There’s something going on in Oakland.
It’s hard to pick up on it at first glance. Drive around the small, historic downtown district and nothing much looks different. The red brick buildings are still filled with shops selling antiques, knick-knacks and wine, and several have signs indicating their limited hours, or a number to call for service.
But look closer, talk to some of the shop owners, and you’ll get wind of the changes afoot.
Two couples have recently bought, or are in the process of buying, a total of eight historic downtown properties. Included are two event centers — Turkey Hall and The Speakeasy — as well as the popular Lamplighter Caffe & Lounge and, perhaps, the most well-known building in Oakland, the former Tolly’s restaurant.
Other properties bought by the two couples, who are independent of each other, include the Page & Dimmick building and the Deardorff Hotel. Like most buildings in downtown Oakland, both of those date back to the 19th century.
Other downtown Oakland business owners are watching closely, and hoping for the best.
“Sometimes things just build, momentum gets going and everything kind of snowballs,” said Betty Tamm, who owns the Triple Oak Wine Vault on Locust Street, one door down from the old Tolly’s. “I’m hoping the new vibrancy will bring more people to the area and help all of us.”
Meanwhile, at least one of the new owners said he sees Oakland as a diamond in the rough, and plans to help make it shine.
“Oakland is coming to life,” said Vince Gaeta, who bought the old Tolly’s and Turkey Hall, among other properties. “We’re trying to have a Renaissance.”
Purchasing an institutionGaeta built a successful career in IT security in Las Vegas, but he and his wife Katrina always enjoyed their visits to Vince’s sister, who lives in the area.
“I wanted to bring my sons here,” he said. “It’s a small town but not too small.”
The Gaetas liked the idea of moving here, putting down roots here and opening a restaurant. A couple of years ago they bought a home with 15 acres in Roseburg, complete with a barn, Scottish Highland cattle and a private, half-mile driveway.
“We looked at this house and that was it,” Gaeta said. “It looks like the Augusta National Golf Course.”
They bought the property from Roy Skoglund, a physician in Roseburg who was chief of staff at the former Douglas Community Hospital.
Tolly’s restaurant had sat vacant since closing in November, and the Gaetas decided to fulfill their dream and buy it. They toyed with a number of names, and then it clicked. They would name it Skog’s — after Skoglund.
The Gaetas didn’t just buy a vacant building, but an institution.
Located in a brick building on Locust Street in downtown Oakland that dates back to the 1890s, the old restaurant is surrounded by other historic brick buildings, including the Historic Oakland Tavern, the Oakland Museum, Stearns Hardware and the Oakland Ice House. Those and other historic buildings in downtown Oakland put the district on the National Register of Historic Places.
But the most well-known and biggest draw is the former Tolly’s, which dates back 50 years and is housed in a building more than 100 years old.
Terry and Carol Tollefson opened Tolly’s, offering sandwiches and later adding a soda fountain.
The restaurant, which actually consists of two buildings totaling about 5,800 square feet, went through several different owners over the years before the Gaetas. The Tollefsons sold it in 2001, bought it again in 2003, and sold it again in 2008. Five years later the business, which had been foreclosed, was purchased from the bank by a local family.
That family closed the business in 2016 and put it up for sale. The restaurant sat vacant for two years before the Tollefsons bought it back in the summer of 2018. But that most recent version of Tolly’s closed again last November. It sat vacant until last month when the Gaetas’ took it over and started refurbishing it.
Over the decades Tolly’s was known as much for its eclectic setting as for its food. The inside was part restaurant and part museum, featuring antique wood drawers, antlers above the bar, a staircase with a carousel horse at the top, and perhaps most famously the soda fountain with its swivel counter stools.
The Gaetas — who just closed on the property at the end of July but were given the keys to start working on it two weeks prior — have kept some of those relics, discarded others, and added a number of their own touches.
The famous swivel chairs and soda fountain stay, as do the wooden cabinets and horse. The building also features a wine cellar, which came stocked with 100 bottles of wine.
The Gaetas have already renovated the kitchen and put in a fresh coat of paint — Robin’s Nest Blue — throughout. Skog’s will be open Sunday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 8:30 a.m. until midnight. Aug. 18 has been circled as opening day.
Signature items will include Belgium waffles and dessert from J.M. Rosen’s Cheesecake in Petaluma, California.
One side of the upstairs area will be filled with a half-dozen poker tables; the other half will be like an exclusive club, Gaeta said, with meals served several nights a week.
“We’re bringing stuff here that people would have to travel for,” he said. “It’s all about providing a premium experience at a great price.”
The Gaetas plan to spruce up the courtyard out back, which features a koi pond, and connect it via a walkway to Turkey Hall, which is catty-corner to Skog’s.
If Skog’s got a makeover, then Turkey Hall — which is the newest building in the bunch, dating back only to 1932 — is getting a complete overhaul.
Just about everything in the 6,000 square-foot building is new: two rifles attached to the mahogany entry doors serve as handles; antique chandeliers throughout; the 25 foot-long western-themed mahogany bar with a roughly 6-foot by 7-foot mirror behind it; new stage; entirely new kitchen; new wrought iron railings that were made to look antique; all new furniture; and more.
The improvements haven’t come cheap, Gaeta said.
“Whatever I paid for the building, I’m in three times more for the renovation.”
The menu will feature a wine and tapas bar during the week and full-course meals, accompanied by live music, on weekends. Gaeta said he is hoping to open Turkey Hall by early November.
Between Skog’s, the courtyard and Turkey Hall, Gaeta figures he can accommodate about 450 people.
The couple said they have brought in renowned experts to help with all facets of the operation, including a chef from Las Vegas who helped develop the Spago restaurant there, a London design firm to help with interior design and a Portland muralist to paint the Skog’s sign in the front window.
With so much to do to get Skog’s and Turkey Hall up and running, Gaeta said any plans for the other two properties the couple bought are on hold for now. There will be time enough to work on them as part of his plan to revitalize Oakland.
“I’ve lived enough places and seen enough things to know that this place is special,” he said. “We’re all in.”
Coming homeJamie Gettemy has deep roots in Oakland, where she grew up and graduated from Oakland High School. She also has experience in the restaurant industry, having worked as a teenager in her father’s restaurant, Harry’s Family Dining on Garden Valley Boulevard. For a while now she’s been looking for a way to merge those two passions.
Gettemy and her husband Ron live in Vancouver, Washington, but three years ago they bought a home in Oakland and now split their time between both places. They would like to live in Oakland fulltime, Gettemy said, and had been looking for a good business opportunity in Oakland to help make that a reality.
The Lamplighter became available and the couple decided that was their chance, Gettemy said.
“This was an opportunity that came up,” she said. “We’ve really been looking for something in Oakland that we could do to give back to the town.
They took over The Lamplighter a couple of weeks ago and hit the ground running.
“We’ve been super busy working to get the Lamplighter going,” Gettemy said. “It was real dark and some people were afraid to go in, so we added some lighting in the back to open it up.”
They also tweaked the menu, adding Taco Tuesdays and Prime Rib Night on Friday. The Lamplighter offers dine-in service as well as takeout and curbside, Gettemy said. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., serving lunch and dinner. The restaurant normally seats about 50 people, but with social distancing requirements in place it now seats half that.
“Our goal is really to have a place where everyone can relax and have a good time,” Gettemy said. “We’re fun people.”
The other properties have been put on the backburner while the Gettemys focus on the Lamplighter and see how COVID-19 will play out.
The Speakeasy property is currently in escrow and the sale should be finalized by the end of the month, Gettemy said. The building covers about 9,000 square feet and the current plan is to leave it as is, she said.
“The Speakeasy is going to be exactly what it is now,” she said. “It’s an event center, for any kind of event, seven days a week. It’s really just a big old huge barn.”
Gettemy said they have already booked 17 events for 2021, mostly weddings.
The other two properties they bought need extensive work, and one might not even be salvageable.
The old Deardorff Hotel is “pretty much down to the studs,” Gettemy said. The couple eventually would like to turn it into an Airbnb, she said.
The last building, a former hotel, is another story. While the two-story red brick building at the corner of Locust and First streets looks pretty from the outside, the property has been vacant for about 25 years and it shows. The roof caved in and the interior is in shambles.
“They just let the old building sit there forever,” Gettemy said. “We haven’t made a decision on what we’re going to do with it because we took on a lot of projects at once.”
Gettemy also said she and Ron make a good team.
“He does all the construction work and I do the other work,” she said. “Our whole goal is to keep the buildings as historic as possible and bring them back to the community.”
Discovering OaklandBette Keehley has been mayor of Oakland since 2007. In that role, she sees part of her job as bringing economic development to the town. But equally important, she and other city officials are tasked with maintaining the historic integrity of Oakland.
Keehley will tell you about the 1993 movie “Fire in the Sky,” starring James Garner, that was filmed in town. She can tell you the history of Turkey Hall, how it was initially made of tin and used to house all the turkeys for the annual turkey show.
She welcomes the new owners and their plans for improvements.
“We’ve had ups and we’ve had downs, and it looks like this is the beginning of an up,” Keehley said. “I’m glad people are trying to come and make Oakland their home and contribute to the community. That’s a good thing.
“I’m not sure why it’s all happening now, it might be that people are just discovering our beautiful little town. It takes a little time for people to recognize that something is here and they can do something with it.”
Conni Riley said her roots in Oakland run deep — her great-great-grandparents lived here in the 1800s. Riley, who owns the Riley’s Ice House Emporium in town, said she welcomes the newcomers and the business activity they could bring.
“It’s probably good for the town,” Riley said. “I know it’s a little scary for some of the old-timers. People are not used to change. But some of these buildings need to be refreshed on the inside. We need some new blood. I welcome change and I try to remain positive.”
Betty Tamm concurs, to a degree. Tamm, who owns the Triple Oak Wine Vault and is a member of Oakland Economic Development — the town’s version of a chamber of commerce — said Tolly’s brought a lot of foot traffic to town. She hopes Skog’s and the other businesses coming will do the same.
“I’m just hoping it leads to a turnaround for Oakland. We’ve never had quite enough foot traffic for businesses to thrive in this town,” Tamm said. “We don’t want to be like Jacksonville and have it get out of hand, but we could use some more foot traffic here.”
Keehley said she is not worried about too much foot traffic. But she does have concerns about maintaining the history of Oakland.
She can tick off a number of homes or buildings that were altered in some way — even torn down in one case — without regard to the damage that does to the community at large.
“You have to stop it in the first stages and unfortunately most times when people do these things they do it in the cover of dark,” Keehley said. “We don’t know about it and we don’t have historic police running around. We’re trying to keep it historic, but it’s a battle.”
Keehley also said she is hoping for the best with all the changes coming to town. But she has seen such ventures go south in the past, and hopes that doesn’t happen this time.
“I think the worst thing that could happen is that they spend money on these properties, then they don’t make any money and then they leave,” she said. “That’s the thing that is scary. It’s a depression on the city itself.”