When I was a youngster growing up in Walla Walla, three words meant magic: Marcus Whitman Hotel. When our parents said them, my siblings and I knew they were talking about something special, a place of monumental grandeur.
In 1927 the city fathers of Walla Walla decided to construct a luxury hotel to attract visitors and conventions. Not only did this hotel become the tallest building in the city, but it hosted many dignitaries and celebrities, including Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, actress and diplomat Shirley Temple, and my maternal grandmother’s cousin "Ike", or as he's sometimes called, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The proud citizens of Walla Walla named their hotel after local and historical missionary Marcus Whitman.
The hotel was the big-night place to go for everyone in southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. During the Swing Era all the touring big bands stopped by to play dances. It was a business destination too: dozens of important agreements that would determine Walla Walla's future -- including its wine future -- were made over lunch or dinner at the Marcus Whitman. In the mid-1970s the hotel housed a chain restaurant/bar, the Black Angus. The bar back then was a kind of disco paradise: smoky glass windows, a stainless steel dance floor, a big mirrored disco ball -- the preferred dress for men was a leisure suit in pastel. Many of the hotel rooms became luxury condos. But after the restaurant closed, slowly the grand Marcus Whitman hotel slid into a neglect and disrepair. By the early 1990's, the beautiful antique furnishings that once decorated the lobby were stripped clean, and the wallpaper was torn and stained. There were rumblings about bringing in the wrecking ball for a mercy demolition.
Then, in 1999, Kyle Mussman bought the historic structure. Sharing a community vision with the City and Port of Walla Walla, he restored the beautiful hotel and expanded it, and after the $35 million renovation the elegance was back -- indeed, the hotel is better now than even in its heyday, with cutting-edge technology for today's needs. Now known as "The Marc," it has become a splendid home away from home for many wine tourists while locals once again enjoy fine dining at the hotel. Back in the day, steak was king of the grill in The Marc's dining room, but now the menu highlights fresh regional foods and our terrific local wines. And every time I visit The Marc I see Kyle Mussman greeting guests or even serving in the restaurant. It impresses me that he is a visible and a hands-on host/owner.
Last week, the local wine industry were Kyle's guests for an industry mixer held in one of the conference rooms. Kyle, Executive Chef "Bear" Ullman and staff were available for questions, and the Whitman staff spoke to us about the exciting new changes to their menus. There will be more emphasis on "fresh," with meats from locally raised livestock and wild-caught rather than farm-raised fish. At the mixer, samples from the new menu were served along with a very large assortment of local wines (I have pages and pages of wine notes to be blogged for you on another day soon). It was a wonderful evening, a chance to catch up with old wine friends, make new wine friends and most of all to visit with Kyle, who has become a true Walla Walla hero to me. Living here means a lot to me; it's my birthplace and home. I have hundreds of wonderful memories, including many of the Marcus Whitman Hotel. Kyle has my gratitude for saving a landmark that the people of Walla Walla can be proud of once again.
(PS - After the mixer, a few evenings in a row were spent at the Marc's Vineyard Lounge enjoying some very smooth and tasty vodka martinis and choices from the new bar menu, including fresh handmade potato chips, pulled pork sandwiches, and a seriously delicious watercress and watermelon salad. The service was attentive and charming. The cocktails were smooth, generous and served in stylish glasses. The food was full of flavor and, well, just damn delicious!)