By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
No one would suspect that inside the massive brick structure, the size of a hospital but with religious statuary and crosses over the entryways, there resides an inner cool and peace. Walking down the long hallways, the thick brick walls muffle out all sound from outside. And the original wooden doors shine like brown mirrors in the soft light.
Built a century ago as a Catholic seminary, the building has been transformed into a hotel, but it retains much of its original trappings.
“When I stayed there during the opening, it was like I was traveling back in time,” said Omar Lee, one of the investors in the hotel, which is called The Lodge at Saint Edward State Park.
Lee has never really wanted to go back, until now.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, he spent his childhood looking at pictures of the Queen that were ubiquitous in the British colony. As the child of a father who had fled China in 1949 and became a newspaper editor, the identity of a colonized Chinese never quite fit.
“I never had a sense of belonging,” he said during an interview.
But the trappings of colonialism provided a gathering place. He and his friends met for high tea in the lobby of the oldest and proudest symbol of British colonial splendor—the Peninsula Hotel. It was one of his fondest memories.
“We’d spend three to four hours there at a time, just talking,” he said.
So when another real estate developer approached him about the Lodge, he jumped at the opportunity. Lee, who has until now been a solo developer, had also just returned from Peru where he had stayed in a hotel built out of a converted monastery.
“There were priests chanting at night, it was quite phenomenal,” he said.
The developer, Kevin Daniels, had been intending to refurbish the old seminary using EB5 funds—investment from Chinese nationals that would create job opportunities in exchange for green cards, said Lee.
But the Trump administration had changed the rules, making it much harder for foreign investors to get a foothold. So Daniels came to Lee, who had also been involved in EB5 projects.
“We had instant chemistry,” said Lee.
Daniels, who had restored several buildings already, handled the red tape since the building was entered into the historic registry site, which provided a tax break. Lee went into his personal savings to make an investment. But for both men, the project represented nostalgia.
Daniels told Lee he had been married across the street from the old seminary decades ago and had held his wedding reception inside. Lee flashed back to the monastery hotel in Peru, and beyond that to his childhood days in the Peninsula Hotel.
So far, they seem to be taking their nostalgia seriously.
On a recent visit to the Lodge, the personalities of the investors spilled out into the structure.
On the first floor, under low, cathedral-like arches, a long hallway stretches out filled with glass cases and hung with paintings. It turns out the display represents the personal art collection of Daniels.
Meanwhile, in the dining room, which has been full (at the limited 50% capacity) since it opened on May 7, the general manager, Jenne Oxford, is working on ways to bring high tea to the hotel.
“Talk to me in two weeks,” she said.
Like the Peninsula, the hotel is an incongruity. In Hong Kong, amidst the hectic bustle of people thronging the narrow streets and the constant clamor of taxi cabs and mini vans, the Peninsula stretches out like a lion at rest gazing out over the harbor.
Here, however, the scene is different. But the incongruity remains.
Amidst 326 acres of wilderness, trails, and paths that twist and curve under overhanging boughs of trees, dappled in the sunlight, the edifice sits, alone on a spacious plane of grass. Picnickers and families cavort around it, eyeing it like something out of another time.
It rises up, stretched out like a sentinel watching beyond the jungle-like forest, perhaps at the lakeshore a half-mile distant.
Oxford, who managed the Alexis Hotel for many years, explains that guests will wander the paths and enjoy the surroundings and the lake. Already, the place has become thronged with mostly local visitors.
“We expect it to be a destination resort,” she said.
Inside, the past is transformed into the present. The Tonsorium, which Oxford explains was once a barbershop for the seminarians, has been converted into a bar. Another wing of the building is a spa.
Each guest room has been created by combining two of the original dormitory rooms.
Behind the beds, the walls are painted with large replicas of the original architectural plans. A retro phone sits on the nightstand in one room, its drooping handle hanging over either side of the recreated base. But where the rotary dial once invited fingers into its grooves, square buttons emerge. It is a touchtone after all.
“It’s a new old phone,” said Oxford.
Much of the building is taken up with meeting space—9,000 square feet.
“We have four weddings booked already,” she said.
For Lee, the project is a departure in many senses.
When he attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied Physics and then Mathematics and Computer Science, he was interested in discovering new things.
Even when he switched to real estate, after getting an MBA at UCLA, he branched out into projects that caught his desire to create.
He worked at Hewlett Packard long enough to save up enough money. And he began to build custom high-rise homes in the eastern part of the Bay Area. He built country clubs and apartments. And eventually he was lured by an acquaintance to come up to Seattle and try his hand here.
Always working alone, always seeking the unique opportunity, he eventually built the Great Wall Mall in 1999.
An anomaly, it recreated a small Asian world in the space of a single mall. It would contain Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese authentic cuisine. Lee mentioned spicy Chongqing food and Cantonese restaurants.
“We wanted it to be unique, people could come to eat, and even get a haircut at the same time, if they wanted,” he said.
The Mall contained Ranch 99, a dedicated Asian-foods shopping store.
“Asians have delicate stomachs, so they need specific kinds of ingredients,” said Lee.
And then around the mall, in a five-mile radius, another small Asia accumulated. The Vietnamese Catholic Church moved into the area to be closer to the mall. Three to four Pho Noodle shops opened up. Lam’s Seafood Asian Court opened up. Uwajimaya opened up a branch nearby.
His vision was complete.
He went onward, building a number of hotels, all of them solo.
On the day of the interview, he asked a reporter to meet him at the Hotel Interurban.
Rising up out of the suburban sprawl, car dealerships and long flat roadways, the modern, white monolithic hotel is visible for miles away.
Lee sits outside on a patio where music is playing through speakers.
Located in Tukwila, near the airport, the hotel is almost the antithesis to the Lodge—and it is at the other end of Lake Washington.
It has a sleek tower of climbing apartments holding onto the side of the hotel box, like a monkey climbing up a tree. The building lobby is fronted with glass. And the rooms jut out at modernistic angles from the building façade.
And yet it was not all surprising that he would be open to something new when Daniels approached him.
Hit hard by the COVID pandemic, the hospitality industry has been reeling, and hotels have been operating at skeleton capacity.
“It’s starting to get a little better,” said Lee.
And yet similar challenges related to the pandemic face the Lodge, said Oxford.
Hiring staff is a problem. As a result of unemployment benefits guaranteed through the summer, it has been hard to find the 70-80 workers needed to run the giant hotel, she said.
Even in one of the model rooms on display, a piece of errant blue tape, left by a laborer, hangs from the ceiling of a bathroom marking where more paint is needed.
Outside, laborers sweep slowly at gravel and dust in the parking lot.
Down the main hall, Oxford stopped a woman sweeping and asked her to dust several new tables that have apparently been overlooked.
Asked what he has learned from the project, Lee mused for a moment then said, “Only do it once.”
“I like to make fast decisions,” he added, which has been impossible while working with multiple partners (there are a total of three families involved) and dealing with the red tape of registering the building.
“But I have learned to respect old buildings again.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.