A grand tour from a history buff

By LISA BRITTON Baker City Herald July 01, 2009 03:15 pm
Denny Grosse, 78, is one of the docents who gives weekly tours of the Geiser Grand Hotel

Meet Denny Grosse, one of the volunteer docents who leads tours of the Geiser Grand Hotel. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr)
This is a story about a grand hotel, and a woman whose enthusiasm for history is contagious.

Denny Grosse, 78, a Baker City resident since 2006, is one of several docents who leads a tour of the Geiser Grand Hotel every Saturday afternoon.

The tours are complimentary to overnight guests of the hotel, and a mere $2 to all others (this may be a budget activity for those staying around home these days rather than traveling).

Proceeds from the tour support the Baker County Historical Society’s publishing program.

“I buy every book they publish,” said Barbara Sidway, a member of the corporation that owns the hotel.

Denny begins the tour by simply appearing in a flowered skirt, a cream-colored blouse and a fancy hat decorated with ribbons and feathers that shimmer with the slightest movement.

These docents dress in clothes reminiscent of the early 1900s — fitting for this hotel that was built by the Geiser family in 1889.

Denny begins her tour by asking the group to step outside and peer upward at the clock tower.

“It was originally just like that, but it had wind-up clocks,” she says.

But locals used the clock for more than just telling time.

“They’d get liquored up and use the clocks for target practice,” she says.

Remember, Baker City’s roots lie in the days of gold mining and the fabled Wild West. Members of the Geiser family themselves acquired their fortune from the Bonanza Mine.

The clocks were eventually replaced with lion’s heads, one of which graces the hotel’s saloon wall.

But that change didn’t stop the gunslingers.

“If you look, you can see a bullet hole,” she says of the lion’s head.

Before continuing, she points to the windows, designed by architect John Benes to bring in as much natural light as possible.

Then it’s back inside to the air-conditioned coolness.

The Oriental pottery and art scattered throughout the hotel are not original, but speak to the era of the hotel’s beginning.

“The trade with the Orient was coming into its own in the 1890s,” Denny says.

Next it is up to the second floor — take the elevator or the stairs — and the tour guide rests a hand on the fancy railing surrounding the oval that opens down into the first-floor dining area.

Here she switches her story from the 1800s to the 1960s, when the Geiser Grand closed after the filming of “Paint Your Wagon” in 1968 (many of the crew stayed at the hotel).

To say the building fell into disrepair isn’t quite descriptive enough — bricks would occasionally fall to the sidewalk, and the exterior sported an odd mustard yellow hue.

By the time Barbara and Dwight Sidway decided to turn their renovation sights on the Geiser Grand in 1993, the hotel was within 30 days of being torn down and turned into a parking lot.

Now the stories Denny tells take on an “ick” factor.

The third floor was covered in pigeon droppings a foot deep, while on the second floor “it came slightly over your shoes.” The basement was knee-deep in water.

“The hotel was literally disappearing,” she says.

And it’d been stripped of nearly everything — including doors and the bar — and a false 8-foot ceiling of plywood hid many attributes of the original interior.

“When the current owners bought it, they had no idea (the woodwork) was here,” Denny says.

Then she points up at the fancy stained-glass ceiling glowing in the afternoon sun.

The design is just a guess at the original.

“There was one man in his 90s who said ‘When I was a boy, there used to be a stained-glass window.’ That’s all we had to go on,” Denny says.

Though the tall windows usher in natural light, the hotel was one of the first in Oregon to offer electricity.

But even so, the interior sported gaslight fixtures, and the marks left by those lamps can still be seen on the woodwork.

And while we’re on the subject of light — the hotel contains more than 100 crystal chandeliers. Twenty-three with ruby crystals are from a set of 24 that hung in a palace in Venice, Italy. The original 24th is in the South Beach mansion of the late Italian designer Gianni Versace.

The hotel originally offered 70 rooms, but those spaces were quite small by today’s standards.

“Very small. No private bathrooms,” Denny says.

The original design even included interior rooms with no windows to the outside — cheap rents for shepherds in the winter.

The renovation created 30 rooms, mostly suites, and all with views of either the Wallowa or Elkhorn mountain ranges.

A separate room on the second floor puzzled the owners until they found, under the wallpaper, a sign for “Sample Room, $1 per day.” This space, today called the library, was originally designed as a site for traveling salesmen to peddle their wares.

“This was a wealthy city, but no place to spend your money,” Denny says.

The hotel renovation cost more than $7 million, and the building opened in stages to begin generating revenue.

Displays in the Geiser’s basement document the hotel’s return to grandeur — a collection of bottles found while excavating for the elevator, an original gaslight, Geiser Grand Hotel stock certificates and many, many photographs.

As Denny pauses in her story, Gwen Brown asks a question very familiar to this tour guide.

“Some people have talked about this place being ... haunted,” she says.

Denny grins and says she’s heard ghost stories, but can’t speak from experience.

“The ghosts come out between midnight and 4 o’clock, and I’m sleeping at that time!”

But she is happy to share stories about The Blue Lady, the hotel ghost who is the subject of many reportings.

“She’ll rearrange your jewelry. If you leave out a snack, it might disappear,” she says.

Then, leaving her listeners to think about the possibility of ghosts, she unlocks a door and leads the group into the cellar room.

“This is one of my favorite rooms — I’m really glad they saved it,” she says.

This space offers a comfortable chill thanks to the tuff stone walls etched with the original chisel marks and marred by the high water line left before the renovation.

The room even has an original door, though even those of average height nearly have to duck to fit inside the frame.

“People were shorter then,” Denny says with a smile.

At the west end are windows leading to tunnels that were used for hotel deliveries.

Of course, the sordid past of the hotel’s third-floor history as a bordello conjures up different reasons for those tunnels.

Back upstairs, Denny points out original fancy door hinges the owners salvaged, as well as the lion’s head marked with a bullet hole.

Then she glances at a clock.

“I’ve kept you longer than I should — I get wound up,” she says.

But her tour members don’t mind one bit, and questions are asked to extend this travel through history just a bit longer.

Denny is happy to oblige.

“I’ve been a history buff since I was little,” she said after the tour.

And her interest in the Geiser is a family thing — Barbara Sidway is her daughter.

And as daughters everywhere have learned, moms are great for helping out when needed — just as Denny does when a fill-in docent is needed for these tours.