If Hotels Could Talk: Washington hotels with history

You’ve heard of these hotels. You haven’t heard these stories.

By Natalie Compagno & Greg Freitas

Several hotels turned down The Beatles before Seattle’s Edgewater Hotel let them stay.
The Edgewater

October 28, 2022

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Even in the age of home rentals, nothing sparks the imagination like a legendary hotel. From the Plaza Hotel to the Chateau Marmont, from the Edgewater to the Watergate — old hotels are where deals are struck, scandals erupt, history is made and secrets are kept. Hotels inspire the stories we tell our friends after we check out.

Washington is filled with legendary lodgings — some new and some as old as the towns themselves. And like the PNW, these tales are historic, rugged, quirky and sometimes even spooky-, but never boring.

Beneath the gleaming facade of the 660-foot F5 Tower, the Lotte Hotel Seattle opened in 2020. Its impeccable service, exquisite Philippe Starck-designed interior, and 3,000-year-old sequoia front desk make it one of the city’s most impressive hotels. Its next-door event space, The Sanctuary, encapsulates years of Seattle history. Formerly the First United Methodist Church, the building housed services for Seattle’s first congregation, which had arrived in 1853 at Alki Beach in West Seattle with the Rev. David Blaine as pastor. 

After moving downtown and growing quickly, the congregation decided at the turn of the century to build a new church. The 1908 opening unveiled bold architectural choices for the time. Up to that point, churches in the New World favored the traditional Romanesque style, so the Beaux-Arts design represented a full embrace by Seattle of 20th-century modernity. Byzantine touches such as the round roof were until then considered inappropriate for Protestant churches, with their vague allusions to ancient Greek paganism. It wasn’t until St. Bartholomew’s opened in Manhattan in 1918 that Classical Revival became the trend, putting Seattle well ahead of the curve.

The Sanctuary also conveys the push-pull between developers and preservationists that has continued for decades. Every time a bulldozer was poised to destroy the site, a court order or cooler heads prevailed. The battle continued until 2007, when a deal was finally completed: The church would move to the current location near the Space Needle, while developers would build the F5 Tower. In return the Sanctuary was preserved intact, with its original pipe organ and stained-glass windows — available for private events and drop-in viewing.

Some say Hotel Sorrento is haunted by the ghost of avant-garde author Alice B. Toklas. Pictured is the restaurant.

Hotel Sorrento

Not half a mile away, the Hotel Sorrento tells the story of the avant-garde. Alice B. Toklas, partner of Gertrude Stein and inventor of the pot brownie, moved to Seattle when she was 13 and studied piano at the University of Washington. She frequently referenced the Seattle years in writing as her happiest time. 

Twelve years after she returned to San Francisco, the Hotel Sorrento opened on First Hill, perhaps on the site where she used to live. Although she never entered the hotel, her spirit looms large to this day. She is said to inhabit room 408, and guests claim to have heard her playing the piano on the seventh floor. Others have seen her puttering about the garden and for good reason — her mother was said to have kept a beautiful garden. Hotel Sorrento is renowned for its live music and cozy fireplace, encouraging visitors to raise a glass to Ms. Toklas.

The Edgewater Hotel embodies the tale of Seattle’s Swinging ‘60s. By now the story of The Beatles’ visit is well-known. The hotel was on the verge of bankruptcy after failing to open in time for the 1962 World’s Fair. Due to security issues with their obsessed fans, other hotels wouldn’t let the Fab Four stay, but The Edgewater opened its doors.

The Beatles Suite at The Edgewater.

The Edgewater

In the ‘60s, guests were allowed to fish from their rooms. The iconic 1964 photo of The Beatles fishing from their hotel window was seen around the world. The visit saved the hotel, as fans and musicians clamored to stay there. Too many rock stars eventually caught too many fish and made too many messes for hotel fishing to continue. Today guests enjoy remarkable views of Elliott Bay, sans flopping fish, by their windows.

Older hotels around the state highlight the stories of Washington’s frontier past and role as a gateway to the Pacific. Built in 1896, Shelburne Hotel in Seaview —an unincorporated community in Pacific County near Long Beach — is the oldest continuously operating hotel in the state. It tells the story of the rugged coast in the late 19th century. As the Industrial Revolution brought prosperity, middle-class families began to travel. A passenger ferry from Portland brought them to frolic on the Long Beach Peninsula. Guests now can take a walk on the beach and picture the early travelers driving their carriages on the sand.

The original Shelburne site was across the street; in 1911 the new owners hired a horse and carriage to move the entire building to its current location. Some say there are guests in the Shelburne who never checked out — visitors might find themselves with a spirit guide if they set out on a self-led ghost tour.

Fort Casey on Whidbey Island was part of the original “Triangle of Fire” forts, positioned to defend Puget Sound against invasion from the Pacific. Today, the non-commissioned officers’ quarters built in 1909 have been turned into Fort Casey Inn, with sea breeze views of Admiralty Inlet and the Olympic Peninsula. Fort Casey Inn has 10 units and is a short four-mile drive from the shops and restaurants of Coupeville. Across the inlet in Port Townsend, Fort Worden rents out the old houses as well, making both locations ideal for that long-awaited family reunion.

Today’s stories are still being told by the hotels of the present. New hotel casinos like 7 Cedars in Sequim tell the story of Native Americans regaining their economic independence. Despite all the modern offerings, 7 Cedars leans firmly into its historic past, with a gallery filled with art and photography from Coast Salish artists.

Scandinavian Rolling Huts in Winthrop

Olson Kundig Architects

If the 2020s become known for one hotel trend, it will be the small space movement beloved by Millennials and Gen Z. For travelers who prefer to explore more with less, it is a golden age for small hotels and even smaller rooms.

The Leavenworth Tiny House Village offers five charming cottages with less than 300 square feet of well-engineered space. In Winthrop, visitors can stay in Scandinavian Rolling Huts, a modern camping alternative designed by Olson Kundig. The very definition of hygge, each hut sleeps two comfortably with all the amenities in rich wood spaces. In Seaview just south of Long Beach, the Sou’wester Historic Lodge & Vintage Travel Trailer Resort features vintage travel trailers for rent on site, with a garden spa and Finnish sauna.

Treehouse Point in Issaquah has spawned an entire treehouse movement of ultimate solitude with a bed in the clouds. Its success has led to a host of options, such as Treehouse Whidbey, a romantic glamp high above isolated Possession Point State Park. 

Stories grow and expand with time. Guests become part of these hotel stories just by checking in. Each place will absorb the personalities of their many visitors and tell their stories to future generations.

Treehouse Whidbey.

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