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Geiser Grander

Exterior lights accent the design and historic flavor of the Geiser Grand. Additional lighting still is being planned. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Exterior lights accent the design and historic flavor of the Geiser Grand. Additional lighting still is being planned. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

To really appreciate the subtle changes at the Geiser Grand Hotel, you've got to take a step back.

Viewing the grand old lady from across the street isn't a bad perspective.

If you take the grand tour from Barbara Sidway, the principal in the investment group that owns the hotel, that's just the view she'll offer you — across Main Street, or across Washington Street.

The new additions are subtle compared to the Geiser's famous transformation from a mustard-colored derelict to a symbol of Victorian-era splendor, a nationally-recognized renovation project.

But take a moment now during the daytime and you'll notice the Geiser Grand signs that have been painted just below the rooflines. A new sign has also been added to the glass at the hotel entrance, as well as ornate "GG" signs.

To fully appreciate the changes, however, stroll downtown at night. At sunset, a photostatic cell tells long strings of white lights to do their thing, at least until the next day's sunrise. The effect reminds one of an illuminated castle in Europe.

That's not far from Sidway's vision.

"In Washington, it's not just the Washington and Lincoln memorials that are illuminated," she said. "Every great city has a great view by night."

Will Baker City be a "city of lights" someday, like Paris?

"This may be a notch lower than Notre Dame," she says with a smile. "We went for tasteful lighting for a grand historical building."

Dave Durr of Halfway is the man responsible for the light show, but he'll take very little credit. That despite the fact that he managed to light up a portion of Baker City's night sky without committing a hotelier's cardinal sin: keeping a hotel guest up at night.

"I just put power to the project," Durr said. "Anything to make downtown Baker City look a little nicer is a good thing."

Durr's work caps a more modest effort last Christmas to light the roofline of the Victorian jewel. Sidway said the positive response from the community over that project convinced her that a more permanent approach was needed.

"People told me, ‘You need to do this all the time,'" she said. "It isn't a complicated solution. The only trick was getting all the lights synchronized."

The new signs on the building itself and the "GG" logo proved a little trickier. Sidway went through three graphic designers before landing on the right alphabet for the painted signs. Dale Anderson, a sign-painter from Caldwell, Idaho, did the actual painting, choosing a green hue so dark that it almost looks black, and yet green enough so that it fits in with some of the trim work.

"They were blank canvases that needed to be signed," said Sidway. "It's a big building, and big buildings need signage. But they've got to be applied without taking away from the integrity of the historic architecture."

The plans were approved by the city's Design Review Committee, and even qualified for a $500 grant from a state fund.

Anderson said that once he had the sign's "alphabet" in mind, the actual painting wasn't too tough. Still, he cut out all the letters and laid them out for Sidway before actually completing the project.

"This is something I've been doing for 53 years," he said. "It was fun. We just had to increase the height of the letters a little to work better with outdoor readability."

Anderson said a visit to Baker City allowed him to "get a feel" for the project.

"You just let your feelings take over" when painting an eye-catching sign, he said. "Some projects call for a strong, heavy alphabet. This one was more discrete. It suited the mood."

Anderson helped rescue the "GG" from underneath some 1920s era wallpaper in the Bonanza Room downstairs at the hotel.

"We stripped (the wallpaper off) in 1999, and were surprised and happy to find all these ornate interlocking gold leaf ‘GGs,'" Sidway said. "Dale analyzed the project, and it's taken him this long because the gold leaf work is so delicate."

Sidway has more plans for her historic downstairs portion. She is working with a museum curator to figure out how best to display some of the artifacts she owns. The displays will explain to visitors the importance of the area's mining heritage.

Those artifacts can take strange forms sometimes. Along with the more traditional old photographs are historic opium and whisky bottles. They'll soon find a home in display cases downstairs, across from the wine cellar.

"It'll answer the question (for hotel guests and visitors) of why is this building here?" Sidway said.

Next door to the hotel on Main Street is a room that currently stores items ranging from new beds for the guestrooms to a large banner that used to hang on a hotel billboard. The room will one day house a hotel gift shop, Sidway said.

Her company is still studying whether to further develop the property into a conference center. That study will take several more months, she said.

Thanks to a growing number of billboards, finding the Geiser Grand is no mystery to area travelers. Partnering with other area attractions, including Ski Anthony Lakes, Sidway now has seven billboards touting the hotel's amenities. The seven billboards stretch from La Grande to Boise.

Sidway terms the giant ads "a call to action" aimed at the traveling public.

"It's the last message to a targeted audience. That's what marketing is," she said. "Even in Baker County, it's expensive to do that effectively. When you're trying to put a dent in the Boise, Tri-Cities, Bend or Portland market, it's that much more difficult. That's why we try to give them one last message."

If change seems to take place slowly on and inside her building, it's because Sidway takes the responsibility of stewardship of one of Baker City's most recognizable and cherished symbols so seriously.

"This building is part of our streetscape, and we're trying to figure out what works," she said. "Sometimes I'm a bit befuddled. You make educated guesses, and then you make your choices and you hope they work.

"I think my biggest asset is the staff and what they deliver inside those doors," she said. "I read every comment card, and most every one tells me we have an outstanding and customer service-oriented staff.

"Without them, it's just a beautiful shell."

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