By Nancy Keaton
Neil White doesn’t have a background in architecture, design or historical restoration. In fact, his background is in martial arts.
White was renting a small building in downtown Centralia when he decided to expand. A city representative took him to see several options, then suggested one last stop at the building that would become his first historical restoration.
Fast forward a decade and another restoration later, White and his wife, Jodi, purchased the Centralia Square building in 2013. It was once the grand home to the Centralia Elks club. Now mostly known as housing many antique sellers and Berry Fields Cafe, along with the “Wobbly War” mural that decorates the north side of the building.
As with the previous properties purchased and renovated, White doesn’t do the restorations himself. He surrounds himself with talented artisans and skilled workers who are also visionary and can see White’s dreams.
The building was built and owned by the Elks from 1920 to 1985. Until 1950 the building was in its original state, but it sustained some damage from the 1949 earthquake. When it was repaired, it was remodeled with the 1950’s style of drop ceilings and sound-proof walls.
One of the most intriguing things about restoring buildings is the lure of what surprises may be found. The ballroom had been mostly ignored and filled with storage items. It had to be cleared out and gutted, during which time they discovered the framework of skylights. White recalled how they saw a little hole in the ceiling and simply had to check it out. They were thrilled when original pieces of the skylight glass were found discarded. After researching the glass, White learned it was called Kokomo Opalescent Glass and had been made in Indiana. Even more astonishing, he found out the company is still in business, and still makes that particular glass. White sent them a sample and they easily created more of the glass. Over each hotel room door is another piece of Kokomo glass, recreating the look of the original transom.
Other fun trinkets found during restoration included an old whiskey bottle, a tiny candy box shaped like a trolley car, and an Elks poker chip. Most helpful for the restoration project was discovering some of the chains for the chandeliers, two of the original chandeliers, as well as decorative ornaments. With these pieces as guides, White’s artisans were able to recreate matching pieces to finish out the project.
One of the agreements made when White purchased the building from the previous owner was the commitment to keep the mural. Trying to figure out how to do that while at the same time reveal boarded over windows for hotel rooms took a bit of ingenuity and quite a bit of money. But a successful compromise was cleverly reached with perforated vinyl window shades which were covered with photos of the removed pieces of the mural. When guests look out, they only see through window shades, but when seen from the street, it’s hard to tell that the original wood part of the mural is no longer there. White framed the wood cut-outs from the mural and they are now hung on the wall on the top floor of the hotel.
Listed on the National Historic Register, the impressive building is so well-known that any internet search will turn up many pictures, and even the blueprints. White purchased several pictures of the building taken over the years, then enlarged and framed them for display in the hallways.
The second and third floor of the building is home to 24 guest rooms. White and crew revived the beauty and functionality of the rooms, with original sinks, claw foot bathtubs, and marble showers. There are no televisions in the rooms, but as a bid to modern necessities, there are ductless heating/air conditioning units and wi-fi. Luxurious robes are also provided for guests. The hotel and ballroom opened on May 24, 2014. As word of this cozy, quaint historical beauty has spread, business has exploded. Many weekends are booked with weddings since families can have all their guests, as well as the event, located in one place.
White’s future plans include an evening restaurant (Berry Fields is only open for breakfast and lunch), with an anticipated open date of December 2015. His vision for the restaurant is already easy to see during the construction – every seat will provide a window-front view looking out over the town.
When asked why he buys and restores these old buildings when that is not his background, White smiles and says simply, “I love to bring buildings back to life, and to give back to the community.”
202 Centralia College Blvd
Centralia, WA 98531
To make a reservation, click here or call 360-807-1212.