Hot Lake shifts into full operation

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer October 28, 2010 08:27 am
Lee and David Manuel, the former Wallowa County couple who bought the old Hot Lake resort near

La Grande in 2003, say restoration of the building and grounds will never be completely finished. It’s an eternal work in progress.

But they go right on passing milestones. Just now they’re celebrating a big one, the transition from repair and renovation to full operation.

The new Hot Lake Springs, with its history center, its bed and breakfast lodging, its movie theater, ballroom, restaurant, bronze foundry, art gallery, art studios, gift shop and more is at the stage the Manuels wanted it to be before they opened fully to the public. An open house Saturday marks the occasion.

“I think it’s time,” said Lee Manuel. “We’re ready to move into full operation. It’s just about perfect.”

Though she didn’t have exact figures, she said she thinks the entire investment in Hot Lake will come in at about $35 million and provide about 60 full and part-time jobs.

Once touted as the “Mayo Clinic of the West,” Hot Lake in its heyday was a sanatorium that attracted visitors from all over the world.

Many came to “take the cure” for consumption and other ills. The drawing card was the water from the hot mineral springs and pools located on the property.

The main building was constructed in 1906, added to an already existing wood frame structure.

By all accounts, it was a plush, luxurious place. The first floor included an ornate lobby, a reception area, a ballroom, kitchen and dining facilities and more.

In its prime, the main building housed a fully-equipped hospital, complete with laboratories, an x-ray department and an operating room on the third floor.

After the hospital closed, the building was used variously as a resort, a hotel, a boarding house and a nursing home. For a time, a restaurant operated there.

But, as a succession of owners found out, Hot Lake had lost its allure. There came a time when it was abandoned altogether and left to fall apart.

When the Manuels took over, the rambling, three-story main building was a wreck from top to bottom. Ceilings were crumbling. Every window in the place was broken. Anything not smashed or defaced by vandals had been ravaged by time and weather.

Since they closed their deal, David Manuel, an internationally-known bronze artist, and Lee, his wife and business manager, have worked to create a place that is part resort, part regional arts center.

Before moving to La Grande, the Manuels were members of the business and arts community in Wallowa County. Some elements of their Wallowa County operation continue at Hot Lake.

The bronze foundry is one example. Magnoni’s Restaurant, specializing in Italian pasta, is another. The eatery, with ample seating and a fully equipped kitchen, is set to re-open at Hot Lake in early November.

It’s part of a food service division that also includes a coffee shop and an evening tea room.

“I think we’ll have about 20 people working in food service altogether once the restaurant is open. We have about a dozen now,” said Lee Manuel.

One feature that hasn’t reached the ready stage yet is Restore, an 11-room spa that will operate under the direction of the Manuels’ daughter, Larrena Overton.

Overton said the spa will offer beauty services including hair styling, manicures and pedicures, plus massage, facial treatments and hydrotherapy. When Restore starts up next spring, it will be staffed by 10 people and be open seven days a week.

“I’m planning to cater more to local customers,” Overton said. “Tourists and visitors will come, and I’m excited about that, but I’m really focusing on local people,” she said.

In another part of the building, a number of artists-in-residence will have studios. One already there is Ann Yoder, who has been creating her watercolors at Hot Lake the past four years and recently expanded her work area.

But among all of Hot Lake’s features, for David Manuel the favorite is the history center that displays the thousands of artifacts he has spent a lifetime collecting.

He displayed many of those items at his Nez Perce Crossing gallery in Wallowa County, but more than half of what he had remained in storage. The time has come to share the whole collection with the world.

David has taken the past month or so off from sculpting to set up his history center, a museum that takes up portions of the building’s second and third floors.

One level of the history center is devoted to American military history and the other to Native American history and culture. Getting the whole thing ready to open has been more than a chore, David said.

“My art’s been kind of secondary lately to getting everything behind glass,” he said.

The military museum includes items from conflicts ranging from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. Artifacts — none of them replicas — include firearms, bayonets and swords, projectiles, uniforms, wagons and plenty more.

The Native American display shows items from the stone age up through the Indian wars of the 19th century and beyond. Much of the emphasis is on regional tribes.

David Manuel said the center is the end result of a his lifetime passion for history. One of his objectives now, he said, is to open the eyes of young people to the wonders of America’s past.

“We’re really trying to educate people, especially the younger ones who don’t get a lot of history in this age of computers,” he said.

To help offset the cost of acquiring the collection, an admission fee will be charged for the history center.

At their by-invitation Fall Festival last Saturday, the Manuels hosted guests from 25 states around the country, and cut a ribbon to mark the transition to full operation.

This Saturday’s open house, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is for everybody, and is meant to express gratitude for support.

With the unveiling now at hand, Lee Manuel said nothing would have been accomplished without help from the local community.

“The biggest thing is to say thank you to the community and the people who stood behind us,” she said. “As a whole, the community really opened its arms to us.”