History of an Oregon Coast Icon: Constructing the Inn at Spanish Head

Published 04/17/2013

(Lincoln City, Oregon) – It started with a bit of wheeling and dealing, and ended in a business model that's still a little cutting edge today: apparently the first condominium-style hotel in all of Oregon. (Historical photos courtesy Inn at Spanish Head)

Lincoln City's Inn at Spanish Head hotel now sits as a 10-story-high hotel, what would be by far the tallest structure on the coast if it were entirely above ground. But only two stories are visible from the highway. Everything about it is oceanfront: from the restaurant, the lobby, the rooms to even the ladies restroom in the diner.

Inn at Spanish Head now

How it came to be, with its varied twists, turns and architectural challenges, is an interesting story. Starting with the historical photographs of its construction. They are rather awe-inspiring - a bit like watching real life Transformer robots moving on the beaches of the Oregon coast. They're a bit surreal.

The Inn's beginnings even have a small tie to the beach bill that allowed Oregon's beaches to be public.

Initially, the Inn at Spanish Head was the brainchild of a tax court judge. In the 60's, a Salem man named Peter Gunnar had been a lawyer and then a judge in the State Tax Court. He bought up a piece of property in Lincoln City, about 500 feet of a beachfront cliff, with no particular idea in mind. An article in the Statesman Journal in 1969 (then called the Capitol Journal) said he simply thought it would be a good investment.

The article goes on:

“Later he visited Hawaii and there became interested in the condominium resort hotel idea - a plan in which unit owners rent their space to others while they don't occupy it themselves. The units usually are sold as an investment and a second home."

It was here that the company Condominiums Northwest, Inc. began. This company later started not just the Inn at Spanish Head but also some other high-profile resorts.

Gunnar had gone from tax law expert to developer. Somehow, Gunnar suddenly became enamored of the world of hotels. and even later co-authored a book on the hospitality industry.

In order to get state permission, he had to do a bit of wheeling and dealing, however. The Oregonian reported in 1967 that Gunnar deeded 1.1 acres of beach land to the state for public use, right about the time the beach bill was being put into place. This opened the door to permits for the hotel.

Gunnar came up with the Spanish/Mediterranean design theme, partially for the technical reasons that were demanded by building a structure ten stories up from a cliff face. It needed a certain degree of strength, which could best be achieved by pouring concrete. But at the time, Oregonians fancied logs and lumber for their vacation resorts.

So to tie together the technical needs and the aesthetic requirements to market the hotel, Gunnar targeted Oregon's connections to Spain. He researched the historical and cultural influence of Spain on this state and found quite a few to play on.

“This influence became the impetus for the design with a red tile roof, arches and concrete structure,” said Susan Burr, general manager of the Inn at Spanish Head. “Original interior design was to be a Mediterranean theme.”

Construction of Inn at Spanish Head began on April 26, 1968. The first concrete was poured on July 9, and some 7,100 cubic yards of concrete followed through the project. 408 tons of steel were used.

Architect was Donald Richardson from Salem. Geologists they employed for a soil analysis showed a solid rock base beneath the planned project. This was half the battle for a sturdy structure on a hillside like this.

“The Oregon Beach Law enacted in 1967 required the initial design of the Inn be adjusted to bring the building behind the 16-foot line (16 feet above mean high water)” Burr said.

Units went quickly with all of them pre-sold prior to the its opening for the owners on October 25, 1969.

“Remarkably fast construction to me for a 10-story concrete building built down the face of an oceanfront cliff on the Oregon coast, in a small town,” Burr said.

On December 6 of that year it opened to the public.

That official opening featured Oregon Congressman Wendall Wyatt as a speaker, and Governor Tom McCall was there to formally accept the beach area's deed that was part of the original deal two years prior.

Another interesting feature is the tunnel going under the highway to the parking lot – something definitely out of the ordinary for an Oregon coast hotel.

A little while later, Inn of the Seventh Mountain in Bend and the Inn at Otter Crest, just down the road near Depoe Bay, were the next two developments of Condominiums Northwest, Inc. That firm went bankrupt eventually, leaving all properties in other hands at various points in the last 40 years.

Now, you can't really go anywhere in this soaring Oregon coast landmark without seeing the ocean. Burr admits the room from the ladies' restroom is often a surprise to folks.

Despite all the technological changes since the genesis of the Inn (there were no electronic key cards or satellite TV then), the vision has largely stayed the same. It's managed to thrive all these decades, sitting on that base of Gunnar's original ideas – one that's about as firm as the foundation of basalt the hotel was carved into.

Still, even Burr sometimes wonders what made Gunnar plunge into being a hotelier after years of practicing tax code law.

“Seems like once he got started on the resort condo idea he really went with it,” Burr said.

More about Lincoln City below, including the Lincoln City, Oregon Virtual Tour.

Inn at Spanish Head is Near the south end of Lincoln City at 4009 SW Highway 101. 1-800-452-8127 or 541-996-2161. www.spanishhead.com

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