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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Boulder City, Nev.

Recession is latest curse to check in at Boulder Dam Hotel

The historic hotel has seen its ups and downs. This time, foreclosure loomed before an anonymous donor saved the day.

August 23, 2009|Ashley Powers

Boulder City touts itself as the anti-Las Vegas, and with ample reason. Take its throwback downtown near a still-humbling Hoover Dam, and a sense of history so deep that residents often rattle off dates: 1931, dam construction begins; 1935, construction ends.

Local laws have banned casinos, curbed the number of bars and slowed growth to the pace of a Mojave Desert tortoise. In fact, Boulder City's wariness of development -- it allows only 120 building permits a year -- has mostly shielded it from the recession.

Perhaps that's why the recent drama at the Boulder Dam Hotel rattled so many folks.

The three-story Dutch colonial structure, white with pillars and forest-green trim, has anchored downtown since 1933. Built for dam-gawkers and divorce-seekers, it once outshone Las Vegas' then-cheerless motor courts (the Strip's transformation was decades away) and boasted Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple as guests.

Even today, residents dawdle by the lobby fireplace and linger in the restaurant after brunch.

"It's like on a chilly evening, getting a warm sweater and wrapping it around you -- that's how I feel when I'm here," said Barbara West, 66, sipping coffee one morning with her mother-in-law and husband as the sun streamed through picture windows.

But the stately 20-room hotel has a predilection for bankrupting dreamers and breaking hearts. It has picked the pockets of at least 10 owners, even those from its celebrity heyday, said Dennis McBride, author of "Midnight on Arizona Street: The Secret Life of the Boulder Dam Hotel."

The hotel, with creaking floorboards and rumored ghosts, has closed intermittently through the years. One owner tried running it as a retirement community; under another, it lapsed into a flophouse.

"Someone would always come in and think they saw potential no one else saw and fall under its spell," McBride said. "It always comes to a bad end."

So it was for the Boulder City Museum and Historical Assn., which bought the hotel in 1993 with the city and other community groups.

Volunteers transformed the back of the hotel into a museum, stocking it with residents' remnants: paint-splattered Hercules overalls, a "hard hat" improvised from two baseball caps and tar, a rolling pin and buttons to signify how women passed time while their husbands labored on the dam.

By 2005, the other owners had pulled out and the historical group began renovating the hotel. Volunteers raised money by, among other things, auctioning bird cages. That year, they also hired a Pennsylvania couple, Roger and Roseanne Shoaff, to run things, and in time the occupancy rate -- then a dismal 38% -- nearly doubled.

But in recent months, the Boulder Dam Hotel felt the effects of the recession. It was regularly half-empty, and grants and donations for the historical group plummeted.

Similar to Vegas homeowners with shrinking paychecks, the hotel got rid of niceties: bottled water in rooms and cookies in the lobby. The managers slashed their pay and extended their hours.

Still, the historical group skipped its $8,800 mortgage payment for three straight months. Foreclosure proceedings loomed.

After the Boulder City News ("Best Newspaper by a Dam Site") wrote of the hotel's woes, worried locals pitched in $18,000, Roger Shoaff said.

It wasn't enough.

Volunteers begged the city for redevelopment money, but the effort died on a 2-2 vote. The tiebreaking council member, who used to sit on the historical group's board, abstained, to the relief of some residents: They argued that the city shouldn't subsidize what they considered a mismanaged business.

On July 11, the Boulder Dam Hotel closed.

"You read about it in the paper, but it didn't hit home with me until I was driving and saw that banner across the front," said West, dismay flickering across her face. "It was a sign of the times or something. I was like, 'No, no, no.' "

Darryl Martin, the historical group's president, couldn't bring himself to drive by for days.

"The emptiness and darkness -- it reflected how we felt inside," said Roger Shoaff, who still honored the reservation of a group of quilters by running the hotel with volunteers. (The group stitched them envelopes and left cash tips inside.)

But within days, Martin got a surprising call from a local attorney. An anonymous donor had offered $260,000 to the historical group in exchange for regular financial reports.

Much of the building reopened July 20, and a photo on the Boulder City News website showed the Shoaffs ripping down the "We're closed" banner, beaming.

In this age of foreclosure, it was a Hollywood ending. Sort of. Now its cheerleaders must figure out how to keep the hotel open.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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