Then and Now: Desert Hotel
Mon., Sept. 19, 2016
Circa 1960: The Desert Hotel at First Avenue and Post Street started life as the Pacific Hotel in 1891. A few years later it was renamed the Dessert Hotel after owner Victor Dessert Sr. The name was changed to Desert in the 1930s, and the decor had an Egyptian theme. It was torn down in 1961 to make way for the Desert Saharan Motor Lodge in 1962. Farm Credit Banks bought the land for a bank in 1978, but later built a block away. (Photo archive/The Spokesman-Review / SR)
Did you ever wonder why there was, for many years, a Desert Hotel in Spokane, far from any actual desert? There was also Desert Hotels in Coeur d’Alene and Ritzville.
It started with an immigrant named Victor Dessert from French-speaking Alsace-Lorraine. He was a blacksmith for the Northern Pacific Railway as it built its railway into Spokane in 1881, but he is best remembered for opening one of Spokane’s earliest hotels, Russ House, beside the N.P. railroad tracks in 1885. Lodging was 25 cents and each meal was 25 cents. His advertisements read, “Best $1.00 A Day Hotel In The City.” He built the 15-room Pacific Hotel nearby at First Avenue and Post Street.
The 1889 fire swept away both structures, but Dessert rebuilt the Pacific Hotel, expanding it to three stories and many more rooms.
In 1890, Dessert married Louise Marschante, a waitress in the dining room who was also from Alsace-Lorraine. The two worked tirelessly side-by-side in the business.
Through the 1890s, they built up the Pacific Hotel and it’s popular restaurant and bar, The Oasis, where Louise usually oversaw operations. The bar’s name may have been the first wordplay on the owners’ last name and a desert theme.
The couple added the Lever Hotel at 301 S. Howard St. to their holdings, renaming it the Pacific and calling their original inn The Dessert Hotel. In 1898 they built the Victor Block, with ground-level retail and the Victor Hotel above at First Avenue and Wall Street. They built the four-story Dessert Block at Riverside and Bernard streets around 1902. The Onion restaurant is there today.
The couple took over the Atlantic Hotel, later called the Otis Hotel. They bought and renovated the Van Houten Block, on Riverside, between Post and Lincoln, mostly for retail space.
Victor Sr. died unexpectedly in 1907. Louise carried on with the help of her brother, Fritz Marschante, and her teenage son, Victor Dessert Jr.
The young Dessert would quickly grow into the role, becoming manager of a half-dozen properties, including a hotel in Coeur d’Alene and in Ritzville. His uncle Fritz managed the Pacific Hotel for many years.
Around 1937, the family changed their hotel names from Dessert to Desert and extended the desert décor.
The Oasis restaurant, expanded in 1926, had Egyptian-style hieroglyphics on the ceiling and faux pharaonic sculptures on the walls and columns. The restaurant, including four themed banquet rooms, could hold 650 diners at once.
The Oasis was home to the Athletic Round Table, a men’s social club that raised money for local sports teams and facilities, including Joe Albi Stadium and the Spokane Coliseum. But the members also were famous for pranks and stunts, such as paying the bridge tolls for all the fans headed to the Washington State College-University of Washington football game, and collecting old clothes and shoes to send to Congress to poke fun at congressmen raising their own pay.
Victor Dessert Jr. died suddenly in 1941, at age 50, stunning the city where he was on the school board and the parks commission. He had given generously to many causes. His mother Louise died in 1943.
Two Dessert daughters, Joanne and Marilu, and son-in-law Al Williams in 1951 built the Desert Caravan Inn on the Sunset Highway, which later became Spokane House. They also built the City Center Motel in 1958, now the Hotel Ruby 2. They tore down the old Pacific Hotel and built the Desert Saharan Motor Lodge, with the Moulin Rouge nightclub, in 1962. “Saharan” was changed to just Sahara soon after.
Most of the hotels were sold off in 1978, but the family kept the City Center Motel until 1985, ending a century of the Dessert family in the hotel business. Williams told a reporter, “It’s kind of the end of an era.”
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