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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow A second life for First Street

A second life for First Street

Building renovations and new businesses have helped to revive a section of the street downtown


Purple grape and leaf green colors illuminated by bright lights brought the new Earth & Vine shop at the historic Pythian Castle to life during the grand opening Friday and Saturday. It was a dream come true for business owner Mary Ellen Stevenson, and for Larry and Rosemary Abel, who own the building and led a Pythian Castle historic renovation project, including their Castle Gift Shop and Gallery, on the left. (Baker City Herald/Ed Merriman)
Purple grape and leaf green colors illuminated by bright lights brought the new Earth & Vine shop at the historic Pythian Castle to life during the grand opening Friday and Saturday. It was a dream come true for business owner Mary Ellen Stevenson, and for Larry and Rosemary Abel, who own the building and led a Pythian Castle historic renovation project, including their Castle Gift Shop and Gallery, on the left. (Baker City Herald/Ed Merriman)
First Street came alive Friday night with a burst of color, light and people enjoying music, art, wine and conversation during the grand opening of Earth & Vine, and a sneak peak of the Pythian Castle Gallery.

The grand opening of Mary Ellen Stevenson’s Earth & Vine wine-tasting room and art gallery in the restored ground floor of the Pythian Castle marked the latest transformation of First Street in Baker City’s historic downtown.

“I think it’s much needed in Baker City. It’s contemporary. It’s fresh,” said Scott Wirth, a grand opening patron at Earth & Vine. “If Baker City is setting itself up as the art center of the Northwest, we need places like this.”

The purple grape and leaf green walls, colorful paintings hung on the walls, the warm pine woodwork and polished chrome and glass tables illuminated through well-lit windows present a distinct contrast to the once-boarded up Pythian Castle on the corner of First and Washington.

“It gets pretty quiet around here. Even on a Friday or Saturday night there’s often no place to go,” said Debbie Friedman of Baker City. “It’s nice to have a place with live music. It’s warm and comfortable. It’s very subtle.”

By opening her wine shop and art gallery in the century-old Pythian Castle, Stevenson is the latest business owner who chose to locate along a historic section of First Street this year. Others include Clark and Company Home Furnishings at First and Broadway, the Trendsetters Salon, and the re-opening of the Eltrym Theatre at the corner of First and Valley.

Pauli Payne, owner of Trendsetters Salon, which opened on First Street earlier year, works on a hair style with Ashley Craig. (Baker City Herald/Ed Merriman)
Pauli Payne, owner of Trendsetters Salon, which opened on First Street earlier year, works on a hair style with Ashley Craig. (Baker City Herald/Ed Merriman)
Pauli Payne, owner of Trendsetters, said she moved to First Street from Campbell Street to better serve the downtown business community. She also likes the walk-in business from people who stop in while they’re out for a stroll downtown.

Like the Earth & Vine, Clark and Company Home Furnishings and the Eltrym Theatre, Payne said she tries to make sure the lights are much brighter downtown by staying open late, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, to accommodate evening strollers and customers who work 9-to-5.

Stevenson is keeping late hours also, staying open seven days a week to start, and until 9 p.m. and sometimes a little later on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Most the historic buildings in that stretch are made of brick or quarried stone, as are the St. Francis de Sales Cathedral a block to the north, and Baker City Hall, a block to the south.

Larry and Rosemary Abel, owners of the Pythian Castle, said they have been working with local contractors for about two years to complete the first phase of a historic renovation of the castle, including work on the corner location of Stevenson’s Earth & Vine business, as well as their Pythian Castle Gift Shop and Gallery.

“We had gobs of people in here. We even got to tell stories about the castle history and renovation project,” Rosemary Abel said. “We want to expand the historic district to all three streets, Main Street, First Street and Resort Street.”

Larry Abel is an architect who moved his business office from Portland to Baker City with plans of renovating the entire Pythian Castle over time, including restoring the second-story grand ballroom.

In the gift shop and gallery, the Abels display original stained glass windows from the castle’s past, as well as historic photos, some castle mementoes and toys of the knight’s realm, as well as original art work by featured artist Bill Oyen, an architect turned artist whose work is inspired by traditional indigenous art forms of people around the world, including tribal cultures of Central America and the Australian aboriginal people.

The Abels said the First Friday Art Walk helped make for a successful weekend to show off the renovations.

“Rosemary and I have been part of the art walk in Baker City ever since we came here. It’s a wonderful event. It’s a great way to connect with people,” said Abel.

“This time we started at Mad Matilda’s (on Main Street), and listened to Keith Taylor play the piano,” Abel said.

At Bella (on Main Street), the Abels found a bottle of Cava Brut champagne, featuring a picture of a castle on the label, so they shared that champagne, along with Rosemary’s homemade cheesecake and fresh berries, with guests who stopped by during the art walk.

“We want to connect more artists to Baker City, and we want to connect Baker City to more artists,” Larry Abel said.

In addition to art work and historic photographs, the Abels are also toying with gifts for kids, including toy swords, shields and toy knights on horseback.

He said the Knights of Pythias, who originally built the castle more than 100 years ago, shared a creed of honor and chivalry based on the mythology of the era of knights, such as Sir Lancelot of the English King Arthur mythology.

 Meanwhile, Stevenson said Friday’s grand opening exceeded her expectations.

“It was excellent. I was really happy with the whole weekend. We had lots of people. It was full in here the whole time. The music was great and the place was full of energy,” Stevenson said.

Musicians included Star Nation (Larry and Peggy Haney) on Friday evening; Zack Friewald, singer-songwriter-guitarist, entertained the audience on Saturday.

Stevenson said many of the patrons who visited her shop were part of the First Friday Art Walk crowd.

“I think it could be called the First Friday Wine and Art Walk, because just about everybody on the walk serves wine,” Stevenson said, adding that she feels like her business is “adding another venue to the art culture that exists already in Baker City.”

Opening the wine shop and art gallery is something she’s been planning for years. 

“I got my inspiration from when I was a teacher. I thought it would be nice to have a place to go to have a glass of wine after work to unwind, and I found a lot of other professionals I talked to felt that way too,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson earned her bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate from Eastern Oregon University and taught school in Burns, Unity and North Powder for four years until her family grew to four children with the birth of premature twins in 2002.

While working as a waitress at Barley Brown’s, Stevenson said everyone from the owner, co-workers and customers offered ideas and advice and encouraged her dream of opening a wine-tasting room and art gallery featuring live music.

The grand opening of Earth & Vine wine tasting room and art gallery drew rave reviews.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Tom Gregg.

“It’s a perfect place to hang out,” said Sara Morgan.

Brian Haberle, 26, of Baker City, said, “It’s really cool someone our age has something cool going like this, and I think people should come out and support it. It’s good for the community.”

“Mary Ellen Stevenson has done a superb job of setting up shop. I was impressed that most everything was created and/or purchased locally — a wonderful deployment of a modern business in a historic building,” said Jake Jacobs, business recruiter with the Baker City/County economic development staff.

Jacobs said the Pythian Castle historic renovation is bringing another section of Baker City’s historic architecture to life as part of the business community.

Dan and Terry McQuisten, owners of the Eltrym Theatre, said they’re excited about the new businesses opening nearby on First Street.

“As a business owner, you are always excited to see other businesses opening because it does increase food traffic,” Dan McQuisten said.

“We’ve been talking about how much brighter the street seems since they opened the wine shop and art gallery,” he said.

Like the Abels, the McQuistens said they’d like to see the focus expanded for renovating Baker City’s historic district to First Street to make more grant funds, tax incentives and other help available, and to help with their own plans for further renovation of the Eltrym.

“Main Street is so beautiful. Historic Baker City has helped with what they have done, and it would be great to expand that to First Street,” said Terry McQuisten.

 She said the bright lights from the wine shop add a welcoming glow to First Street, and she’s hoping more businesses will join the rebirth of First Street.

Jacobs said the new businesses in the Pythian Castle add to the allure of Baker City’s historic downtown by providing “a comfortable and inviting place” for tourists to explore, and for locals to meet friends.

 Stevenson is a client of both the Small Business Development Center and the BEGIN program, which provide training and assistance to startup businesses, Jacobs said.

He said Gene Stackle, another member of the city/county economic development staff, has assisted Stevenson with a wide range of retail operations, which is his specialty.

“Mary presented her business at PubTalk last year and we have tracked her progress for nearly two years and are all rooting for her success,” Jacobs said.

 “Mary has created a differential business in a beautiful facility that can become a major asset to our city, a place to gather with friends, listen to music, view and buy locally created art and enjoy a snack. It is also an ideal location for small catered events and programs,” Jacobs said. “Earth and Vine can become a complement to Mad Matilda’s and other venues as a local gathering spot.”

 
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