Dr. Heiner Fruehauf wants to spend a lot of money to restore one of the best-known structures in the Columbia River Gorge: the long-neglected View Point Inn, which occupies a commanding hilltop position in Corbett.
"We want to build a world-class retreat center," Fruehauf said earlier this month. "It's going to be like a Fabergé egg—precious, highly visible, but small in scope."
Neighbors, including many who had issues with the building's previous owner, are supportive. And the proposed restoration—a five-bedroom retreat with a dining room and spa—seems like it can't miss.
Just one problem: Multnomah County officials and the powerful nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge say no.
"It's very clear what they want to do isn't allowed," Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, tells WW.
Multnomah County, which regulates land use in the part of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area where the View Point is located, agrees Fruehauf and his wife Sheron's proposal is a nonconforming use.
The standoff is the latest chapter in the tortuous history of the View Point Inn, which was once a destination for luminaries from Hollywood's Golden Age, later a training center for special-needs students, and a decade ago, a setting for part of the 2008 vampire film Twilight.
The current dispute, coming little more than a year after a wildfire devastated the western reaches of the Gorge, captures ongoing tensions around the National Scenic Area. The Gorge's awesome grandeur is irresistible to the region's growing population—yet its guardians are fiercely protective of it, fearing too much love could threaten the place's fragile beauty.
"There's been a lot of growth and continued development pressure in the area," says Lang. "I think the Fruehaufs weren't familiar with the laws that applied or what the allowed uses of the land were."
Originally a watering hole for visitors traversing the Gorge, the View Point Inn opened as a roadhouse in 1924 and hosted, among others, film actors Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Starting in 1962, it became a private residence—and stayed that way for the next 35 years.
But for the past two decades, it's become a battleground between people who want to profit from the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and those who wish to protect it.
During much of that time, Lang's conservation group battled a former owner of the View Point Inn, Geoffrey "Buff Daddy" Thompson ("The Crucifixion of Geoff Thompson, WW, Sept. 28, 2011).
Growing up in east Multnomah County, Thompson fell in love with the building. After stints as a country singer in Nashville and bodybuilder, male model and grooming products entrepreneur in Los Angeles, Thompson returned to Oregon to make a run at the building he coveted.
He first leased the View Point in 1997. Land-use restrictions imposed by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act prevented him from returning it to use as an inn. Thompson initially ran it as a school for special-needs children but began hosting weddings and other events, running afoul of county regulators.
He kept pushing, however, and in 2006, the Gorge Commission amended its rules to allow historic commercial structures, such as the View Point Inn, to resume past operations to help pay for their preservation.
Thompson seized on that opportunity. The inn became a global landmark when the prom scene in Twilight was filmed there. Fans of the movie from all over the world make pilgrimages to Corbett to visit the site.
In July 2011, an ember from the inn's chimney started a blaze that consumed most of the View Point. Thompson's insurance had lapsed, and he said he didn't have the money to repay people who'd already booked weddings and parties later that summer.
Unpaid creditors, who ranged from angry bridal parties to commercial contractors to lenders, forced him into bankruptcy. A blizzard of lawsuits, foreclosure notices and tax liens clouded the picture. All the while, the inn deteriorated in the harsh Gorge climate.
During bankruptcy proceedings, records show, court officials determined that because the property had been uninsured and was saddled with land-use restrictions, the View Point Inn had no monetary value. Thompson reclaimed it and emerged from bankruptcy in 2012 as owner of the charred, blue-tarp-covered structure. After years without a roof or windows, the building was in desperate shape. But its commanding location 1,100 feet above the Columbia River attracted the Fruehaufs. (Thompson could not be reached for comment.)
The founding professor of the College of Classical Chinese Medicine at Portland's National College of Naturopathic Medicine, Heiner Fruehauf lives and practices in Corbett.
In July 2016, he and his wife bought the View Point from Thompson for $577,000 and began work on plans to convert the property into a "wellness retreat." The retreat, Fruehauf told county officials, would incorporate natural medicine and nutritional ideals for overnight guests and be a "Gorge appreciation center" much like the nearby Portland Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint. It would operate as a certified B corporation, providing public benefit. (The Fruehaufs and their attorney could not be reached for comment.)
Neighbors in Corbett rallied to the Fruehaufs' cause, seeing it as an opportunity to preserve a historic landmark.
At a Dec. 13 meeting of the Multnomah County Commission, one of those supporters, Chuck Rollins, a Corbett resident, said he'd long been active in conservation and preservation efforts in the Gorge as a member of the Crown Point Country Historical Society but that he saw such efforts as losing battles.
"Since I've been involved, we've lost 40 historical buildings and saved none," Rollins said.
But for Friends of the Gorge and Multnomah County officials, the law was clear: To be used for commercial purposes, the View Point could not be expanded beyond its footprint in 2006, when the Gorge Commission, under pressure from Thompson, agreed to allow historical commercial uses.
The Fruehaufs' plans call for the addition of 5,385 feet of commercial space, nearly doubling the commercial space that existed in 2006. In recent public testimony, the Fruehaufs' architect said the extra space is necessary to make the project economical.
But staff at Friends of the Gorge and the county say that's a nonstarter. "It would set a bad precedent," Lang says. "You could then see sprawling commercial uses of other historic properties."
The Fruehaufs' attorney abruptly canceled a Dec. 14 hearing. It has been rescheduled for March.
Lang is optimistic regulators and dreamers can reach a compromise. "If they work with the county, I think they can get their project done," Lang says. "And in our experience, they seem a lot more willing to find common ground than the previous owner."