In many ways, the story of The Governor Hotel mirrors the very history of the City of Olympia itself.
Built in 1890 within sight of the bucolic lawns of the Capitol Campus and the iconic Capitol Building, across from the peaceful greenery of Sylvester Park, the original three-story, brick-fronted structure with the columned entryway was the genius of pioneer businessman William H. Mitchell. In those earliest days, the hotel for a year shared its building with St. John’s Episcopal Church, which then moved to its current site on 9th and Washington avenues. That space then sold to John A. Silsby’s grocery store; the family’s historic Silsby House still stands on 13th Avenue. And Northern Pacific Railroad’s 7th Avenue tunnel, albeit now silent, still runs past the hotel.
“We do have a story. We do have a connection with the community. And we do have deep roots,” said general manager Annaleise Thomas. “In all of the changes, we are not cutting those roots off. Instead, we are making them grow.”
Today, black-and-white photos of what was alternately known as the Governor House or the Mitchell Hotel in those historic times grace the lodging’s interior corridors.
In fact, there’s an entire gallery, courtesy of local artist and historian Susan Parrish, on display throughout the main floor hallways. The shots capture classic moments in state history: one of the state’s first governors hooking a prize salmon; grainy 19th-century street-scapes; decked-out couples posing at the hotel in its heydays.
“We’ve been in downtown since the Oregon Trail days. This was the first lodging in town,” said sales director Ryan Kang. “Then, Puget Sound reached out to Sylvester Park, which was one of the earliest gathering places for the pioneers. The actual docks where people would get off and on the boats were right there.”
That was the first chapter of the story of the Governor House. In 1928, a seven-story brick extension was built to the south. Now known as The Governor Hotel, the lodging became a hotspot for the city’s savviest government and business officials, wealthy residents, and notable visitors.
“People still know its reputation as the hotel to be seen in around downtown in those days,” Thomas said. “You were a big shot if you stayed at The Governor back then.”
The tales of the next chapter include the massive 1949 earthquake, which razed much of the South Sound. Said Kang, when he first toured the hotel, a maintenance worker who had been in the building when the earthquake struck noted that he was relieved that he had been in the basement of The Governor, rather than anywhere else.
“It was testament to the integrity of the structure,” Kang said.
By 1960, though, The Governor had lost some of its glitterati appeal. In 1971, it was rebuilt to suit a new Ramada Inn franchise format, and to fit the corporate travel needs of the times. The third rebirth of the hotel, courtesy of what was in that era the hip, modern design, created its current exterior format, that towering cream and cinnamon edifice at the head of glittering Capitol Lake and its adjacent campus of stern gray government buildings.
Nearly a half-century later, enter Rusco USA LLC, the owner of which is Kang’s uncle. The company purchased The Governor — sans Ramada brand — in September of 2013. Said Kang, when the team was conducting its due diligence before ownership they were approached by the Holiday Inn franchise for potential partnership. After the purchase, though, they turned down the offer.
“Learning that history behind the hotel, and talking with the local Olympia shops and hotel guests, made us think twice about being a corporate hotel and not a local one,” Kang explained. “We wanted to keep the identity of The Governor. Then we had to ask, how do we modernize it but keep the history and uniqueness and boutiqueness alive? Now we are working independently to keep it hyper local.”
Said Thomas, “At the ground level, those at the company
were seeing what the hotel was, and what it could be. It was purchased with the idea of having ownership, and taking it to the next level.”
Today, after a year of heavy renovations and upgrades, the hotel is in its very viable fourth reincarnation. Its 110 rooms and 13 suites each capture a local flair that highlights Olympia’s history. Top-floor Grand King rooms are a spacious 320 square feet, and feature vistas of the Capitol Campus and Capitol Lake all the way to Budd Bay and Mt. Rainier. But every room is light and airy, with a twist; clean lines, simple designs, and just a splash of color and kitsch. There’s even a Bridal Suite on the first floor. And everything from the lobby to the breakfast area to the exterior facade has been redone to fit the theme.
“It's unique, it’s fun, it’s boutiquey, and it’s very Olympia,” Thomas said. “You have all the franchise hotels around here, so we had to capitalize on our history, our location and our original character.”
That local character resonates with more than just the guests. Its also a common theme among curious visitors, and the employees themselves. Thomas said that she recently gave a tour to a woman who remembered the hotel from its heydays, and who was thrilled that the new owners were willing to bring the property back up to that vision. Then there’s the bellman now at work there who returned because he was one of the first employees on duty when the hotel doors opened after the last renovation.
“People love that we're making it what it should be,” Thomas said. “The hotel has made a connection with a lot of people. Someone could have come in here and torn it down and completely made it into something else, but we are continuing to re-create its history.”
The central location, rich local memories, and dedication to keeping things attractive yet different had the Coast Hotels brand calling in early 2014. The franchise, which specializes in unique historic hotels like Seattle’s Roosevelt and the Beacon in Portland, saw that The Governor was a good fit, particularly with its commitment to individual identity and a locale between its other two Northwest properties. Now Governor guests, in addition to the opportunity to be immersed in local history at a luxury stay, have the added perks of frequent guest rewards and the backing of an original national boutique brand.
And while the hotel’s target market is still government workers ‘year-round, in addition to corporate and tourist markets outside of the winter Legislative sessions, The Governor is still committed to focusing on the needs of its surrounding downtown.
“We want to support what's going on locally in downtown Olympia, and be local-centric,” Kang emphasized. “It’s the idea of how we can support the local economy and what's going on locally. What's here, and how we are becoming part of what's going on in the area.”
Added Thomas, the way she likes to look at downtown Olympia is that it has a true local flair. The West side: There's your commercial area.
“We are locally owned, we have a local footprint, and we have an owner who wants to maintain that. That says something,” she said.