JOSEPH, Ore. — For many of the 7,000 or so people who live in rugged, mountainous Wallowa County tucked up in the northeastern corner of Oregon, the century-old Wallowa Lake Lodge has been an untouchable heirloom for more than half its life.
First built in 1923, the hotel’s imposing, three-story dark wood structure with a sprawling lawn set off the southern shore of Wallowa Lake was, for decades, run “by an operator that was pretty specific in what kind of clientele they wanted here — it wasn’t a kid-friendly place, and it wasn’t really a locals-friendly place,” general manager Madeline Lau says. It was a place where locals worked — as grounds crew, housekeeping or kitchen staff — but not a place where they stayed.
Portland attorney Marc Zwerling was first introduced to the lodge by a client, Bob Ladum, in 1985. Ladum, an avid runner, had visited the area since he was a kid. The lodge — then owned by the Wiggins family since the 1940s — had fallen into total disrepair, something Ladum couldn’t ignore while on his runs. The main lodge had no dining available, and the cabins were rarely rented. It was an eyesore. Ladum persuaded the Wiggins family to sell to him for $300,000 and began the painstaking effort of restoring the lodge. Two years later, Ladum had run out of money and approached Zwerling for a loan, which he accommodated. A year later, with Ladum once again out of funds, Zwerling, his wife, Nancy, and his friend Steve Larson took over the property and began what became a half-century quest to restore the lodge to its original glory.
It would take one more ownership change and the rallying of an entire community to truly see that quest through to fruition.
As the Wallowa Lake Lodge celebrated its 100th anniversary this June, it’s now owned by a group of 120 families across the Pacific Northwest who came together to buy the lodge when Larson, the main operator for nearly 30 years, died suddenly in 2017. The property has gotten everything from a fresh coat of paint and a new deck to a new roof over the past few years and it now has an 82 percent occupancy rate in the summers.
In my view, the turnaround is well underway. When I stayed at the property with my family in May, I fell in love with the lodge within 30 seconds of stepping into the lobby, which is filled with simple wooden two-seat couches covered in thick, green velvet cushions. The stone fireplace that anchors one wall has “Welcome” spelled out in smaller stones above the hearth, the walls are dotted with stuffed moose, deer, snowshoes and historical photos. There’s a bookshelf filled with games and kid-friendly toys in one corner and a new bar built into another corner. It’s cozy and infinitely welcoming. You can’t wait to sink into one of those velvet couches with a good book.
There’s a massive cedar deck out back, the rooms are slowly being renovated and Lau thinks she’s finally permanently evicted the bats that took over the attic each winter (don’t worry, there are plenty of new bat houses dotting the grounds). But it has been a labor of love to turn this century-old place into the welcoming spot it is now — complete with Wi-Fi. And it literally took a village to get to this point.
Holding out for the right buyers
When first approached to help refurbish Wallowa Lake Lodge, Zwerling never imagined the project would take the better part of four decades.
“We inherited Bob Ladum’s dream,” Zwerling said during a recent phone call.
Larson originally speculated it would take five years to finish renovations and sell the property. But, he fell in love with the area and lived in Joseph over the next three decades managing the slow-going renovations and working to restore the lodge. They eventually formalized a plan with the Oregon Trust for Public Lands for a conservation easement ensuring that whoever purchased the property next would have to keep it as is. Over the years, Zwerling says they had multiple offers from interested buyers — but these people all wanted to raze the property for a larger, more modern building.
By 2015, a suitable buyer still hadn’t appeared. Then Larson suddenly died of a heart attack, and the Zwerlings were put in a tough spot. That’s when the community of Joseph picked up the mantle to save the lodge.
“There were a lot of people who saw how significant and sentimental the lodge was even if they had never been in it, and also (they were) rebelling against (the prospect of) this big corporation coming in,” Lau said.
In 2017, two small businesses and a core group of 78 families joined together to form an initial offering (with shares being sold for as low as $1,000 each) to buy Wallowa Lake Lodge for $2.57 million.
Although the Zwerlings had made some renovations through the late ’90s, there was a lot of deferred maintenance on the property. The community owners were also looking for a way to make the lodge feel more accessible. This was where Lau came in.
A sixth-generation Oregonian, Lau had served as a park ranger at nearby Wallowa Lake State Park in 2011. She was familiar with the lodge and its importance, and after spending a few years in other parts of the country, returned to Joseph in 2019 and saw that the lodge was hiring.
Despite not having any hospitality experience, Lau applied for the general manager gig and sealed the deal during her five-hour interview by passionately describing her quest to save the “relics of Oregon.” She envisioned a lodge where there was live music and open-mic nights, where the community came for dinner and the deck was full of the sound of children. She wanted to host community potlucks and nonprofit events.
“I didn’t know how to get there, but I had a vision and (board manager James Monteith) was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ The learning curve was really steep and I have a super awesome team that I’m grateful to,” Lau said.
Bringing the lodge into the future
When Lau walked into the lodge in 2020, it was quiet — like a library, filled with lace curtains and “sad throw pillows.”
“I went on this ruthless disbanding of the Victorian bed-and-breakfast vibes that had taken hold,” Lau said. She still jokes that the rooms upstairs are half “ship’s captain” and half “grandma’s spare room.”
After some minor renovations and upgrades (new linens, paint), the lodge reopened in 2020 with Lau at the helm. After the initial investment to purchase the property was made, a second offering opened up with more people buying in. The profits went toward more upgrades to the property.
While the lodge hopes to host more events his winter, full operations are mostly a seasonal business. The highway often closes due to snow in winter, and while there are some conferences and the property’s eight cabins are rented year-round, the full lodge, restaurant and new bar are operational from Memorial Day weekend through the end of September.
My family and I spent opening weekend there this year — even extending our stay because we were having such a great time. We relaxed in the Adirondack chairs on the deck, watching deer mosey through the back lawn and played Candyland in the lobby while snacking on fries and hummus platters.
Based on our experience there, I’d say the lodge is very much worthy of its treasured heirloom status.
The rooms we rented were connected Jack-and-Jill style with a bathroom in the middle. The glass in the windows was wavy (as 100-year-old glass usually is), and the bathroom had a claw foot tub. There are transom windows above the doors, and you can hear other guests moving down the hallway as the floors creak and groan. It’s not perfect, but it was wonderful.
New this year is The Redd, a casual bar that operates daily out of the lobby. There’s also the Camus Room which serves breakfast and dinner.
“The restaurant changes every season, which is fun and challenging,” Lau said.
Two years ago, they had a Scandinavian-inspired menu; this year, the menu is focused on seasonal takes of classic steakhouse-style dishes: bison pappardelle, seared salmon with brown butter grit cakes and cast iron-seared wagyu with morels. The menu will change as summer continues into fall.
After years of turmoil, you now need a reservation to dine in the Camus Room on weekends, with hotel guests from all over sitting next to Joseph locals. Lau said there’s a more diverse mix of people — ones like Bob Ladum who grew up coming to the lodge, alongside longtime residents — who are finally rubbing elbows in a place that now, after 100 years, seems like its finally coming into its own.