.

The Neumans were living in Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s. Doug’s parents wanted to move to the Eugene area, but Doug didn’t like the wet and overcast weather there, so Oregon looked like a bust.

Before leaving Eugene, Doug played tennis at the club there, and the tennis pro told him, “If I could live anywhere on the West Coast, I would live in Ashland.” The next day, Doug and his father drove to Ashland with a video camera and brought home their impressions of the town.

When she saw the videos, Becky knew right away that Ashland was likely to be their long-term home. What she and Doug didn’t know at the time was that they would have a future in the hospitality business.

Dream big, fall hard

When John Enders Jr. and his fellow investors opened the Lithia Springs Hotel in 1925, they believed Southern Oregon would soon be “the playground of the Pacific Coast.” In 1927, Southern Pacific Railroad routed most of its passenger trains away from Ashland and through the town of Klamath Falls, which reduced tourist arrivals in Ashland. Then the Great Depression slammed the U.S. from 1929 to about 1939.

The once-great hotel limped along, decade after decade. In 1960, after a contest to come up with a name that would build on the growing popularity of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it was renamed the Mark Antony Motor Hotel. Neither the new name nor several remodels were able to boost its fortunes.

From bankruptcy to new life

In 1998, when the building was bankrupt and falling apart, the Neumans made a commitment to purchase the hotel and bring it back to life. As it says on the hotel website: “A complete ‘basement to parapet,’ two-year, $10 million restoration followed, and the hotel reopened December 2000.”

Now, when you enter the beautiful two-story lobby, you see the original 1925 terrazzo floor, ornate columns and huge fireplace. A new “History Wall” of historic Ashland photos is on the mezzanine level, prepared with help from the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Inspiration for the new interiors

“The inspiration,” said Becky, “came through Candra Scott and Richard Anderson and myself after we went to the Southern Oregon Historical Society and found out that people were traveling to Ashland at that time (early 1900s) for two things: the Chautauqua lecture series and the Lithia water.” Scott and Anderson are interior designers who specialize in renovating historic hotels.

Scott said, “we’re going to design this lobby as if it were the personal home of a lecturer for the Chautauqua series.” That lecturer would be a naturalist and would live the “great outdoors” idealism of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The vision was to give guests the experience of a simpler time in American life, with a focus on flora and fauna.

The lobby has ornithology — beautiful bird collections — and “a fabulous cabinet of curiosities.” It was very popular 100 years ago to bring back unique objects from one’s worldly travels and display them in a cabinet of “rarities.”

Managing the hotel and restaurant

Since the Neumans had never worked in the hospitality industry, they hired a management company from Portland when the renovated hotel reopened. The company had experience with hotels and restaurants, so it seemed like a good fit. By the fifth year of the new hotel and Bullseye Bistro restaurant, the Neumans had decided to take over management of the hotel. Based on numerous conversations with guests, they chose a “farm to table” theme for the new Larks Restaurant.

They hired Don Anway as hotel general manager. “Don has a lot of heart, but he’s also a numbers guy. It’s our team that creates our success. We provide the vision.”

In choosing a head chef, Becky stressed two themes: local food and comfort food. In addition to offering cutting-edge food combinations, she wanted the menu to include her favorite comfort foods — meatloaf and fried chicken.

That became a key question as she interviewed prospective head chefs. She might find one who waxed poetic about local, organic foods. Then she would ask, “How’s your meatloaf?” If the person mumbled about meatloaf not really being his “thing,” that was the end of the interview. A number of otherwise excellent chefs were disqualified in this way.

One day when she asked the key question, the candidate replied, “I use my grandmother’s meatloaf recipe, and it’s great.”

Becky’s next words were, “You’re hired!”

“Useful birds of America” on the walls at Larks

Next time you visit Larks, take a few minutes to notice the bird illustrations, which have a fascinating history. They are reproductions of illustrations by Mary Emily Eaton, a botanical illustrator for the New York Botanical Garden from 1911 to 1932.

Eaton’s illustrations were funded by the makers of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, as part of their “Useful Birds of America” series. Beginning in 1888, small 2-by-3-inch bird trading cards were placed inside Arm & Hammer Baking Soda boxes. On the back of each card was the ecological message: “For the Good of All, Do Not Destroy the Birds.”

A closing image

I love the image Becky used to describe her early vision of the hotel: “I felt like the lady had been asleep a long time and she was ready to wake up and put her party dress on, to be a light for the town.”

Thanks to the Neumans and their team, the Ashland Springs Hotel is wide awake and shining on her 95th anniversary.

As his contribution to building community, Peter Finkle writes about Ashland history, neighborhoods, public art and more. Go to WalkAshland.com for many more Ashland stories.

Ashland Springs Hotel looking great on its 95th anniversary. Photo by Peter Finkle