Design School

A historic schoolhouse furnished with European antiques and Midcentury Modern artwork feels right at home in the Old West

Park City, Utah, is a place of contrasts. Each year, the once-rough-and-tumble mining town hosts one of the world’s most glamorous film festivals. On Main Street, cutting-edge architecture stands alongside historic mining-era buildings. And on the slopes, multimillion-dollar mansions share the mountain views with humble cabins. So if you think this limestone building furnished with gilded European antiques and Midcentury Modern artwork seems out of place in the Old West town, think again. The Washington School House Hotel fits right in.

Built in 1889, the structure is one of the oldest buildings in Park City. Years of weather and wear have given the façade “an amazing patina,” general manager Jessica Davis says. “One look and you can see this building has a story to tell.”

One of three schools built along Park Avenue to accommodate silver miners’ children, the Washington School House survived the 1898 fire that wiped out some 200 buildings on and around Main Street, stood by as the Great Depression turned Park City into a ghost town, and was left empty and derelict for nearly three decades until it was renovated and opened as a bed-and-breakfast in 1985.

Fast-forward 25 years, to when the design team of Trip Bennett, principal at La Jolla, Calif.-based Bennett & Associates Architecture, Paul and Shannon Wehsener of San Diego-based Paul Allen Design, and Gardner & Boswell General Contractors in Park City were hired by new owners to transform the building into a stylish boutique hotel.

“What we found was a 1980s interpretation of a Victorian-style inn within an 1889 shell,” interior designer Shannon Wehsener says. “It was so chopped up, and by the time we got to it, there weren’t any historic details left inside, so we gutted it down to the studs.”

The extensive renovation included removing a portion of the four-story, 12,000-square-foot building’s mezzanine level, which had literally cut the living room’s 17-foot-high ceilings and six 9-foot-tall windows in half. “We wanted to see the space opened up,” Shannon says. Removing the mezzanine also made room for four airy guest suites with lofted bedrooms accessed via spiral stairs, and two guest rooms with 16-foot-high ceilings.

Dove-white walls and durable fabrics in silvery gray, icy blue and bark-brown hues accentuate the hotel’s simplified floor plan. Punctuating that austere canvas are richly patinated oak floors reclaimed from Western barns and a collection of antiques sourced from all over the world, from an Italian fruitwood-and-burled-walnut bed to the living room’s 9-foot-tall gilded mirror that once hung in a French opera house. “The antiques are set apart from one another so you can really appreciate them,” Shannon says. “And they’re functional; there’s no room for fluff. The staff keep their coats in a Louis-Philippe armoire.”

Original Midcentury Modern oil paintings add bold pops of color here and there, and a unique light fixture presides over each of the common areas and 12 guest rooms. The collection includes a vintage fixture that once hung in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and a bejeweled antler chandelier inspired by a local wintertime tradition: “During Mardi Gras, skiers throw beads into the trees,” interior designer Paul Wehsener says. “Those sparkling trees inspired me to have the antlers lacquered white and adorned with crystals.”

The Washington School House Hotel’s new look is unique for Park City. “We visited all the high-end hotels in the area and decided we wanted this to be different,” Paul says. “We didn’t want the typical, heavy Western look, and we didn’t want something ultra-contemporary. We just wanted a simple, beautiful space filled with special things that have a story to tell.” Just like the building itself.

Categories: Mountain Travel