20 Jul Ashland Springs Hotel: 95th Anniversary Stories
Beginning #1: The Lithia Springs Hotel in the 1920s
Take a close look at this photo of a house at the corner of East Main Street and First Street. It was taken in early 1924. Can you read the sign in the front yard? It says: “Boost Ashland’s Big Tourist Hotel – to be erected on this site.” Next to the sign is a drawing of the soon-to-be-built Lithia Springs Hotel (now the Ashland Springs Hotel).
Ashland boosters had big dreams, and building a modern luxury hotel for Ashland visitors was one of them. The hopes and dreams were well summarized by hotel operator R.W. Price in this quote from the July 1, 1925 Ashland Daily Tidings:
“I have every reason to believe that Southern Oregon is sometime, within the very near future, to be the playground of the Pacific Coast. With all the natural beauties and advantages which it now possess (sic), and with the plans of a group of men for developing and advertising these advantages, I am sure that we of this section have good reason to believe this part of Oregon will develop more rapidly than any other district of the state.”R.W. Price, hotel operator
Local businessman Henry Enders Jr. and his partners in the Lithian Hotel Company sold stock to Ashland residents to raise money for the hotel, and got a tremendous response.
As money was being raised, Enders recommended prominent Portland architects John Tourtellotte and Charles Hummel to design the hotel. They first presented a six-story design, as you can see on the architect’s drawing below.
After some discussion, it was revised to become a nine-story design, which resulted in Ashland being able to boast of having the tallest structure between San Francisco and Portland for many years.
For those who appreciate architecture, the Lithia Springs was built with an eclectic design, including Romanesque, English Tudor, Gothic, and Neo-Classical Revival elements. Unusual for reinforced concrete skyscrapers, a decorative material was not attached to the exterior concrete. The concrete itself was featured all the way from the foundation to the roofline, except on the ground level floor.
Lithia Springs Hotel 1925 Grand Opening party
According to the Ashland Tidings, more than 500 people crowded the new hotel for its grand opening on September 28, 1925. Beginning at 5:30 pm, it took four hours for all to eat their fill from the buffet set up in the dining room. The “eloquent” speeches planned to begin at 8:30 were delayed an hour, but fortunately it was a short program. Hundreds of Ashland locals who were stockholders in the Lithian Hotel Company were excited to explore the huge hotel that they had helped finance. In addition, dignitaries that day included prominent “hotel men” from all corners of Oregon and Northern California and representatives from Chambers of Commerce and many other groups.
When did Lithia Springs Hotel really open?
Does the photo below look like a hotel that would be open for business in less than eleven weeks?
Construction of the nine-story hotel took months longer than planned. I have read that it opened on July 1, 1925. Looking at this hotel-under-construction photo dated April 17, 1925, that seems to me impossible. I have also read that hotel construction was completed on September 11, 1925 and opened at that time. Remember that the Grand Opening party was on September 28.
Which date is true?
The answer: Both dates are true!
On July 1 the hotel was still under construction, but proprietor R.W. Price was anxious to start renting rooms, so he did. For the first few months, hotel guests had to brave construction noise and dust as they stayed in the first rooms that had been completed.
By September 11, construction was officially complete (except that the contractor still had to completely repaint the hotel exterior to satisfy the architects!). That’s when planning began for the grand opening party described above.
Through the decades
Here is a brief review of the hotel’s history through the decades. Ashland and the hotel suffered two huge economic shocks within a few years after the hotel opened in 1925. Two years later, in 1927, Southern Pacific railroad routed most of its passenger trains away from Ashland and through the town of Klamath Falls. This reduced tourist arrivals in Ashland. Then the Great Depression slammed Ashland and the U.S.A. from 1929 to about 1939.
The expected influx of tourists for local spas, natural beauty and “a playground of the Pacific Coast,” didn’t happen. The hotel limped along decade after decade, no longer “luxurious,” always financially on the brink.
In 1960, after a contest to come up with a name that would build on the growing popularity of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it was renamed the Mark Antony Motor Hotel. The new name didn’t boost its fortunes. The building was remodeled in 1951, 1959 and 1978. Nothing helped.
Beginning #2: Doug and Becky Neuman find Ashland in the 1980s
Doug and Becky Neuman were living in Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s. Doug’s parents wanted to move to the Eugene, Oregon area. Doug went with his father to check out Eugene. Doug didn’t like the wet and overcast weather there, so Oregon looked like a bust.
Before leaving Eugene, Doug played tennis at the club there. Doug was hitting with the tennis pro, who told him, “If I could live anywhere on the West Coast, I would live in Ashland, Oregon.” The next day, Doug and his father drove to Ashland with a video camera, and brought back their impressions of the town. When she saw the video, Becky knew right away she had to see Ashland for herself and that it was likely to be their long-term home. What she and Doug didn’t know at the time is that they would have a future in the hospitality business.
The hotel and the Neumans join forces in the 1990s
In 1998, when the building was bankrupt and falling apart. Doug and Becky Neuman made the huge commitment to purchase the hotel and bring it back to life. As it says on the hotel website: “A complete ‘basement to parapet,’ two-year, ten million dollar restoration followed and the hotel reopened December 2000.”
What is original in the current Ashland Springs Hotel?
When guests enter, the two-story lobby features the original restored 1925 terrazzo floor, lobby chandelier, original stained glass in the front windows and the huge 1925 fireplace.
The mezzanine balconies with their beautiful woodwork and ironwork are original, as are the lobby’s ornate decorated columns and ceiling.
The Crystal Room
The Crystal Room, off the lobby, was the original dining room that featured a dramatic (but not original from 1925) crystal chandelier.
During the two-year hotel renovation, the Neumans removed the chandelier. By that time, it was missing many of the small hanging crystals and needed too much repair, so they stored it in their barn. It sat there unnoticed for a few years, until Doug came to Becky with a novel idea. He said, “The top of the chandelier is still in excellent condition, so let’s use it by turning it upside down.” At first Becky couldn’t picture what he was describing. When the chandelier was flipped and placed in the room, the simple yet sophisticated new look won her over.
New — Historic photo gallery
If you would like to see many more photos than I can include in this article about the hotel, stop by the new “History Wall” of historic Ashland photos on the hotel’s mezzanine level. If you like Ashland history, I highly recommend it. This gallery was prepared with help from the Southern Oregon Historical Society.
The choice that changed Becky Neuman’s life
Hiring Candra Scott and Richard Anderson as interior designers for the hotel changed Becky Neuman’s life. Becky called the two years of working closely with Candra “a screaming learning curve.” It was a fabulous, joyful and intense apprenticeship for Becky, a two-year interior design education.
Becky told me that watching Candra go through her creative process “just lit a fire in me.” She learned from Candra how “you go into a space and you get the story of what this space wants to be.” “And I’ve done that since that time,” Becky added, “with each of the hotels I’ve done on my own.”
What was the inspiration for the interiors of the Ashland Springs Hotel?
“The inspiration,” said Becky, “came through Candra Scott and Richard Anderson and myself after we went to the Southern Oregon Historical Society and found out that people were traveling to Ashland at that time [early 1900s] for two things: the Chautauqua lecture series and the Lithia water.”
“She [Candra Scott] said we’re going to design this lobby as if it were the personal home of a lecturer for the Chautauqua series.” That lecturer would be a naturalist and would believe in the “great outdoors” idealism of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The vision was to give guests the experience of a simpler time in American life, with a focus on flora and fauna.
Candra went on to create that vision. The lobby has ornithology – beautiful bird collections – and “a fabulous cabinet of curiosities.” It was very popular 100 years ago to bring back unique objects from one’s worldly travels and display them in a cabinet of “rarities.”
Candra was designing an apartment in Paris at the time, and asked Becky if she’d like her to bring some things for the hotel back from Paris. Becky replied, “Yes, absolutely!” The ornithology collection and the “cabinet of curiosities” in the hotel lobby came from that trip to Paris. In addition, at a Paris flea market she found wonderful mounted pressed herbs, which give character to the guest rooms. Candra found the lobby’s bird illustrations closer to home, at David Ralston’s Jacksonville antique shop (now the Antiquarium in downtown Ashland).
Even the carpets, chosen by Candra and made in England by Axminster Carpets, carry on the theme of flora and fauna. This company has been making carpets in the small town of Axminster since 1755! “Today, Axminster Carpets™ is still weaving beautifully designed carpets in the Devon town of Axminster for the Royal Household, stately homes, luxury hotels and homes around the world,” per the company website.
Becky calls Candra “a creative force, known for renovating historic hotels in the United States.” For example, Scott and Anderson designed renovations for the 1902 Hotel Majestic in San Francisco and the Arctic Club Hotel in Seattle, originally built in 1916.
In addition to the lobby design, Candra designed furniture for all the rooms and arranged for its custom manufacture for the hotel.
The building process
The Neumans called their complete renovation a huge “basement to parapet” undertaking. They wanted it to be a full historic renovation, so everything was not only approved by the Ashland Historic Commission, but also met numerous federal historic preservation requirements.
The entire hotel was upgraded with new plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical systems. Many of the original 100 guest rooms did not have a private bathroom. After the renovation, there are now 70 guest rooms, each with a private bathroom and charming custom touches.
The outdoor fire escape you see in earlier photos of the hotel was removed. New elevators were added. One of the upgrades I most appreciate was conversion of a second floor pool area into a lovely light-filled indoor Conservatory and attached outdoor English Garden, located next to the Grand Ballroom. I have attended many community events there, from Jefferson Public Radio wine tasting fund-raisers to food festivals to Christmas Eve inspirational talks.
Managing the hotel and restaurant
Since Doug and Becky Neuman had never worked in the hospitality industry, they hired a management company from Portland when the renovated hotel opened in the year 2000. The company had experience with both hotels and restaurants, so it seemed like a good fit. The first restaurant was called the Bulls Eye Bistro, with a games theme and regular live music. I remember hearing and dancing to great local bands there. When walking downtown on warm summer evenings, I often paused as loud music spilled out the open doors to the street.
By the fifth year of the restaurant, Becky didn’t like the food enough to eat in her own restaurant! She also heard too many complaints from guests about difficulty sleeping when bands played at the Bistro until 2:00 am. She and Doug decided to take over management of the Ashland Springs Hotel themselves.
They were fortunate to find someone who could lead the operation on an upward trajectory. They hired Don Anway, who had experience as General Manager at Red Lion hotels. According to Becky, Don brought an unusual combination of skills to their hotel and their growing company. “Don has a lot of heart, but he’s also a numbers guy. In addition, he started hiring really wonderful people who had a passion for what they were doing.” This allowed the company to stabilize and grow. Becky summarized their success since 2005 this way: “It’s our team that creates our success. We [Doug and Becky] provide the vision.”
Becky took on the challenge of creating a new restaurant at the hotel to replace the Bulls Eye Bistro. She knew from talking with guests that they wanted regionally sourced food. She and her staff reached out to local farmers, making them early adopters of the now popular “farm to table” restaurant movement.
Choosing the head chef
In choosing a head chef, Becky stressed two themes: local food and comfort food. In addition to offering cutting edge food combinations to patrons, she also wanted the menu to include her favorite comfort foods – meatloaf and fried chicken. Not just any meatloaf and fried chicken, mind you, but really delicious meatloaf and fried chicken.
That became a key question as she interviewed prospective head chefs. She might find one who waxed poetic about local, organic foods. Then she would ask, “How’s your meatloaf?” If the person mumbled about meatloaf not really being his “thing,” that was the end of the interview. A number of otherwise good chefs were disqualified in this way.
One day she was having a good interview with another chef enthusiastic about locally grown foods and partnering with farmers. Then she asked the key question, “How’s your meatloaf?” He replied, “I use my grandmother’s meatloaf recipe and it’s great.” Becky laughed as she jokingly told me her next words were, “You’re hired!”
How Larks Restaurant got its name
I love origin stories. How Larks got its name is a small origin story that means a lot to Becky. As you know by now, the natural world, and birds in particular, play a large role in the ambiance of Ashland Springs Hotel. When Becky was researching names, she learned that the state bird of Oregon is the western meadowlark.
According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “In 1927, the Oregon Audubon Society sponsored a contest among schoolchildren to choose the state bird. The western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) won by a large margin (40,000 out of 75,000 votes), and Governor Isaac L. Patterson officially proclaimed it the state bird.”
Becky was thrilled to learn this, since she grew up in Kansas, another state that has the western meadowlark as its state bird. As in Oregon, the Audubon Society got schoolchildren in Kansas to also vote for a state bird during the 1920s. In 1925, 125,000 schoolchildren in Kansas voted for the western meadowlark, with the bobwhite and northern cardinal coming in second and third.
It was obvious the new restaurant at the hotel should be called Meadowlark, right? Her husband Doug derailed the plan. In his opinion, Meadowlark sounded more like a laid-back retirement home than a cutting-edge restaurant. He wanted something bolder and catchier.
Becky was willing to compromise, but only if the name had a connection with nature. Doug suggested “Larks Restaurant” and Becky said “I love it.” It has been Larks ever since 2005, with a second Larks Restaurant now at the Neuman’s Medford hotel called Inn at the Commons.
“Useful birds of America” on the walls
When you visit Larks for their delicious food, take a few minutes to notice the bird illustrations on the walls, which have a fascinating history. They are reproductions of illustrations by Mary Emily Eaton, best known as a botanical illustrator for the New York Botanical Garden from 1911 to 1932.
Eaton’s bird illustrations were funded by the makers of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, a company that traces its roots to 1846. Beginning in 1888, small 2” by 3” bird trading cards were placed inside Arm & Hammer Baking Soda boxes to set them apart from their cheaper competitors. I found this quote describing the bird trading cards from a book with the delightful title: Oology and Ralph’s Talking Eggs: Bird Conservation Comes Out of Its Shell.
“These colorful cards originally came in Arm and Hammer Baking Soda boxes, and later they could be ordered by mail. At a time when many wild birds were being killed for their meat and feathers, the Church and Dwight bird cards featured the theme of ‘Useful Birds of America’ and a simple message: For the Good of All, Do Not Destroy the Birds.”
When you look closely at the illustrations on the walls at Larks Restaurant, you will see the Arm & Hammer logo and the date 1922. Eaton’s drew her 1922 illustrations for the company’s “Third Series” of bird trading cards.
A closing thought from Becky Neuman
I love the image Becky used to describe her early vision of the hotel to me: “I felt like the lady had been asleep a long time and she was ready to wake up and put her party dress on, to be a light for the town.”
Thanks to Becky, Doug and the entire team at the Ashland Springs Hotel, “she” is wide awake and shining on her 95th anniversary!
At 95 years of age, “the lady” is “awake and shining”
Aldous, Vickie. “It’s official: Ashland Springs Hotel opens its doors,” Ashland Daily Tidings, December 1, 2000.
Anon. “Contractors to pay $1,800 hotel damages,” Ashland Tidings, September 11, 1925. (accessed with help from Southern Oregon Historical Society archivist Kira Lesley)
Anon. “Opening of new hotel to attract many,” Ashland Tidings, September 22, 1925. (accessed with help from Southern Oregon Historical Society archivist Kira Lesley)
Anon. “Hundreds to attend formal hotel opening,” Ashland Tidings, September 26, 1925. (accessed with help from Southern Oregon Historical Society archivist Kira Lesley)
Anon. “500 attend formal opening of Lithia Springs Hotel here,” Ashland Tidings, September 29, 1925. (accessed with help from Southern Oregon Historical Society archivist Kira Lesley)
Anon. Axminster Carpets company website. (accessed 6/11/2020)
Anon. “Western Meadowlark,” Kansas Historical Society. (accessed 6/11/2020)
Brandstetter, Scott (Assistant General Manager, Ashland Springs Hotel). Personal communication and hotel tour, June 26, 2020.
Darling, John. “Ashland Springs Hotel celebrates 90th anniversary,” Ashland Tidings, June 24, 2015.
Dodge, Dani. “More than a face-lift,” Medford Mail Tribune, July 18, 1999.
Erickson, Laura. “Arm & Hammer Bird Trading Cards,” July 6, 2017, Laura Erickson’s For The Birds blog. (accessed 6/11/2020) Also, Carrol Henderson’s book, Oology and Ralph’s Talking Eggs: Bird Conservation Comes Out of Its Shell was quoted in the article.
Hayden, Curtis. “Taming the ‘White Elephants,’” Sneak Preview, September 9, 1998.
Kershner, Jim. “Grande dame of Ashland sparkles again,” The Spokesman Review, September 2, 2001.
Lavagnino, Karolina (Director of Sales and Marketing, Neuman Hotel Group). Personal communication, June 2020.
Lemon, Sarah. “Still standing tall,” Medford Mail Tribune, April 26, 2020.
National Register of Historic Places, Ashland Downtown Historic District, May 5, 2000.
Neuman, Becky (Co-owner, Neuman Hotel Group). Interview, personal communication and hotel tour, June 10, 2020.
O’Harra, Marjorie. Ashland: the first 130 years, Northwest Passages Publishing Inc. 1986.
Rose, William. National Register of Historic Places, Nomination Form for Ashland Springs Hotel (originally Lithia Springs Hotel), December 1977, revised 2002.
[Ashland Daily Tidings July 1, 1925, quoted in National Register Nomination Form, Rose 1977]
Tucker, Kathy. “Oregon State Symbols,” Oregon Encyclopedia. (accessed 6/11/2020)