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Sylvia Beach Hotel: Books and beds in Newport’s Nye Beach neighborhood

On March 14, tours and an open house will celebrate the 37th anniversary of the hotel that lifelong friends Goody Cable and Sally Ford took from flophouse to world famous.

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The Sylvia Beach Hotel overlooks the ocean from Newport’s Nye Beach neighborhood. One fan calls it “a seaside place where you can read and imagine and go for a walk on the beach and let yourself just be.”
The Sylvia Beach Hotel overlooks the ocean from Newport’s Nye Beach neighborhood. One fan calls it “a seaside place where you can read and imagine and go for a walk on the beach and let yourself just be.” Photo courtesy: Sylvia Beach Hotel

I tried to stay at the Sylvia Beach Hotel once.

It was around 1993 and we had stayed in Newport’s Nye Beach neighborhood at a hotel that no longer exists. Arriving, I immediately set eyes on the four-story hotel next door  and, learning of its author-themed rooms, knew I absolutely had to stay on our next visit. But it wasn’t to be.

As I attempted to book a room by phone, I recall making some sort of request, possibly an in-room refrigerator for our anniversary champagne. Whatever the wish, I had the distinct sense of having triggered the do-not-pass-go-alert as the desk clerk launched into advisory mode, noting that the historic hotel did not have TVs or room phones, and was in fact meant to be a quiet place for quiet people who like to read or reflect or perhaps partake in intelligent – albeit muted — conversation with otherwise bright, quiet people.


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Thirty-odd years later – 23 of them having lived a mere beach walk from the hotel — I have yet to stay there, but I have dined at the Tables of Content restaurant, haunted the hotel gift shop, and written about the place many times.

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And so, here I am again, pen (in a manner of speaking) in hand, this time in honor of the hotel’s 37th year, which owners Goody Cable and Sally Ford will celebrate with an informal tour later this month.

“We opened in 1987 on March 14, which was the 100th birthday of Sylvia Beach,” Ford recalled. Beach was an American who moved to Paris and opened a bookstore and lending library, then published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else would. “She was friends with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce … and this is a tribute to her and what she did for authors,” Ford said.

No mere lip service, the tribute is reflected in the 21 rooms decorated in styles representing authors ranging from Agatha Christie to Tennessee Williams (now remodeled into the Amy Tan room). Friends decorated the rooms in exchange for a one-week stay at the hotel every year for the next 10 years.

But first, Cable and Ford – who met when they were ages 3 (Cable) and 4 (Ford) — had some serious work to do.

The hotel was built in 1913 as the New Cliff Hotel, and in later years became the Gilmore Hotel, a low-cost, residential place rickety and decaying by the time Cable and Ford arrived. The hotel, owned by a local mailman, was still occupied. “We told him we would not buy it unless it was empty, so he had to deal with the evictions,” Ford recalled.

“We took all of the rooms down to the studs, moved some of the studs, and then jacked the hotel up and leveled it so we could pour a foundation, because it didn’t have one,” Ford said. “There were no bathrooms in the rooms, either. The bathrooms were down the hallway. We put in four fireplaces, 21 bathrooms plus three more half-baths, and the kitchen and dining room. We had to dig that out with a little Bobcat because that area was sand.”

It was three years before the hotel was ready for guests. Neither woman had any idea how to run a hotel; however, Cable had been running the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House in Portland since 1980, and Ford had spent her teen years helping her father, who was the concessionaire at Crater Lake for 17 years. Both had some hospitality experience, but it was Ford’s brother, Ken Peyton, who had the real expertise.

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Lifelong friends and hotel owners Goody Cable (left) and Sally Ford share a sunny day and a glass of wine outside the Sylvia Beach Hotel. They opened the hotel on March 14, 1987, Sylvia Beach’s 100th birthday. “This is a tribute to her and what she did for authors,” Ford says.
Lifelong friends and hotel owners Goody Cable (left) and Sally Ford share a sunny day and a glass of wine outside the Sylvia Beach Hotel. They opened the hotel on March 14, 1987, Sylvia Beach’s 100th birthday. “This is a tribute to her and what she did for authors,” Ford says. Photo courtesy: Sally Ford

Peyton had studied hotel and restaurant administration and earned a graduate degree in marketing. “When Goody and I started this project, we had other things in mind about who was going to run it and what was going to happen,” Ford said. “Everything fell by the wayside, and I said, ‘Let’s get Kenny.’”  Peyton managed the hotel until his death in 2009.

It didn’t take long for the hotel to gain a following. “Ken Kesey said it was the only flophouse on the coast with a view and a waiting list,” Ford said. Margie Boulé, former TV personality and columnist for The Oregonian, had decorated the Agatha Christie room and wrote a three-page color spread about the hotel. After that, Ford said, “It exploded.”

Soon, travel writers were visiting from all over, writing about the hotel for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, People magazine, along with numerous in-flight magazines and many, many others. Those stories fill three fat, overflowing binders in the hotel lobby, where guests often pause to take in tales from nearly 40 years.

Marlene Howard, founder of the Oregon Writers Colony, booked the colony’s first spring conference at the hotel only weeks after it opened.  Cable “had promised we could have the entire hotel, which was unheard of anyplace else,” Howard said. “So, we were there, and Ken was running the place and his chef had quit, and so here he was left without a chef and the new hotel, and nothing quite finished…. That was us. We came in and fell in love with the hotel and they seemed to like us, and we’ve been there ever since.”

But while people quickly learned to love the literary-themed hotel, the now trendy Nye Beach was not exactly a tourist attraction, and Oregon Writers Colony members weren’t rushing to spend a weekend. “We had to sell the thing,” Howard said. “Goody and Sally turned Nye Beach around. That was a wasteland down there.  When we came there, it hadn’t turned around yet. We kept the people at the conference busy in the hotel so they didn’t need to go out.”

For Colony member Cindy Brown, the hotel, first viewed as she strolled along the beach, was a deciding factor in joining the writers’ group. 

“I love that hotel,” said Brown, who keeps a print of the hotel hanging in her office. “It has an air about it. There’s this kind of quiet. It’s like people who go there know each other, even if you don’t know each other, because you are the kind of people who stay there. You are bookish people. You are not nightlife people. You want to hunker down and see the ocean and the lighthouse from your window. It’s not just the atmosphere built into the architecture, it’s the atmosphere that the owners built into it. The idea of a seaside place where you can read and imagine and go for a walk on the beach and let yourself just be.”

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The James Joyce Library in the Sylvia Beach hotel provides a quiet place to read, watch the ocean, and sip mulled wine. Photo courtesy: Sylvia Beach Hotel
The James Joyce Library in the Sylvia Beach hotel provides a quiet place to read, watch the ocean, and sip mulled wine. Photo courtesy: Sylvia Beach Hotel

As much as it is loved by travelers, locals are smitten as well. In September, Porthole Players plans to perform a play by Newport writer Jennifer Chaney in the David Ogden Stiers black box auditorium of the Newport Performing Arts Center. A synopsis of the Spirits of Sylvia Beach describes it as a farce in which “apparitions of acclaimed novelists gather for tea, literary debate, and fanciful parlor games in a whimsical, oceanside hotel dedicated to authors and books. When unusual guests arrive on a dark and stormy night, the game turns into a true mystery…”

Chaney was inspired to pen the play by her experience working at Heceta Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast and because, she said, “I’ve been a big fan of the Sylvia Beach Hotel for years and have gone to the restaurant and stayed in the rooms. I have a real special place for it in my heart.”

So do the locals who may never have reason to stay in a hotel room in their own backyard but are happy to show it off. And that, in a round-about sort of way, was the inspiration for the 37th anniversary celebration.

“As long as the door was open, locals have used us forever as entertainment for out-of-town guests,” Ford said. “It’s like going to the lighthouse or down to the bayfront. When guests checked out and our rooms were cleaned up, we allowed anyone and everyone to come.”

Then came COVID, and the open-door policy ended. But earlier this year, when the house manager approached Ford with the idea of a small party, “I said, ‘I like that. Let’s open it up for anybody, especially the locals who haven’t had a chance to come for four years.’” 

And so, from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday, March 14, they will. Along with informal tours, light refreshments will be served, and all will have the opportunity to ooh and aah over the views below and the overflowing binders and the rooms that beckon to stay awhile.

And for sure, they won’t be alone in thinking there is reason to celebrate. “I think that place is an Oregon miracle,” said Howard. “I thought so from the beginning, and now, how they have carried on and made it an institution and it’s known all over the world — it’s wonderful. Wonderful.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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2 Responses

  1. A kinder more gentler time I’ve been the server at tables of content for 23 years,when I first walked thru the door in 1987 I fell in love and have continued to year after year after year

  2. I was working at the state historic preservation office in Salem in the 1980s when Goody and Sally came to meet me and discuss possible funding sources. I remember thinking that they were nuts. The building was so dilapidated and it seemed like an incredible uphill battle. And I was an historic preservationist! I had nothing but admiration for them them and wished them the best. In fact, they were inspirational for me as I often remember the chutzpah of these two young women who were determined to make something unusual happen. I hope they have many more years of joy and success.

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