by Marty Demarest
Lura Sheahan is excited about the Davenport Hotel. Of course, as the newly refurbished hotel's public relations manager, it's her job to convey enthusiasm from inside the historic building to the rest of the world. But despite the fact that she's walked through the hotel's cavernous lobby thousands of times, and described it to hundreds of visitors, her gestures betray a certain sense of wonder. She can't stop looking around -- at the glass ceiling, at the pink marble floor, at the fountain in the room's center -- and smiling to herself.
"We're honoring the original look of the hotel," she says, her eyes falling on one of several large, ornately carved pillars that are standing in the middle of the lobby's floor. On top of one of them, about ten feet in the air, sits an elaborate barren lamp. "These columns are original, and sat exactly where they're sitting now. Their wiring was still in the floor. They were sold off in the 1950s and were actually built into a lady's living room. When she got ready to remodel, and Walt had purchased the hotel, she gave them back to us. We had one lamp left, that we found in the basement, and we replicated the three, and are now in the process of coming up with some sort of shade for it. So we will have conversation areas very similar to what existed in 1914.
"We will have an espresso bar, though, on the other end," she laughs, "which they didn't have. They had demitasse back then."
It seems funny to point out such a small detail -- hardly a change at all from the original. However, since Walt and Karen Worthy purchased the shuttered hotel in 2000 for $6.5 million, it's the type of observation that has given rise to a $30 million renovation.
The details are starting to add up to more than money, however. This Monday, the hotel will open for the first time since 1985, and visitors will have a chance to see the project's results. The first nine floors of guest rooms will be in service, along with the common areas, with the remaining floors premiering on the hotel's grand opening September 14.
Far from a facelift, and something beyond a repair, Worthy's overhaul of the Davenport has restored thousands of details from the original building (like the lobby columns) and enhanced others. The results, a few days before opening, give a visitor the feeling of passing into a chamber rich with history yet cushioned by modern comfort.
As if to underline this concept, the lobby's fireplace has recently been lighted; for guests standing near the fireplace and an air conditioning duct, the warmth of a genuine fire cuts through the electronically cooled air. Sheahan gazes at the fireplace for a moment, and then gestures upwards. "Up above," she says, pointing out the beams crossing the ceiling, "this is not wood -- this is plaster cast -- and when Walt bought the hotel, these were black beams. Well, we sent up some cleaning crews, and realized that they weren't black at all -- it was 60 years accumulation of soot from the fireplace, which burned day and night for 60 years.
"The painting up above the fireplace is original to the hotel. And when we first started working on the museum exhibit, we kept hearing about a 'new-world painting.' Well, once again, 60 years' worth of soot had accumulated on top of the painting. So when it was restored, instead of being one sailing ship, it was the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and there was the new world right in front of us, and we couldn't even see it."
All the Marble - Among the dusty construction workers hurrying through the lobby and the service staff fiddling with their immaculate new uniforms, Mark Anthony stops to examine the corner of one of the pillars that line the space. Relaxed and smiling, with well-worn hands, Anthony has been responsible -- as part of his family's marble restoration company -- for repairs in almost every room of the hotel.
Dropping down on a knee that has undoubtedly contacted plenty of marble throughout the building, Anthony runs a finger along a fine line of barely visible rice-sized spots on the floor. "There's probably about two or three hundred holes in the lobby that we had to match and color and patch," he points out.
The holes are the result of redecorating efforts by past owners of the Davenport, who decided to nail a carpet over the floor.
"I was pretty heartbroken, because I'm pretty passionate about my marble," explains the third-generation marble-worker. "So to see that somebody nailed down and glued over the marble broke my heart, because it was such a beautiful job. So I was excited when we started coming back, because it was restorable. A lot of it was this hundred-year-old process they used to put it in, and having to duplicate that process to resurface and repair it all. One hundred years ago, they didn't use all these new mortars that we have; they just used cement, anchors and casting plaster. And I had to duplicate those processes, so the third-generation thing came in handy. Then, we fixed every corner on every column. Every single corner had to be fixed in the whole hotel -- patching broken pieces. That was the original task that got the ball rolling."
From there, Anthony started on more than 300 rooms -- a task he describes good-naturedly as "a challenge." As the hotel's opening date approaches, however, Anthony says that the current difficulty is keeping pace with the work that needs to take place at ground level, in the hotel's public spaces, and above, in the guest rooms. "The balance is coordination. Keeping up with being in the lobby and being up in the tower all at once," he says, as he heads upstairs to get back to work.
Hotel Historian - One of the hotel's spacious service elevators stops at the 14th floor, and a group of construction workers files out into the dark space. "Next stop, paradise," one of them jokes as he leaves. Then a few more workers maneuver a cart laden with equipment into the elevator.
"What floor?" asks John Reed -- an older gentleman seated in chair inside the elevator. Selecting the appropriate buttons from the control panel, Reed points out that, like many hotels, the Davenport does not have a 13th floor. "And there's never been a room numbered 13, either," he states.
If anyone involved with current project would know, it would be Reed. He's worked at the Davenport for 47 years and can still recall his first day as a bellman. "It was more getting acquainted with the building," he says. "The superintendent of service told me to start at the 14th floor and work my way down, and get acquainted and know where the rooms were."
But now, Reed says, it's the new look of the hotel that's captivating him. Rather than lapse into nostalgia for how the hotel used to be, he seems genuinely invigorated by Walt and Karen Worthy's update. "It's so much better -- I never thought that it would ever turn out like this. It's just fantastic. Everything is so new -- it's just beautiful. And I just can't wait to see it open; I know it's going to be well received. I think the people of the Northwest are going to love and respect the hotel. This is what Louis Davenport would want."
Shuttling workers from floor to floor, Reed reminisces about his days working in various positions throughout the hotel and the people that he would meet. "So many celebrities -- entertainers as well as politicians," he smiles. "For three years, I worked graveyard shift, and that's when I could really come in close contact with the entertainers. Our coffee shop would be open 24 hours, and they'd come down after midnight and sit around the lobby."
Layers of Life - Coming in through the grand entrance on Post Street, visitors will be greeted with a glass case the size of several phone booths -- the hotel's flower shop. A few feet beyond that stands the original hand-carved front desk, with a tall, shallow box filled with slots for room keys behind it. Even though key cards have replaced keys, Laura Damasceno is painstakingly painting fine details to match the box's initial design. It's one of dozens of restoration jobs she's been involved with since beginning work on the project two years ago.
"When we were up in the lobby," she says, "cleaning the white panels up there, it pretty much scared me when I started cleaning through the dirt and I saw white, and I thought 'wait a minute, stop! We've gone too far.' But we found some old black-and-white pictures, and the pictures have white panels there. So we kept on cleaning."
Not all of the cleaning, however, has yielded such simple results. Before returning many of the surfaces to their original colors, Damasceno had to remove layer after layer of paint that had been added during the years when the hotel's various owners had redecorated. "Gross green," is how Damasceno describes one of the 1970s additions to the hotel's color scheme, followed by "mustard yellow," as the 1960s emerged, and an eventual "taupey brown" from early in the hotel's career.
Stripping back the decades as she has removed the colors, however, has also given Damasceno a direct connection with the artisans who initially crafted the Davenport. "Looking at the crests that are in the areas where no one can touch and no one can dust, when we cleaned the dirt off we could see hand brush strokes from the original paint when they were first put up," she recalls. "And that was really nice to see, because on the lobby mezzanine area, all of that had gone away. So you really had to be up on a lift, up close, to take a look at those colors that are still up there. That was fun."
Of course, in a hotel with a nearly 90-year history, not everything has been preserved as well. "When things got damaged in the ornate areas -- which are plaster -- white would show through," Damasceno explains. "And since it was so dirty, people would go up there with a can of dark brown spray paint and spray it in to match the brown. So when we cleaned off the dirt, you could see all of these brown splotches that were painted over. So I had to figure out what was the base, and what came next, and what kind of gold was going to match. And once I got all the colors in, then I had to make it look old again."
Kitchen Confidential - Ian Wingate is currently battling dust. Immaculate in his chef's whites, he is standing in the kitchen a few feet away from a door that opens into the busy construction zone of the restaurant he'll be overseeing, the Palm Court. He shakes his head as he explains his biggest challenge right now: "Getting rid of all the dust in here. That and getting my staff together; we're going to need a dozen cooks, three sous chefs, dishwashers. Pulling that together, training them, doing trial dinners, recipe conversions -- tons of stuff to do." At that, he casts a wary eye around the enormous kitchen, nearly empty except for the occasional employee wandering through and a busy coffee machine.
Wingate is the executive chef for the hotel, meaning that he's responsible not only for the restaurant's service -- about 88 seats -- but also for the appetizers and service in the hotel's lounge (the Peacock Room) and the numerous banquets and convention dinners the hotel will rely on for profitability. Part of the operation has been running since last winter, when Wingate started full-time. "My first challenge was walking into a new kitchen and doing 50 parties in two-and-a-half weeks in December -- very busy. Eight hundred people on any given day, with a very small staff. That was a challenging and rewarding scenario."
With a separate banquet chef hired to attend to the details of those arrangements, Wingate was able to focus on creating the type of restaurant both he and Walt Worthy envisioned. "We both had some ideas, and we collaborated on some of them, and I put in my input. I think we came out with a great dining room and a great lounge, and a lot of Walt's ideas that are in it are great."
Also up to Wingate was the layout of the kitchen, situated on the west end of the hotel's main floor. "The spot that we had to work with -- you think there's a lot of room down here," he laughs, "but there's a lot of columns, and it's like a jigsaw puzzle. So we had a designer come in, and I worked with him and laid out how I wanted the kitchen. From there, it was just picking out plates and glasses. Everything is new -- it's a whole new line, completely different from the original stuff."
Now, once the dust settles in time for the new opening, Wingate can focus on the cuisine that the restaurant will serve, as well as the extensive appetizers the Peacock Room will serve from morning to close. "We call it classical-Euro-Asian," he says. "It's basically classical French mixed with Asian influences." Obviously anxious to return to planning his kitchen, he gestures at the empty stovetops. "I kind of need to be in production every day -- it makes things easier. It's been about six or seven months now. I'd better get moving before I get rusty."
The Buck Stops Here - Above the kitchen, the hotel's offices take up one end of the second floor. On the northern corner, Walt Worthy's office looks over the intersection at Sprague and Lincoln. His desk has several piles of documents but looks more like a storage area than a workspace. At the other end of the office, on the floor, are scattered dozens of fabric samples awaiting selection -- an example of the type of hands-on work Worthy has been engaged in since acquiring the hotel.
But a few days before the Davenport opens for the public, Worthy is interested in neither the documents nor the fabric. Rather, his eyes are focused out the windows across from his chair. It's easy to believe him when he says, "I'm not nervous at all.
"It's going to be kind of nice to have some money coming in instead of having all of it going out. We've been doing a real good job of getting rid of it for the last two years, so hopefully we can do a good job of bringing some back in."
When asked why he bought the Davenport, however, he's less certain. "That's a good question. It's really hard to answer. It just presented a challenge to me trying to figure out the purchase to start with -- it took a lot of years to get that done. I sort of made some verbal offers through the years, and never did get anywhere with it. And after thinking about it for 10 or 15 years, we finally got a deal done.
"It's been not maybe a lifelong goal, but just something I wanted to do. I was ready to change horses here and try to figure out how to do something different besides build office space."
Figuring it out, however, turned out to be the biggest challenge for Worthy. "You have a tiger by the tail, no question about that," he says, not joking at all. Since his day job is not running hotels, he initially asked for advice. "There were 10,000 different decisions, probably 110,000 different decisions, that you had to think about and get the best advice that you could. But basically the buck stops right here in this chair; you have to pay your money and take your chances once you listen to everybody. So you just make the best decisions that you can on all of these various different questions that you really don't know all that much about. We've had to spend a lot of time traveling around the country, looking at a lot of different hotels, trying to get an idea of what we wanted for here."
One of the biggest and costliest decisions that he made was to remove the original Hall of the Doges -- an ornate ballroom designed by architect Kirtland Cutter -- store it until construction on the hotel's new wing was complete, then restore it to the building. The project cost Worthy "at least" $500,000. And he doesn't regret any of it. "That's a pretty cheap room, at 500 grand. It's a pretty ornate room -- it's a beautiful room. It's one of a kind. I read last week at Christie's they sold one picture for 18 or 20 million dollars, for just one picture. So it's not hard to make a case for spending 500,000 or a million dollars on a ballroom.
"I think that's what's going to make this hotel unique. That's been the appeal of the Davenport -- all the ornate detail. So we've tried to do the best job that we could in putting it back together again. Some of it was pretty well deteriorated and did require a lot of time and effort and money to bring it back to life. But I'm really pleased with the result. All of our people have done a wonderful job on pulling this back together again. In many cases, I think it's a lot better than it ever was."
When asked what his favorite part of the project has been, Worthy pauses for a moment. Then, perhaps realizing that soon the physical work will be complete and he'll be working in a hotel rather than a construction site, his eyes light up.
"I think the Peacock Room is going to be one of my favorite spots. It's going to be a real fun and different, unusual room." He chuckles, possibly thinking of Monday night's opening. "Maybe we can have a beer in the Peacock Room?"