Established in 1884, Burns, Ore., apparently got its name from postmaster George McGowan in honor of Robert Burns, the “Bard of Ayrshire” from McGowan’s ancestral homeland of Scotland. The town then became the designated seat of government for the newly created Harney County in 1889. Skip a few decades to 1929 and that’s when the Central Hotel entered the picture. After sitting vacant for numerous decades, the old hotel could’ve easily also left the picture, eventually to demolition or just crumbling into itself (this happens way too often).
Luckily it caught the eye of Jen and Forrest Keady.
“We really wanted there to be more life and activity around us,” Jen says. At the same time, they were renting a room via Airbnb in their home, the former Masonic Lodge, which was actually their first retrofitted building in Burns. While renting the room they were surprised at how many people were staying with them but also traveling right down Broadway.
Enter the historic Central Hotel. It had sat for decades, abandoned and rotting. Their thinking was that an updated hotel in town could be successful, based on the traffic they encountered, but could also draw even more travelers to town.
They purchased the hotel in the summer of 2016 and immediately went to work, adding a roof and “basically buttoning it up so we could do all the demo” during the winter.
But first, funding
Retrofitting older, historical buildings don’t happen in a bubble. Those buying the property have to rely on a lot of their own money for funding, and though public funding is an option, they still need to be cautious on how that money is spent. “We were very aware of every penny and where it was going, and just really being budget minded, but with quality being the most important thing,” says Jen.
They tapped into various funding and grants (Oregon Main Streets, State Historic Preservation Office, Diamonds in the Rough) with some that had specific guidelines. “We had to put in $30,000 to get $100,000 for one grant. You don’t just get a blank check. You have to pay for it, submit your receipts, and then get reimbursed,” Jen says.
Then there were grants they sought out, and that meant grant writing. “You don’t have to have a degree in grant writing, you just have to be detail oriented and willing to wade through all the paperwork,” says Jen.
Time to build
There are assumed steps in retrofitting an older, neglected building. Of course, first you have to find a building (depending on where you live this might be easy or not). Then comes the funding. And then the actual construction. That’s where the fun begins.
“ Jen and I went at it with the frame of mind of everything and anything could go wrong. So we didn’t set our plans without flexibility,” says Forrest.
He says he also got great advice when they were renovating the former Masonic Lodge: “Any renovation, whether it’s remodeling a bathroom or redoing a hotel, is like eating an elephant. You’ve got to do it one bite at a time.”
That’s a good philosophy to take because they had a few hiccups along the way.
- After they demolished the interiors with now just the skeleton inside, they noticed that all the framing upstairs was done with 2x4s, fine for 1929 but not so when you need a sound barrier between rooms. They ended up double walling.
- Rot. Of course, rot. There’s always rot.
- Just before their opening, they discovered a piece of cast iron plumbing outside the building under the sidewalk had split on the top. That meant no running water for guests. It was fixed at the last minute by a team of contractors.
Retrofitting a hotel and building a community
It all turned out fine, though, obviously. The couple officially opened the doors of the Historic Central Hotel in summer 2018 and since then, a handful of buildings have sold and are in the midst of renovation. “We’ve had more people sprucing up their businesses and it’s definitely causing that chain reaction we’ve been hoping for,” says Jen.
She also believes that Burns is slowly becoming a place to stop, not just to go through on the way to Steens Mountains or Alvord Desert. “We’re finding that people are rerouting because they want to stop. I feel like the hotel is definitely one of the hubs for making things happen, and Burns is slowly becoming more of a destination,” says Jen.
Historic Central Hotel
171 N. Broadway Avenue