When Skykomish resident Todd Brunner first saw the Skykomish Hotel interior, two to three inches of moss coated the floorboards in spots, and ferns grew from the grime.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, Brunner walked through the barren interior. Rotted studs stood exposed, and rows of rusty nails stuck up from the subfloor. Most of the nonstructural walls were completely stripped. The telltale flora was absent but getting down to the original joist will take more digging in many places, he said.
Brunner’s business, Lynnwood-based Brunner Construction Company, is completing one phase of renovations, which have progressed since the town took ownership of the 113-year-old historic hotel in 2015. He expects bringing the building back to shell condition — a remodel minus the furnishings — will take a few months to complete.
While the degradation was extensive, it was not surprising, Brunner said. The previous owner had neglected to repair a chronically leaky roof, so the structure was subjected to the elements. He is still making up a budget for the project since there was no way to tell what needed to be done until workers started tearing things apart, he said.
The structure itself is still quite sound, Brunner said.
“Actually, the building is very stout,” he said. “It doesn’t look like it to most people, but it is actually in very good condition.”
Brunner largely attributes this to the timber, which is old growth Douglas fir, a material rarely available anywhere anymore. Mature lumber has a good grain pattern that makes it particularly strong, he said.
The plan is to save as much of the original wood as possible.
Brunner recently took over work on the building, after lessee and property manager Keith Maehlem cleaned out hazardous materials and hired a structural engineer to determine the hotel’s integrity. Maehlem submitted one of three RFPs received by the town that delineated a plan to stabilize and clean up the structure under Revive-Historic Skykomish, LLC.
Skykomish Mayor Tony Grider said reaching this point is “a really long story.” Control of the hotel was not something community leaders ever necessarily wanted or planned for. Years of legal proceedings between the town and previous owners eventually resulted in around $150,000 spent by Skykomish on legal fees, and taking ownership by default, he said.
Action for simple nuisance was taken against Karl Benz and Catherine Riley in 2012, and took around years to resolve, according to a Brief of Respondent from the King County Court of Appeals, Division I. The town alleged the building “had been abandoned for years, was a danger to the public and was rapidly deteriorating,” according to the document.
Resident Marilyn Martin, who has owned a home near the hotel since 1994, said the building became such a hazard that shingles would fly from the roof during windstorms. One missed her by only inches once, she said.
“I was a nervous wreck when the wind kicked up, constantly worried a window would break from the flying debris,” Martin said.
According to court documents, Benz and Riley at times provided false, vague and misleading information to the courts, harassed the town and intentionally delayed proceedings. At one point they sought $5 million in damages. The hotel was eventually put up for auction for $147,000 to satisfy judgments. Because no one bid, the town became the defacto owner. Benz and Riley were given one year to pay the amount and regain ownership of the hotel, but failed to do so, according to court documents.
“We were not thrilled,” Grider said. “We really just wanted the owners to take care of their property.”
Once in their hands, the town had to decide between demolishing the hotel, which would have cost about another $150,000, Grider said.
For now, things seem to be moving in the right direction, he said.
Martin said many of her neighbors care deeply for the building, and are thrilled to see it under construction. 4Culture, a King County arts, heritage and culture organization, has provided some grant money for restoration work on the historic property, Grider said.
Dana Phelan, Historic Preservation Program Lead at 4Culture, wrote in an email that Revive-Historic Skykomish, LLC was granted $400,000 in 2015, which is reimbursable upon completion.
4Culture executive director Jim Kelly wrote in an email that $150,000 came from a King County historic preservation fund, and the additional $250,000 came from 4Culture through a fund that is capitalized from the sale of surplus county property.
“Revive Historic Skykomish will spend much more than our grant funds to complete the task, but it has the resources, expertise and passion to do the work,” he wrote.
Kelly wrote the organization wanted to help preserve the hotel once the town acquired it, and found it could be saved.
“I would even argue that it’s the most important preservation project in King County, because an entire town is dependent on the business generated by the hotel,” according to Kelly. “The project isn’t just about saving a structure; it’s about saving a town. The hotel is vitally important to Skykomish’s economic development plan, which is focused on railroad history and tourism, and the role the Great Northern Railroad played in settling the northwest.”
Grider said Maehlem has hired local labor to complete the work, which helps an economy supported by a population of 200 people.
Maehlem’s lease with the town ends in 2020. It stipulates the bottom floor be used for retail space, and the second and third floors for lodging. Maehlem is allowed to purchase the property at any time, according to the lease.
Right now there are no plans for what to do with the fourth floor, which used to be the sleeping quarters for hotel staff when it was up and running, said Brunner, who also now sits on the Skykomish Community Council.
The old staircase, which extends uninterrupted from the bottom to top floor, will remain intact, Brunner said. It has been a fulfilling venture to be able to help preserve such an important part of the area’s history, he said.
“This is really the heart of the town; this was kind of the soul of the town,” he said. “There are a lot of other shops around, but this was kind of the core...”