Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

WALLOWA LAKE - The place looks like a movie set - along the street, a 1950s-style neon sign says "Wallowa Lake Lodge and Cabins" in front of a classic turn-of-the-20th century lodge; from the back, the lodge is framed by the Eagle Caps with Wallowa Lake 100 yards away.

For the last 25 years, the lodge was owned and run by Marc and Nancy Zwerling and Steve Larsen. Marc Zwerling said they bought it as an investment, not knowing how attached they would become to the historic lodge and its surroundings.

Nancy Zwerling said she likes to sit on the back porch in the morning, overlooking an expansive yard where you can see the braids of the Wallowa River drain into Wallowa Lake. "There's something about this place that quiets both of us," Nancy Zwerling said.

Originally, Marc Zwerling said, Larsen moved to Wallowa Lake to spend a few years renovating the lodge in the winter and operating it as a resort in the summer.

"We meant to buy it, fix it up and sell it," Marc Zwerling said.

The renovations wereintricate and took longer than expected. The owners grew fond of the place and Larsen became a "local."

Marc Zwerling said he knew little about Wallowa Lake or the lodge before he and Larsen decided to buy it, nor much about Nez Perce history and culture. As he became acquainted with his investment, visiting it several times a year, he said he grew to have a profound appreciation for the lodge, the area and native history.

"In 1993, I knew nothing about the Nez Perce, but over the years tribal members have always shown up at the lodge for various functions," he said.

As their appreciation grew for the tribe's culture and history, it wasn't long before the Zwerlings and Larsen knew they wanted the Nez Perce Tribe to own the lodge.

"It is still my fondest hope," Marc Zwerling said.

He said he envisions the tribes owning it, running it as a business and adding an education outreach center.

He said the lodge has the potential to increase its revenue with the right management, but conserving most of the surrounding property would benefit its value. With that in mind, the owners worked with the Trust for Public Land that paid for an appraisal of the property. With conservation of the property for the future, they've discussed easement options with Wallowa Land Trust and to have the lodge serve as a cultural center for future generations, the owners started working with the Nez Perce Tribe.

Marc Zwerling said five or six years ago it looked like a sale to the tribe was imminent, but tribal leadership ended up deciding against purchasing the lodge.

About a year ago, Larsen died unexpectedly. His heirs and the Zwerlings decided to keep the lodge open and try to find a buyer. Over the winter, Marc Zwerling said he talked to both the Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes. A deal wasn't brokered, so the owners decided to offer the lodge through an auction for a minimum reserve bid of $2.75 million.

"We decided to go this route because Steve's estate must divest itself of this asset," Zwerling said.

John Rosenthal was secured to broker the auction.

"We deal with a lot of unusual properties and this is one of them," Rosenthal said.

Zwerling said he directed Rosenthal to talk directly to the tribes and see if there was any way one or both of them could buy the lodge.

Rosenthal said auctioning the lodge during the busiest time of year shows potential buyers what a fully operating resort looks like. He said last year the lodge made a profit and advanced bookings for 2015 indicate this may be a banner year.

Along with talking to both the Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes, Rosenthal said with Wallowa State Park as an adjacent neighbor, he asked if the state would be interested in buying it.

"The thing about this property that is unusual is it is the only private property on the south end of the lake," Rosenthal said.

The property is zoned recreation/commercial, which the Zwerlings and Rosenthal think would be ideal for either the tribes or the park to own and run. Another selling point, Rosenthal said, is it comes complete with an experienced staff.

"The management team wants to continue to work there - it speaks highly of what Steve did as an onsite owner," Rosenthal said.

The building's condition is also a testament to what Larsen did as an onsite owner. Rosenthal said the lodge is in good condition and an inspection came back with a good report.