On New Year’s Eve, the center of Vancouver’s holiday celebrations once lay at the foot of Columbia Street, just west of the Interstate 5 Bridge.
Christmas brunch was served in the dining room, made to look like a windjammer, complete with canvas sails. Chablis and burgundy would flow in the Quay Bar. On New Year’s Eve, the bands would play in the Centennial Center ballroom as boozy couples shared a midnight kiss. Perhaps if guests had too much to drink, they would stay in a comfortable room.
This year, the Red Lion Inn at the Quay stands empty as its final Dec. 31 approaches. The old restaurant/bar/hotel has an impending date with the wrecking crew. In a few months, it will be gone.
“The Quay/Red Lion demolition is part of the port’s strategic plan to redevelopment the Terminal 1 waterfront,” writes Therese Lang of the Port of Vancouver, which has always owned the building and leased it to various operators over the decades.
Once the biggest landmark on the Vancouver waterfront, today the inn is dwarfed by the construction at the nearby Waterfront Vancouver — its small-town 1970s charm eclipsed by the newer, more sophisticated attractions of a growing city.
But its kitsch and charm will long remain in the memories of the people who stayed there, ate there, convened there and perhaps even married there.
Before the Kaiser shipyards transformed Vancouver during World War II, Clark County was known for its prunes. They grew on Prune Hill; they grew in Fruit Valley. And they were shipped from the warehouse at the Port of Vancouver’s Terminal 1.
Times changed and so did tastes. Demand for Clark County prunes fell; legend has it President Warren G. Harding died less than a week after being presented with a box of local fruit at the Vancouver railroad station. In the 1950s, a second span joined the original Interstate Bridge, making the wharf and its warehouse hard for ocean freighters to access.
Then came a new idea. On Feb. 11, 1959, The Columbian reported “Plans for an elaborate riverfront cafe, to be located on the east end of the Port of Vancouver’s Terminal 1, were outlined before the city council Tuesday night by restaurateur George Goodrich.
“Hoping to build the cafe, tentatively called The Quay, in time for the Oregon Centennial celebration, Goodrich needed the council’s help to circumvent a city ordinance which prevents taverns or restaurants licensed to sell alcoholic beverages west of Columbia Street.”
The council eventually agreed to let the drinks flow. The Quay Restaurant opened on March 2, 1960, with 110 seats in the main dining room, four banquet rooms and, thanks to the city council, a 60-seat cocktail lounge.
“Lunch and dinner will be served,” according to The Columbian, “and a special late-evening supper menu will be offered dating teenagers.”
The place was a hit. By 1962, there were plans to invest $100,000 to add a convention facility that could handle “display of large exhibits, stage programs, dinner dancing and party-type activities.” By 1965, Goodrich was proposing to add a luxury motel, and in 1971 the Inn at the Quay was expanded to 163 rooms. Two years later, it became part of the Thunderbird/Red Lion chain, a large regional hospitality company that was based in Vancouver until it was sold to Doubletree Corp., in 1996.
According to a 1974 restaurant review, the Quay was “… one of Vancouver’s finest: river view tables, an excellent menu with an accent on seafood, interesting wine list — even flaming desserts for the flamboyant.” The $7.25 Lobster Cordon Bleu and the $6.25 Scampi stuffed with Crab Florentine “came with a choice of soup or salad, a loaf of Quay bread, choice of potato or rice pilaf.” For dessert, our reviewer chose “Mocha Glo,” a flaming dessert of ice cream topped with three liqueurs.
In 1977, Columbian reporter Thomas Ryll interviewed Danny Falco, an assistant manager since the day the place opened. “It’s the good life — I love it,” said the man known as “Mr. Quay,” who talked of serving Hollywood celebrities such as Eddie Albert (“Green Acres”) and Georgie Jessel.
The landmark Red Lion sign was installed in 1986, when the hotel’s branding was changed from Thunderbird to Red Lion. The red neon sign cost $50,000 and was part of a $3.5 million remodeling.
There were many, many good days at the Quay, and some bad ones; Columbian archives include stories about labor strife, and deteriorating pilings under the pier.
Not long into the new century, it became clear the Quay’s glory days were past. In 2005, the Hilton Vancouver Washington opened, offering modern rooms, better meeting facilities and a location on Esther Short Park, the revamped heart of an emerging downtown.
After one last Halloween party, the Red Lion Hotel at the Quay closed on Oct. 31, 2015.
Only it didn’t. Beaches proprietor Mark Matthias saw potential in the old property’s river views, free parking and banquet halls, and leased the restaurant from the Port of Vancouver. He tore out the old carpets, kept the sailing ship kitsch, and opened WareHouse ’23 in July 2016 with dueling pianos and an aim to turn up the volume in a place where diners once wore formal clothes.
The party went on for more than three years, even though everyone knew the port was going to redevelop the site. Part of the hotel was demolished, and the rest was boarded up. One last big New Year’s Eve blast was set for Dec. 31, 2020. COVID-19 killed the plan, and the last beers and burgers were served in March 2020.
Although the building looks empty, port spokeswoman Lang said that abatement contractor Keystone is at work in the building, preparing it for demolition to begin as soon as the end of January. The port is using $1.3 million in state funds to do what is called a selective demolition, meaning that as much of the building will be salvaged as possible. That includes 30 of the original beams from the 1923 warehouse, which will be repurposed eventually.
By the end of March, the Quay will be gone, with most of the site fenced off for public safety. In the late spring or early summer, a portion of the parking lot will become the staging area for construction of the ZoomInfo office building near the BNSF Railway berm.
Someday, the site is scheduled to hold a public marketplace. It’s too early to say when that project will be developed, Lang said. Part of the dock and some 800 original pilings need to be replaced. Plans to replace the I-5 Bridge will also factor into the timing.
No matter what is developed on the site, memories of the Thunderbird/Red Lion Hotel at the Quay will live on in the memories of longtime local residents.