The Restoration of The Occidental Hotel

The Award-Winning Restoration Of The Historic Occidental Hotel
Reviving the Old West in Buffalo, Wyoming


The Occidental Before
 

In 1997, after years of neglect, the Occidental Hotel was a shadow of its former self.  The ceilings of rooms had caved in, paint was peeling from the walls, and dirty old carpeting covered the floors.  The electrical wires were too old and worn to be trusted, the plumbing was defunct, and the heating system was dead.  Worst of all, the roof had started to leak in many places, and percolating water was beginning to undermine the inside structure of the building.

 

It looked as though the grand old hotel would very soon follow so many other historic hotels of the American West into oblivion — torn down and replaced by a parking lot or a strip mall.

 

But, just in time, the current owner (Dawn Wexo) bought the hotel and began the slow, laborious, and expensive process of bringing it back to its former glory.  Dawn, had previously worked on the restoration of other historic buildings, and she had "a positive feeling" about the Occidental when she first saw it.  She suspected that there was "a historic gem" under all of the dilapidation.

 

As it turned out, she was right.  Gradually, as multiple layers of ancient and unyielding paint were scraped away, and multiple thicknesses of decaying carpet were pulled up, the grand old Occidental began to reveal itself.  And it was even more intact and splendid than Dawn had suspected.

 

On the first floor, all of the wonderful decorated tin ceilings proved to be in perfect condition.  The wooden floors under the dead carpets were in fine shape (with the exception of the dance floor in the saloon, which needed to be jacked up five inches on one side).

 

During the 1940s an 1950s, false ceilings and walls had been installed to "modernize" the saloon.  When these were pulled down, beautiful original wainscoting and intricately embossed wall coverings were brought out of hiding.  The cellars and attics of the Occidental proved to be bulging with historic furnishings and architectural details that could be re-conditioned and re-installed.

Typically, as buildings grow older, they are subjected to endless remodeling by a succession of owners, and their original character is destroyed in the process.  Year after year, original structures and architectural details are ripped out and thrown away, until virtually nothing remains of the original spirit of a building.

 

As Dawn Wexo discovered, there was a reason why this had not happened to the Occidental Hotel.

 

In 1918, two ranchers named John and Al Smith (father and son) won the ownership of the Occidental Hotel in a high-stakes poker game in the back room at the Occidental Saloon.  Not knowing what to do with their enormous new possession, they asked Al's wife Margaret to take over running the hotel for "a month or so" until they could sell it.


Margaret Smith ended up running the hotel for 58 years, until she died at the age of 92 in 1976.  And during all that time, she rarely threw anything out.

This was partly because Margaret Smith was naturally frugal, but it was also because the Occidental Hotel became a focus and joy of her life.  She stored away the past of the hotel as lovingly as other people might store personal memories in a photo album.


Instead of ripping out ornate tin ceilings and "unfashionable" wall coverings, she covered them up with false ceilings and walls, or simply a coat of paint.  When the need to "modernize" the hotel led to the purchase of new furnishings, the old ones were often stored away instead of junked.


In this way, the Occidental Hotel became a kind of time capsule, just waiting for somebody to come along to "dig it up."  And two women who never knew each other — Margaret Smith and Dawn Wexo — worked together (in a manner of speaking) to bring about the survival of the unique historic treasure that is the Occidental Hotel.

Margaret Smith Margaret Smith
The Saloon before... The Saloon before...
The Stairway before... The Stairway before...
The Stairway Restored The Stairway Restored
The Lobby Restored The Lobby Restored