Village Green to shut doors by end of month

With new ownership at The Village Green, staff have been told the doors will close at the end of September.

For more than 60 years, the Village Green has served as one of Cottage Grove’s premier hospitality hubs. At the end of this month, the property will close its doors amid uncertainty about its future as ownership is changing hands.

Since news of the transaction leaked through posts onto social media earlier this month, the Cottage Grove public has voiced strong opinions on the matter. Amid rumors that condominiums or a truck stop will be built in its place, many have expressed dismay that the landmark may be erased from the community.

Though staff have reported being informed that they should find new jobs, precise details about the new owners’ plans for the facility have not been forthcoming.

Multiple sources close to the transaction have confirmed that, among the interested parties, Brent Lanz, owner of Lanz Cabinets in Eugene, is one of the buyers of the property.

Lanz did not respond to requests from The Sentinel to comment on the future of the resort, but a staff source has reported that the new owners have expressed interest in replacing most, if not all, hotel buildings with apartments.

The RV park, main building with restaurant and lounge and wedding garden are reportedly to remain, however it was stressed that even these plans are likely not finalized and should be considered open to change.

As such, even those close to the process can only speculate on the property’s future. 

A ‘Monument to Wood’

The Village Green opened on July 9, 1960, and quickly attracted national recognition as a luxury hotel with fine cuisine. Developed on 13 acres alongside the newly-created Interstate 5, the hotel put Cottage Grove on the map and established for itself a lasting legacy.

The Woodard family was behind its inception.

In 1905, Walter Woodard moved to the area from Iowa and established his family name in the lumber business. In the late 1950s, he sold his lumber company to Weyerhaeuser and, with his son Carlton, turned his sights toward the hospitality business.

“I remember my father (Carlton) saying there was a sense of loyalty to Cottage Grove, and that they would have not attempted this anywhere else,” said Casey Woodward, grandson to Walter.

Initial plans were to build a hotel on some of Walter’s land in what is now the Village Shopping Center, which would have caught traffic through Highway 99. Plans were halted, though, when Walter learned that the newly created Interstate Highway System was due to put a freeway through Cottage Grove.

Though Interstate 5 wouldn’t be fully completed until Dec. 1, 1961, Walter moved to purchase 30 acres closer to the proposed freeway. A portion of those acres were set aside for The Village Green.

Carlton Woodard was also behind the decision to create the motor hotel. Carlton took great care in selecting the right materials — and people — for the facility.

Manager (or “Greenmaster”) Harry Ringland, for example, was selected to run the show. Ringland had operated the famous Sarnez restaurant in Beverly Hills.

The chef, Don Savoie, was convinced to relocate from the Commodore Grill in Portland.

Chester R. Skinner, great-grandson of the City of Eugene’s founder Eugene Skinner, served as the maître d’.

Liberal use of wood products were used to give the resort a rustic ambience, in addition to stone, brick and tile. Man-made products like aluminum and plastic were used sparingly.

The interior designer, Arthur Morgan, was well known in his field, having also worked on landmarks such as “The Terrace” in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, “The Coffee House” in the Hotel Benjamin Franklin in Seattle, and “The Cavalier Bar and Dining Room” in Hotel Georgia in Vancouver, B.C.

In Portland, he was behind “The London Bar and Grill” in the Hotel Benson, “Hilaire’s Encore Restaurant,” and the “Stirrup Room and Café Baron” at the Multnomah Hotel.

Eugene architect Percy Dwight Bentley designed The Village Green’s unique layout, stating at the time that he and his firm were proud to consider it one of the most outstanding motor hotels in the region.

In all, it took more than $1.5 million, a million square feet of lumber and nearly a year to complete.

The final result was a unique blend of informal elegance and rustic appeal.

Interior décor was eclectic, drawing on a variety of styles of Americana, old Europe and the Far East. Streetlights from Copenhagen. Brass fittings from Ireland. Wicker lights from Hong Kong.

In the lounge, tables from Italy. Screens from Morocco. Cabin lights from an old whaling ship.

A statue from Boston, the Maiden of Good Fortune (nicknamed the “Iron Maiden”), graced the dining room and achieved its own popularity with customers.

When the Village Green advertised gold nugget hunting for the nearby Bohemia mines, it brought a rash of bad luck on itself as modern gold diggers started making off with the facility’s knobs and handles from its gold-fixtured washrooms.

Manager Ringland at the time said he was perplexed how the thieves got away with it without the use of power tools, adding that the golden temptations in the Village Green’s washrooms were “becoming quite an overhead item.”

The construction of the hotel even attracted the attention of then-Oregon Governor Mark Hatfield, who visited to dedicate the building in a “ribbon cutting” ceremony shortly after its July 9 opening. However, the governor, instead of cutting a ribbon, dramatically sawed through a log to symbolize the area’s lumber industry and salute the substantial resort as a “monument to wood.”

A Five-Star Legacy

Over its first couple decades, The Village Green made a name for itself with national (and at times international) draw, where prestigious groups like the Gourmet Dinner Club or the Concours d’Elegance Car Show could hold posh events.

The Village Green received its first Mobil Travel Guide Five-Star Award in 1965 and it continued to do so consecutively for the next 17 years.

Casey said his father was able to reach the hotel's highest occupancy rate in 1968, a year which also saw around 40 statewide conventions come through the facility.

“In some ways, I really think that was kind of the high-water mark,” he said.

By 1971, it had won the Five-Star Award for seven consecutive years from Mobil Travel Guide. It was the first time a hotel had won the top rating seven years in a row. It was also only one of three motels in the country receiving the award that year among 24,000.

Walter Woodard died that same year, living long enough to see his dream come true.

Even after his passing, the award trend continued and, in its 14th consecutive year in 1978, The Village Green became the only motor hotel in the country to be honored so often. It was honored in a two-day event which made national news.

At the time, there were only 32 “Five-Star” hotels in the United States. For the five previous years, The Village Green and Salishan Lodge on the Oregon Coast had been the only motor hotels to receive the honor.

That same year, The Village Green also earned the American Automobile Association’s “Five Diamond” award, effectively finding itself a top-rated facility in both gold standards of restaurant, hotel and resort ratings.

In 1977, it was listed among the country’s top 11 resorts by The Sunday Star out of Honolulu.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and 1981 was the last year The Village Green received a five-star rating.

A few factors may have played into this.

For one, vacation travel was hampered by the oil crises of 1973 and 1979.

And by the 1980s, Casey noted, conventions had started looking for bigger venues than The Village Green offered. It was part of the reason the Woodard family built Eugene’s Valley River Inn in 1973, a venue more capable of keeping up with market demand.

Also, the cost of maintaining a hotel at a five-star level was a heavy investment.

“I can tell you that the economy of scale of The Village Green never was conducive to being a profit center,” said Casey. “It was successful, but it was not an economic powerhouse and it never really was a huge moneymaker.”

Casey chalked it up to a business decision.

“And probably the right one, that, ‘We won’t cater to the five-star crowd. We’ll cater to the four-star crowd,’” he said.

Besides its far-reaching fame, the motor hotel also had local impact.

When The Village Green first opened, it employed around 100 people and budgeted a $500,000 payroll — money which would have trickled back into the community.

The Village Green is also to thank for the Cottage Grove State Airport across the street, though perhaps indirectly.

While the Woodards had purchased 30 acres from a family friend, this friend still owned a substantial plot of adjacent land which included a dairy farm. The tendency for strong, unpleasant farm odors to waft toward The Village Green made for a less than desirable atmosphere for esteemed guests.

Thus, Walter offered to swap with his friend some land farther north in Saginaw, relocating the dairy farm and saving the air quality around the hotel.

Now owning this land which spanned along the Row River, Walter made it a gift to the State of Oregon. That gift would transform the property into the Cottage Grove State Airport.

As generous as the act was, establishing an airport in Cottage Grove also served the Woodards' business interests. The taxiway at the airport allowed pilots to pull in just across the street from the hotel, bringing in a new brand of clientele.

By the early ‘80s, however, the Woodards began to feel much of the steam had evaporated from the endeavor.

“Changing times, competition and steady decline of tourists led my family to sell the property in 1985,” said Casey.

The buyer wasn’t just the first person who came knocking, however. Casey recalled that Gordon Getty, son of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, “would walk into my father’s office once a summer and say, ‘I want to buy this place.’”

For the first few years, Getty was told the property was not for sale. However, an agreement was finally made and The Village Green changed ownership to the Zed Group, a division of the Getty empire, in 1986 for $2.1 million.

“He really enjoyed the Oregon summers and he enjoyed the art scene in Eugene,” Casey remembered of Getty.

Ownership later shifted to the Kims, a local couple, before moving on to Dirk Winter, an owner of Moonstone Hotels out of Cambria, Calif., in 2001.

“It was initially my desire to bring back The Village Green as a prominent hospitality property in Cottage Grove,” said Winter. “For many reasons we were never able to accomplish those goals.”

The Village Green never did return to its glory days — something Casey pointed out is understandable as the hotel works best in the modern climate as quaint roadside motor hotel, not as an elegant, Old World establishment.

For all its national fame and acclaim and eventual fading into the background, the facility still holds a special place in the hearts of Cottage Grove locals.

Rumors of its sale and possible demolition have caused some upset on social media threads.

This isn’t the first time Grovers have had an emotional reaction to change at The Village Green, though.

In the ‘80s, before the Woodards sold the property, the owners talked openly of turning it into a retirement community, stating that the motor hotel had lived past its prime.

“There were articles with people who were shocked and aghast that we would consider doing that,” recalled Casey.

This plan was scrapped, but under the next regime of ownership, the community spoke out again when antiques from the Map Room and the Iron Maiden were removed from the facility. The local pushback was so shrill that the Iron Maiden was actually brought back to appease complaints.

The Iron Maiden still stands there today.

At one point during the Moonstone ownership, there was even talk of turning the hotel into a truck stop. As expected, this did not go over well with the community and the idea was ultimately canned.

Still, some of the hotel buildings have clearly lived past their prime and are in need of demolition or total renovation.

Casey still appreciates the hotel for what it is, but recognizes that it may be time for a new chapter.

“It was built with really good bones, as they say, so a lot of [the original building] is still there now, but everything has an age and everything kind of runs its course and it is tired,” he said. “It is a tired building now and very difficult to maintain.”

The Village Green is continuing its restaurant and lounge service through the rest of the month.

For more information, visit the hotel online at www.thevillagegreen.com.

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