ashland.news
June 14, 2024

Ashland’s oldest hotel is back in business under new ownership

The Columbia Hotel lobby epitomizes the inn's new look and the tastes of new owner Jay Bowen. Columbia Hotel photo
May 17, 2024

The Columbia Hotel returns with a new attitude, murals and a ‘wow’ factor

By Peter Finkle for Ashland.news

The oldest hotel in Ashland has just been reborn as a place “where the culture of music, art and Ashland vibes meets the relaxing rhythm of nature in the heart of the great Southern Oregon outdoors.” This quote from the newly renovated Columbia Hotel’s home page expresses much of the essence of what makes Ashland attractive to both visitors and residents.

The Columbia Hotel and East Main Street in the 2020s. Peter Finkle photo
The Columbia Hotel and East Main in the late 1920s. Photo from the John Enders Jr. collection

After a brief tour through the 114-year history of this hotel and building, I will introduce you to the “wow” factor of its current incarnation. You will find the historic hotel up the stairs at 262½ E. Main St., between First and Second streets.

The Columbia Hotel began in 1910 on the second floor of the largest, most impressive shopping block in Southern Oregon. Henry Enders Sr. moved his family to Ashland in 1907 after running stores in Denver, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Boise, Idaho. Following three years in a small store here at the corner of Main and Granite streets, he decided to go big. He hired leading local architect Frank Clark, then built in 1910 the first concrete commercial building in Ashland, a big change from downtown’s traditional brick business buildings.

Southern Oregon’s first shopping mall

The Enders Co. occupied the entire first floor of the building, a parade of stores linked by interior doors to create an early version of the 20th century shopping mall. According to his son and business partner Henry Enders Jr.: “Well, we had everything! We had men’s clothing, furnishings, men’s and ladies’ shoes, ladies’ ready-to-wear, ladies’ dry good and piece goods, a 15 cent store, a music store, a confectionary, hardware and sporting goods and a grocery store.”

That was the heyday of Southern Pacific Railroad’s impact on Ashland. There are stories that many residents of towns in Southern Oregon and Northern California would take the train just to visit Ashland for a shopping excursion to the Enders Co. stores. I can picture them walking through the Railroad District from the A Street train station to the Enders Co. on Main Street, eating at a downtown restaurant, perhaps strolling in Chautauqua Park along Ashland Creek, then taking an afternoon or evening train back home.

Also in 1910, Enders enticed the Ashland Elks Lodge to build a four-story building right across the street. How? By selling the Elks three lots at a good price. Having the Elks meet and eat and drink here brought a lot more buzz to the block. Perhaps sensing the vibrancy in this “new” part of downtown Ashland, Citizens Bank built and opened next door to the Enders Co. (The bank building is now home to Lithia Park Shoes.)

Four years later, Enders expanded his shopping mall by adding four more stores. That filled in the rest of the East Main Street block, all the way to Second Street. You can still see the 1910 and 1914 dates at the top of the two Enders buildings.

Opened in 1910

During this exciting time in downtown Ashland, the Columbia Hotel opened in 1910 with 28 guest rooms. A Mrs. Knoblarch was listed as the first proprietor of the hotel in the January 1911 Ashland Tidings, with Mrs. E.G. Hadley taking over the hotel the following year.

The new hotel competed for Ashland tourists with the massive Hotel Oregon down the street and the large Ashland Depot Hotel at the train station. The Columbia also offered a more “home-like” approach, with accommodations for long-term lodgers right in the heart of town and modern “steam heat” in each room. In 1912, lodgers occupied 10 of the 28 rooms.

From the past to the future

Past: The rooms still have their historic cast-iron radiators and original Douglas fir floors, which connect guests to the hotel’s past.

New hotel owner Jay Bowen in the Atomic Room. Peter Finkle photo
Artist Vincent Rush with his mural in the Columbia Hotel’s Leanan Sidhe Room. Peter Finkle photo

Future: The new immersive art experience that surrounds you in the lobby and in each guest room connects you with the Columbia Hotel’s future.

Describing highlights of her life, new owner Jay Bowen said, “I remember some of the best places I went to were places I could sit and chill in the lounge, or the bar, and meet travelers from all around the world, or all around the country. And I want to create that vibe here.”

Bowen, who grew up in South Africa and worked in travel and hotel marketing in Portland, has always loved travel and meeting new people. When I asked, “Why the Columbia Hotel?” she replied, “Most of my background has been creating experiences for people and also focusing on sustainability. When the opportunity came to have this hotel I jumped at it. I am excited to implement ideas that I wasn’t really allowed to do for other people’s hotels. Now I can do that here, and be more conscious and sustainable — something younger travelers are becoming more aware of.”

She has created a hotel with families and active younger travelers in mind. Jay and her husband, Andy, have two young children, and the family has traveled far and wide, so they know what matters. Half of the rooms have pairs of classy bunk beds (to sleep four), and half are more traditional hotel room king beds.

More to come

When you walk into the newly renovated hotel lobby, your vision is filled with art and eclectic furnishings. In the months to come, the lobby will include a bar, live music and community events. For the real “wow” experience of the new Columbia Hotel, you have to visit — or possibly stay in — one of the rooms.

Bowen is enthusiastic about the local artists she reached out to as she began the renovation process. They actually helped create the look of the hotel renovation. She met initially with artists Ryan Moon and Rhino. As they were conceptualizing what to do with the rooms, Rhino suggested big murals. Bowen’s response was, “Yes, let’s do that.” She explained to me: “I don’t want art to just be in a frame on the wall. I want it to be immersive.” She is in tune with the current trend for experiential travel.

Each room has a unique theme and story

Beginning with the artists’ wild creativity, every room is unique, with a different name and a different feel. As my eyes popped entering Room 1 (named Leanan Sidhe), Bowen laughed and told me, “It’s very magical in this room, and we want it to feel that way.” Describing part of the hotel vision, she added: “We want every room to have a story and a theme to it, and then for guests to try and find out what that theme is. There are clues all over the room how to get to that story, if they are interested in finding out about it. Some people won’t, and some people will wonder: What is Leanan Sidhe? What is that all about? How do you pronounce it? What is it? Finding those clues will be part of the experience of staying at the hotel.”

So far, 10 of the 21 rooms have been painted with a wide assortment of creative, colorful, wildly different, beautiful murals — and are available to book. Room furnishings are upcycled and fit with the theme of each room.

Along with families, the hotel is gearing up to serve girls’ trips, group trips and travelers who care about sustainability. They are reaching out to people who visit Southern Oregon for outdoor activities. The hotel works closely with the Rogue Valley Mountain Biking Association, and can store bikes in the hotel. It has lockers available for Pacific Coast Trail hikers and others who need a place to store their gear.

“I love to run the trails here,” Bowen said. “A mile out of the hotel, and you’re up on a trail, which is amazing. I hope we will become a destination for people who enjoy the outdoors: water sports, trail running, hiking, mountain biking.”

After 114 years of serving visitors to cultural and natural Ashland, the Columbia Hotel is ready for new adventures.

Peter Finkle gives Ashland history and art walking tours. See WalkAshland.com for walking tour information, or to request a private tour for your group or family.

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Jim

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