By Lori Kimbel
A man on a mission. That phrase describes Greg Hennes to a T. When I met Greg at the bottom of the long stair case that leads to Joseph, Oregon’s 100 year old Jennings Hotel, I could see the dust mask marks on his face and he was a little out of breath from working away in what will soon become the Sauna room. His story however did not start with the sauna at the Jennings Hotel and it surely will not end there either. To take a rundown old building in the heart of a small town in northeast Oregon and turn it into a place where memories will be made takes someone special and Greg Hennes is just the person to do it, with huge amounts of determination I might add.
At 19 Greg packed his bags and left Minnesota, the place he had called home for 16 years; he came out West to Portland. After working at a camera equipment rental business he realized he would make a better business owner than an employee, and would be happier in that role as well, so he and a business partner started Clutch Camera. For nine years they have been renting camera equipment to photographers in the Portland area and just this April they added a photo studio for photographers to rent for their own sessions with their clients. This was, and will continue to be a great business to be a part of, but after driving through Wallowa County on his way to a hiking trip in Hells Canyon years ago, something kept drawing Greg back to the mountain-flanked valley.
For five years the Jennings Hotel had his eye. Each time he drove by the building something stirred inside of him until one day he took the plunge and bought the dilapidated old building with the intention of returning it to its original grandeur.
“I’m unmarried and childless, but I do have two nieces and two nephews, and if there is anything I’d like to instill in them, it’s the demystification of dreams,” said Greg. “Too often people get stuck on what others think and expect of them, or believe they can’t do the things that thrum their soul. I spent almost five years looking at the Jennings and imagining how to make it work before it became a reality. Dreams aren’t always easy, but that shouldn’t stop us from chasing them tenaciously.”
The old wooden staircase that leads to the Jennings Hotel was probably six feet wide, and the walls on either side were encased in dark wood as well, until just above the stair railing. We made our way up the stairs and he gave me the grand tour, sharing his vision along the way.
The first room we entered will eventually become the library; today old tools were laid on the floor, a practice run for the display that will eventually adorn one wall.
A community kitchen and dining room area will be available for the guests to share, along with access to the deck that has a view of downtown Joseph with the always beautiful Wallowa Mountains in the background.
Greg showed me two of the guest rooms. The first room was a painted a green from a bygone era, it had a kitchen and reddish linoleum on the floor. This room was untouched so far and seemed to be decades from being ready for guests, well the paint seemed that way anyway. The second room was almost completely renovated. What a difference Greg had made in there. The plaster on the outside walls had been removed, revealing the old original brickwork. Rough cut barn wood boards were now on the interior walls, the circular saw marks in the wood added to the ambiance of the room.
A soaking tub room will soon be added to a small room accessible to all guests and will surely be a favorite place to relax as they watch the snow pile up on the mountains in the winter and it melt away during the summer.
This is a big project for just one person, so Greg thought he would go about things a little differently. He didn’t want to spend several years remodeling the building, he wanted to get it ready for guest to enjoy as soon as possible, without scrimping on quality. He invited a couple of artists, Christina Mrozik and Zoe Keller, to join in with his vision. Greg then started up a Kickstarter campaign, a crowd funding platform, where artists from around the country as well as around the world can spend a month at the Jennings in exchange for their support on the Kickstarter campaign. Each will eventually leave a piece of their own legacy at the Jennings.
“Art and place are both vital to me and I feel incredible fortunate to have found somewhere that those two things exist so harmoniously. Inviting others to experience this landscape and share that feeling through art is an astounding opportunity; I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”
Christina and Zoe had run a successful Kickstarter campaign together. Both are illustrators who created INTRICACIES, Book of Collaborative Illustrations. They would be the perfect duo to get the artist residencies started.
With nine rooms to remodel Greg chose several different artists that will each create a room with their own touches and design work. Lisa Garcia is an interior designer and found of Sonadora Handmade, Matt Pierce of Wood & Fauld, and Brendon Farrell of Keeps Limited Edition will be a part of this creative process.
In his Kickstarter campaign Greg is hoping to raise $80,000, just a portion of what his costs are to remodel the building that is in desperate need of upgrades and repair. The brickwork repair alone is estimated at $26,000 and the painting afterwards will be as much as $15,000. Any money raised over and above the initial $80,000 will go toward hiring additional local help to speed up the timeline to make the Jennings fully operational.
Greg is no stranger to hard work and construction projects. He designed and built his own cabin, has remodeled a house and has built a photography studio. The Jennings Hotel project will soon be another he can add to his growing list of accomplishments.
Perks for supporting the Jennings Hotel renovation range from an etched copper plate, to a private slumber party with all of your besties, and prices range from the $5 level to a $2,000 level with just about everything in between.
“If I have a mark to leave, hopefully it’s inspiring other to pursue their dreams. I didn’t move to the county thinking I’d change the weather, this place has an incredible and well developed ecosystem of people doing amazing things. My hope is simply to introduce folks to the je ne sais quoi of Wallowa County by giving them a place to be surprised and let it sink in. There’s nothing I can offer that the mountains and canyons and community don’t already. It’s just putting people in front of it so they can see for themselves.”