Across from the first state Capitol on Legion Way in downtown Olympia stands the historic building once known as the Olympia Hotel. Now often under appreciated as a piece of history, this structure was once a beacon of our city, built to attract legislators and ensure that Olympia kept the status as capital city.
In the years following the 1904 fire that burned down the original site of the first Olympia Hotel, citizens of Olympia came together to figure out next steps for the city. They needed a place to not only house legislators, tourists, and business people, but also to stand out as a staple of the city. They were not going to settle for just any hotel — they wanted a world-class hotel, one extravagant enough to help convince people into endorsing Olympia as the capital. What would it say about Olympia if it lost the capital to Tacoma or, dare I say, Seattle?
After a few years of brainstorming, citizens decided to reach into their own pockets to fund the hotel. Efforts began in 1917 by about 140 people, only two of whom did not reside in Thurston County. They ultimately raised about $320,000 in order to rebuild what would be newly known as Olympia Hotel. The construction of this location started in 1918 and was finished in July 1920. Once opened, the city hosted a large gala on the 15th of the month at which Governor Louis Folwell Hart and Mayor Jesse T. Mills spoke, the Olympia Glee Club sang, and party-goers danced to live music. The cooperative ownership allowed stakeholders to not only feel financially invested in the hotel, but also in the anticipated growth of the city. Because the ballroom was not added until 1927, the festivities of the gala took place in the lobby. There was a small orchestra housed in the mezzanine, and dinner was served to over 400 guests at $2.50 a plate.
In the 1920s, Olympia was bustling with music, swanky cars, two city newspapers, and celebration due to women gaining the right to vote through the 19th amendment. This was also during the time of prohibition, so people attending events at the hotel had to hide their alcohol in as sly a manner as possible. The Olympia Hotel served as a hub during this time as the center for the rotary club and an attraction for newcomers passing through the city. With 155 rooms, 75 of which had their own private bathrooms, and all of which had hot and cold running water and telephone service, it was a hard hotel to pass up in its day. For many years, Olympia governors held their inaugural balls at this hotel. In fact, it was still being targeted toward legislators until 1975.
This building is now split into three separate areas: the first floor consists of six commercial spaces, the second mainly of the 2,600-square-foot vintage ballroom, and the top floors of separate Section 8 apartments. Connie and Tim Smith run the family-owned business Fiddle and Fern NW Events, which rents out the ballroom space as well as the first floor of the building. They began to rent the spaces in 2012 until the building was sold to new owners a few years later. In order to fill the above apartments, the commercial floors were not allowed to be rented out during that time.
A few years passed with vacant floors before Connie and Tim were again allowed to rent them. All without hiring professional help, the walls were painted top to bottom, holes were patched, vents were fixed, and the stage and wall-panels were removed in order to open up and preserve the space. After months of hard work restoring and remodeling the ballroom to its former glory, they re-opened in January 2019. Connie and Tim would love for the ballroom to be used for downtown events such as Olympia’s Third Thursdays, or any other events.
I had the pleasure of speaking with playwright, author and historian Bryan Willis, who will be putting on a 100th anniversary performance at the Olympia Ballroom next July. The event will speak to the roaring ‘20s by recreating the iconic opening gala that took place a century ago. Although some details of the event are still under construction, the project can be followed by the website of its main sponsor Northwest Playwrights Alliance (based at the Seattle Repertory Theatre) or on their Facebook page. Deane Shellman is the director, Daven Tillinghast is the musical director, Jill Barnes will be a featured singer, and author Jim Lynch has agreed to help with the script. Bryan Willis is the hometown playwright. Following the spirit of the original project, the play will involve several writers and feature many of Olympia’s superb actors.
Commonly held in the space are galas and banquets, dances, concerts, and weddings. During Olympia Arts Walk this past April, the venue was used for a gallery and pop-up clothing shop. In May 2019, it was also used for the closing event and reception for Olympia Design Month. People are often drawn to the space due to its vintage charm and historic roots. As one of the only old buildings in Olympia seemingly frozen in time, the space is anything but cookie cutter. Those interested in renting out the space can visit their website here and email Connie and Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
The building is located at 116 Legion Way SE, Olympia WA 98502.