December 21, 2003 11:00 pm

Artist David Manuel has put his creative touches on bronze sculptures commemorating Chief Joseph, John Wayne, an officer with the U.S. Marshals Service and others.

Now Manuel and his wife, Lee, want to put their energy and imagination to work on a Union County landmark that has been neglected for decades: the Hot Lake Resort.

The Manuels

announced they are in the process of buying the Hot Lake property from Louise Rhea of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Will the Manuels find the resources to restore the property to something aesthetically and historically significant? Or will only enough money be found to provide a few cosmetic changes, but nothing significant to bring the building back to its century-old grandeur?

Eager to gET started, the couple have employed W.C. Construction to do cleanup work on the three-story brick building that has been the site of a resort, health spa, sanatorium, hospital, nursing home and restaurant. It is now an eyesore on the road from La Grande to Union.

Lee Manuel said she and her husband will be seeking ideas from area residents on restoration. They'll also be seeking the financial backing to turn their dreams into a reality.

The Manuels already have a track record in Joseph, where they've established a first-class art gallery and museum. They also own a foundry, restaurant and bed-and-breakfast.

It is unknown whether the Manuels would move all their operations to Union County. It stands to reason, however, that the Hot Lake site, only a couple miles from Interstate 84's Foothill Road exit, would give their Old West-theme museum much more exposure.

The Manuels' ideas for Hot Lake are expansive. Among the possibilities are a redeveloped hotel, a day spa making use of the property's hot mineral waters, swimming pools, an assisted living facility for senior citizens, a restaurant, a bronze foundry and a school of art.

The main Hot Lake building, constructed in 1906, has potential. An engineering study recently showed that the foundations and walls are sound. It remains to be seen whether the Manuels can tap that potential and turn Hot Lake into one of the most talked-about tourist destinations in the Northwest.

But, then again, some of David Manuel's best-known sculptures began in his mind as an idea, as a vision of what could be. Out of that grew something significant.

No one will fault the Manuels for trying to turn the rubble of Hot Lake into something beautiful.