Old building finding new purpose as hotel, apartments

By Emily Hamann

After more than three decades, a historic Bellingham building will be restored to its original purpose.

In April, owners of the Leopold Hotel building announced that it would again be used as a hotel, along with apartments.

Renovations are currently underway to restore parts of the building’s original features, including tile floors, in preparation for its reopening this summer.

“We’re trying to bring it back to its former glory,” Peter Frazier said. He co-owns the hotel business with his wife, Aimee, and Bob Hall, who owns the building, including the apartments.

This is the second time they’ve teamed up on a project — they also bought the former Lion’s Inn Hotel and transformed it into the boutique Heliotrope Hotel in 2016.

“Our success with the Heliotrope is really what led to us even considering a hotel” at the Leopold, Frazier said.

They were looking to find a new use for the building after the closure of The Leopold Retirement Residence, which they announced in December.

It had been a retirement community for 30 years.

“That business was no longer sustainable,” Frazier said. “We went to look for other options for the building.”

The 61 apartment units will be in the original nine-story building tower. The 31 hotel rooms will be in the motor inn that was constructed in 1959.

Both guests and residents will share a gym, lounge, deck and library.

A restaurant group is in the process of signing a lease for much of the first floor area, which includes a kitchen, dining room, bar area and ballroom. Frazier didn’t disclose the name of the restaurant group, but said it is based locally. Previously, the restaurant area was the site of the bar and restaurant called The Casino. “The Casino” is still spelled out in tile at the door of the restaurant.

Frazier said the plan is to begin leasing out 27 apartments units on June 1, with the rest of the units to follow. The hotel is expected to open later this summer.

“We feel confident that mixing the populations is going to be successful,” Frazier said.

Because of the shared spaces, guests will get the opportunity to meet and interact with Bellingham residents. It’s the model that got Frazier and his wife Aimee into the hospitality industry in the first place, when they started renting out their own property on AirBnb.

Now, both residents and guests at the Leopold building will have all that downtown has to offer at their fingertips.

“I suspect that a number of our guests at the hotel will park their car and not get back in it until they’re ready to leave,” Frazier said.

That would not only be good for the guests, but good for downtown, Sandy Ward, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, explained.

“What we want visitors to do is park one time and walk around the city,” Ward said.

She said she is excited about the prospect of having a hotel downtown again.

“It just brings more life to downtown,” she said. “It brings more people to downtown.”

While there is currently the boutique four-room Hamlet Hotel downtown, the Hotel Leo will provide opportunity for even more guests to stay in the city center.

“You can walk to almost anything, you can walk to the theater, you can get down to the waterfront, there’s lots of dining options, coffee,” Ward said. “It’s going to be fabulous.”

A hotel has the potential to stimulate economic activity for the entire area, Ward said, maybe even more than a residential building.

“When people live in a facility, they eat in that facility,” Ward said. But a hotel is usually full of people on vacation.

“People who are traveling are happiest when they’re spending lots and lots of money,” she said. “They eat out, they buy souvenirs, they spend money at museums and theaters, and they just do things that they wouldn’t do when they’re at home.”

A history of hospitality

The site has housed a hotel since it was first developed in 1889. At the time, it was called the Byron House, Jeff Jewell, photo archives research technician at the Whatcom Museum, said.

Then in 1900, a new Byron House hotel was built nearby.

In 1910 Leopold F. Schmidt bought the building. At the time, Jewell said, Schmidt was involved in the brewery industry. But prohibition was picking up steam, and more areas were outlawing alcohol and saloons, so Schmidt was looking for new business ventures.

In 1913, the original building was torn down, and a new hotel was built. This one had two separate towers.

The 1920s was a boom time for tourism in Bellingham. That decade saw a rise in motor tourism as more and more people were buying cars. Chuckanut Drive opened, and more drivers than ever were able to come up to Bellingham. The city had its own tulip fields, located in part where Bellis Fair Mall is today, and a tulip festival that rivaled Skagit County’s which drew many tourists.

“That was Bellingham’s golden age in so many ways,” Jewell said. Many hotels sprung up downtown, and the Leopold Hotel thrived.

“By the end of the ’20s the Leopold Hotel was really experiencing a lot of business,” Jewell said.

Unfortunately, the 1930s and the Great Depression were just around the corner.

Downtown hotels took a hit, but it was the construction of Interstate 5 that really drew lodging away from the city center.

“New motel construction was based around exits to I-5,” Jewell said. “Slowly but surely we lost downtown hotels.”

But that’s turning around, Jewel said, as the city center recovers from being gutted after Bellis Fair Mall was built in 1988.

“Now I think with the general coming back of downtown, having so many options, a downtown hotel is becoming viable,” Jewell said.

The trend has swung back, and more people are wanting to stay downtown for it’s entertainment, shopping, dining options and thriving craft beer scene. Ironic, Jewell pointed out, considering the reason the Leopold Hotel was built in the first place.

“All of it seems incredibly ironic, considering Leopold Schmidt got into hotels to get out of breweries,” he said.

This story has been modified to correctly explain the ownership of the hotel business and the Leopold Hotel building.


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