Aimee and I are fortunate to live on Chuckanut Bay, in the home built by my parents. We began as Airbnb hosts in 2013, converting the studio on our property into a lovely place to welcome guests. A few months into our venture, we realized that hosting guests who appreciated our place as much as we did helped us, too; it’s been deeply satisfying to share our good fortune and design spaces for travelers, anticipate their needs, and connect them to all Whatcom County has to offer.
After hundreds of great connections with guests in the Chuckanut Studio, we decided to host in the Pleasant Bay Lookout, a small room with a view near our house. Given the size of the small space, guests would share our home’s bathroom, kitchen, hot tub, and other amenities. While many of our friends thought we were crazy to bring strangers into our house, it seemed rather natural and fun to us. A worthy experiment, anyway.
No sooner did we start than we realized that making people feel comfortable, connected and happy each day was really satisfying. As a host, you build a reflex to read people and help them feel welcome within moments. While you show them around, you ask about where they are traveling from, if they want recommendations, and hey, by the way, what do you do in San Francisco? Oh, really? How long have you been doing that? Soon you are swapping stories and often diving into subjects as deep as loss and trauma, as wide as discovery of oneself, and as interesting as the latest Space X mission or whatever endeavor the guest is working on.
Making coffee for our guests in the morning provides the opportunity to connect again: to ask about their night, seek ways to improve their experience, make recommendations for fun things to do. It’s also another opportunity to hear about their lives, tell a funny story (for the hundredth time!), or continue a conversation and just go deeper.
Aimee and I have had full, rich lives, much of it in our home. The property was purchased when I was a baby, the house designed and built when I was two. Aimee and I later shared our house with my elderly mother, who helped raise our children. We were married on the deck, our two kids were born at home, my mother died peacefully in the living room, and both my parents’ ashes are spread on the beach below the house.
A few years into hosting, Aimee and I, along with David Johnston, bought the languishing Lion’s Inn, an old roadside motel in the Fountain District, motivated to turn this once-classic mid-Century modern motel into a cool, boutique hotel. Fortunately, due to David’s savvy and commitment to community, our design and hospitality experience, and other partners’ skills and hard work, we opened the Heliotrope Hotel successfully. The community welcomed us, and we welcomed global travelers. Now, happily, our NO VACANCY sign is frequently lit.
While hosting people with authenticity has become a reflex and a way of life, my next endeavor was more difficult. In November of 2018 I took on the task of managing the closure of the Leopold Retirement Residence business. Long struggling to gain and keep market share with corporate competitors, the building owners decided to convert the Leopold into apartments. This 1929 building was launched as the grand hotel of Bellingham, with a wing built in 1968, and had been its social center for decades. In 1985, the hotel was turned into a senior living facility. Built as a hotel on nine floors, it had none of the qualities one looks for or creates when designing a suitable place for elderly residents. While the senior living business had some good years, by 2018, the owners realized it was time to throw in the towel and do something new.
This meant transitioning 80 seniors into new housing. Many were people I’d gotten to know over the previous four years I had overseen the operation. It was very difficult to be responsible for managing the dissolution of the Leopold community we’d tried so hard to build. With a four month lead time, a relaxed lease and notice requirements, the hiring of a housing specialist, and the dedication of our staff and volunteers, we were able to close March 15th knowing all residents had been rehoused in good, safe accommodations.
About that time Bob Hall purchased the Leopold building and our partners’ shares of the Heliotrope Hotel, moving forward to provide urban housing with 50 apartment units, and in collaboration with Aimee and I, creating the first hotel in downtown in nearly a quarter century: The Hotel Leo.
Michelle Banks from Spiral Studios and I have designed the remodel of 50 apartments, 40 hotel rooms, and refurbished the common spaces. Bob has committed a great deal to this project, another in a long line of historic buildings he has saved and given new life. He has asked that we do this project right, spend what needed to be spent, and bring this building back to the social center of Bellingham. Our workers have worked tirelessly to save what can be saved, restore what’s been hidden, and create lovely rooms and spaces with consideration and skill.
Meanwhile, we’ve purchased nearly 75% of our furnishings, equipment, and materials from local businesses. The Greenhouse, Ideal, Mt. Baker Plywood, Fitness Gear & Training, Judd & Black, Frameworks, Hertco Kitchens, and many, many others have seen our dedication to quality, downtown revitalization, local commerce, and jobs. Additionally, regional artists, professionals, and craftspeople have provided thier talents to yet again reinvent the Leopold building.
Soon a successful local restaurant group will be opening an events business in our Crystal Ballroom, a bar in our upper lobby, a lounge in our Chandelier Room, and a restaurant in our former dining room. They will provide food and drink for our hotel guests, catering for events, and stellar culinary experiences for the public. We aim for an integrated and welcoming hotel, where event guests can stay at The Leo, hotel guests and apartment tenants can go to the restaurant and bar, and this grand old building will be a lively place for the entire community once more. One of the things Aimee and I know from our years in hospitality is that mixing locals and visitors is a powerful social venture, and everyone comes out better for it.
This reflex to welcome strangers is fulfilling, and the world could use a lot more of authentic people-to-people connection. Here in this northwest corner, we’re privileged to have so much. Aimee and I have grown in immeasurable ways by welcoming others to experience the Bellingham community, the Salish Sea, the Cascades and their foothills responsibly and respectfully. We’re just doing it on a bigger scale now.