From Near Collapse to Spokane Gem
Hotel Indigo as West First Ave. Historical Stunner
On June 7, 2017, Curtis Rystadt, Hotel Indigo owner, and Jim Kolva, Jim Kolva Associates, LLC owner, toured then-Otis Hotel at 110 S. Madison St.
Though Kolva has been a historical adviser for countless prospective buyers, developers, and property owners, the Otis Hotel is personal. For 21 years, Kolva has lived a couple blocks away, and nearly every day walked past the property, which he described as an eyesore. Time and again, he experienced glimmers of hope that the building could be restored to its former glory, but inevitably people decided the building would be biting off more than they could chew. Rystadt uses multiple aphorisms to explain his approach to life, and while he was in the basement pointing out the original supporting pillars he managed to restore—made from old-growth wood—he says, “It’s like the old saying, ‘You know the difference between dedication and commitment? A cow giving milk is dedicated, a pig giving bacon is commitment. I’m committed.”
Kolva could tell Rystadt was different from that first walk-through. He had a gut feeling that the hotel’s time had come, a shining new chapter in its 109-year history.
“He just seemed to have the capability and the mental toughness to get it done,” Kolva says. “I don’t think I ever really doubted that he would.”
When Rystadt rested his head on the pillow on opening day, July 28, there were only two other reservations in the hotel, but he felt proud of a job well done.
The guest rooms are wallpapered with larger-than-life reprints of historical photos from all over Spokane. The rooms also have moving murals: the sound-proofed windows frame the trains passing by, a fitting nod to the hotel’s original purpose as a single-room occupancy hotel for railroad workers. The solid wood headboards are slatted to resemble railroad ties, and a diagram of a viewfinder—the latest technology at Expo ’74—hangs proudly on the wall.
In every decision, Rystadt tried to honor the history of the building, preserving as much as he could. He points out a wooden window frame in a guest room that he could have sanded to make it appear new, “but then you wouldn’t know if it was new or old. It’s historic, and we left it that way.”
But the hotel had to have modern amenities, and “we put quality in because this was built with quality,” Rystadt says. “I want to respect that.”
For Rystadt, quality meant solid wood furniture, an air conditioning system that whispers, mud-set shower tiles, and a vanity he hopped onto to demonstrate its strength.
Hotel Indigo wasn’t just three years in the making, but the culmination of the example his father set for him, the passion of his U.S. History professor at Portland State University, and the desire to model for his children determination translating to success.
Hotel Indigo’s story starts in 1911 as Hotel Willard, but Rystadt’s journey begins on a 40-acre cow-and-sheep farm in northwest Portland. His father told him from a young age that he would not have an allowance.
“I bought my own bike,” Rystadt says. “It took me two years, and I earned $60 and I
can’t tell you how proud one feels when you put that effort in.”
The work ethic his father instilled carried over for Rystadt when he faced challenges, and there were plenty with the hotel. In late 2018, Rystadt was dealing with steep fines for asbestos violations, and he doesn’t deny that he called an inspector with the state Department of Ecology a bonehead at one point.
“I had to deal with three different agencies that each had their own agenda, and they didn’t recognize it,” Rystadt said. “If I actually listened to all three of them, I couldn’t do anything. That reckoning took time and frustration, but I learned from it. I could have easily said, ‘You know what? I can’t do it.’”
But Rystadt wasn’t raised that way, nor was that the example he wanted to set for his children, who are ages 17, 15, and 11.
“Am I supposed to read my kids The Little Engine That Could and say, ‘You can, you can, you can,’ and then when they see their dad face adversity, does their dad just pack up his bags and quit?” Rystadt asks. “I think the greatest benefit that will happen from this is actually the example I showed my children to overcome problems.”
Another driving force of this project was that Rystadt wanted to bring history to life, and that passion comes from a U.S. History class he took at Portland State University, taught by Professor Barney Burke.
“He would read letters from different senators and politicians during a time they would write each other letters,” Rystadt says. “You could see the perspective and how they tried to influence each other in what they thought was the best idea.”
That class was when history came alive for Rystadt, and it was important to him to honor the history of the hotel specifically. Each floor is dedicated to a different iteration of the hotel, which was originally called The Willard, became The Atlantic in 1921, The Milner in 1941, The Earle in 1948, and finally The Otis in 1956. The wall guests see when the elevator doors open on each floor have a mural that looks like a brick facade, with lettering from that time period advertising the hotel, reminiscent of the “ghost signs” sprinkled throughout Spokane. Though Rystadt cares about historical accuracy, he jokes that he can’t honor the $3.21/night rate promoted by The Earle.
Daniel Lopez, a muralist whose work is ubiquitous in Spokane, also contributed to the aesthetics of the hotel, but instead of using his trademark spray paint medium, he took on the task of hand-painting the murals, something he plans to do much more often in the future.
“I have a huge, newfound respect for artists who paint murals with brushes, because I’ve always used spray paint, and it’s like the palette is in the can,” Lopez says. “With spray paint I’m able to cover so much in a short time, but these ones I’ve had to really take a lot of time being careful with everything. It’s been a learning experience for me, but I loved every second.”
Calling upon the hotel’s heyday in the Roaring Twenties, Rystadt commissioned Lopez to paint a game of cards, a man gazing at a flapper, and a scene in a speakeasy.
“I actually love that mobster era of danger,” Lopez says. “It’s very intriguing, there’s something cool about it. I was trying to bring back the spirit of that era with my murals, but also giving them a fresh, crisp look.”
Lopez says when Rystadt initially approached him, he didn’t know much about the hotel’s history.
“It’s been dawning on me a little bit more,” Lopez says. “I’m like, ‘Okay, this is super awesome right here. This is really something unique.’”
Diners can view Lopez’s murals in Magnolia American Brasserie, the hotel’s 3,600 square foot American style restaurant with a French flair. The chef is Steve Jensen, who was previously at Osprey Restaurant and Bar.
“If we had a small restaurant, a real tight space like that, maybe we wouldn’t have opened,” Rystadt says. “But since we can accommodate social distancing, I think it was smart for us, and I think it’s just a matter of people knowing that.”
Instead of quickly walking past an eyesore, Kolva has dined at Magnolia on multiple occasions. For him, Hotel Indigo “adds to the historic knowledge and experience of Spokane.”
“It’s a key building in the rehabilitation of West First Avenue in downtown Spokane,” Kolva says. “I think it’ll make it easier for some of the other buildings that need to be fixed up. It gives a great example of taking something from almost collapse and turning it into a gem.”
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