With An Eye On Belltown Preservation, The Funky Cyclops Cafe Finds A New Home In The Classy Remodel Of Hotel Latona

Against the old Belltown bricks at First and Wall, an Action Man doll is slumped against the former Peniel Mission. Around his neck is hanging a "Do Not Disturb" sign. Oddly enough, it seems appropriate, since the air around is full of dust, noise and workmen shouting. Still, every worker, however hard-boiled or weighted down, takes special care to step around the little doll.

Action Man is the mascot for an idiosyncratic team of business proprietors conducting a special resurrection. They are turning the long-neglected building into a refurbished hotel and retail complex. Back in 1912, the mission was the Hotel Latona, a rooming house and residential complex over six storefronts. It's being restored to its former glory, but the restoration has a modernist slant. "We want to reinvent the whole hotel idea," say the new proprietors, Wade Weigel and Alex Calderwood.

The storefronts will also be back. Only this time they will house a barber shop, a florist, a furniture store, a chic tailor - and the reborn Cyclops Cafe.

The mission, now known as City Team Ministries, has moved to 904 Elliott Ave. W.,where it has an additional 3,000 square feet of space.

The new hotel will offer an eclectic experience. Its rooms, for instance, will have stark white walls and floors, low beds and cube-shaped lights - plus tiled, shared bathrooms featuring piped-in music. Some of these traits recall European hostelries, the pensions of France or an English bed-and-breakfast. But that mixture, avers Calderwood, "actually exudes a Seattle identity."

Calderwood and Weigel both like doing business with flair. Weigel is known for Rudy's barbershops, as well as Capitol Hill's Cha Cha lounge and Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen. Calderwood, a member of promotion partners Tasty Shows, was instrumental in the sleek new nightclub ARO.space.

The duo's new hotel is being called "The Ace," and its plans include some singular features. In addition to a second-floor atrium, there will be a wall covered by constant movie projections. One section of the hotel may run as a hostel; another may be reserved for visiting rock bands. Although most room rates are projected at $70 a night, one L-shaped "luxury suite" will carry a three-figure ticket.

Although such a melange may sound exotic, very little of the old structure is actually changing. Initially, its housing was a blend: 48 rooms, 43 of which were apartments. Creating The Ace involves retaining most of those walls. "For us it's all about the vibe," says Calderwood. "And it's about making our stand for Belltown history. Until '97, I had lived downtown for a decade. And what's happening around here now really shocks me."

It's unlikely many remember the Hotel Latona. But the bohemian Cyclops gained a national reputation. It grew out of a Western Avenue cafe, the Free Mars, which was established in 1985. The restaurant was housed in another vintage building, the Niles, a 1909 rooming house later used as artist housing. In 1992, the building became notable when artist Diane Sukovathy covered its walls with Jell-O molds.

By then, the Mars had become the Cyclops Cafe - run by artists Gina Kaukola and John Hawkley. The couple made it into a Belltown landmark, a hangout favored by grunge stars, painters, writers, actors and visitors. The Cyclops had a three-dimensional eye above its door, which - along with Sukovathy's Jell-O molds - started appearing in films, on television and on the Internet.

Neighborhood development, however, spelled the doom of both. On April 27, 1997, the Cyclops' owners literally clamped its huge eye shut. Soon after, the Niles was demolished - to make way for Harbor Properties' Site 17 complex. Few Cyclops regulars were consoled by its Tully's Coffee shop. For them, the cafe had been an alternative living room.

Back in the neighborhood

Hawkley and Kaukola were both exhausted and saddened. Their next year was rough, as they searched - in vain - for premises. Now, having found a place so near their former home, they seem as giddy and excited as teenage sweethearts. "We're back," beams Kaukola, "and in a beautiful building." Adds Hawkley, with a sweeping gesture around the premises, "and we have twice the space we had before - in addition to a wonderful kitchen."

The new space is indeed extensive: one huge, U-shaped room. But, even more than the old hotel, it's in almost derelict shape. Beams, lath and ancient linoleum stand exposed and ratty; doors lean against the walls and air masks dangle from random nails. Still, what seems like chaos is actually controlled. Off the kitchen, in the old hotel office, sit the detailed master plans for a brand-new Cyclops. Former staffers have been dropping by to see them but, says Kaukola, Cyclops II isn't Cyclops I.

"Last time, we inherited quite a lot of our decoration. This time, we've been able to design the place from scratch." Fans, however, can look out for the "Love Seat," a capacious circular couch - or the guardian Virgin of Guadalupe. Both were beloved fixtures in the original Cyclops, but they will be incorporated in a fresh aesthetic. Kaukola is keeping most of it secret, but says she is ditching "the '50s diner thing." As for the Jell-O molds? No-one is planning for any.

The Cyclops' interior will still boast Belltown funk. But, in another of the building's storefronts, tailor Scott Kuhlman is focused on traditional elegance. This Spokane native sells Savile Row-style, custom menswear. He has been carefully restoring what was once a grocery, creating retail space that will be "cozy but classy."

Sculpture with stitches

Kuhlman has been a part of Belltown since '84, initially as a sculptor and a jewelry maker. A four-year stint in Japan made him into a serious tailor. He had always designed and made clothes for himself; while abroad, he found a plethora of other customers. Back in Seattle in 1991, he bought a Singer sewing machine and began production. Since then, his success has brought an arsenal of equipment: beautiful, vintage machines that are almost sculptural.

Their style, he hopes, will suit his premises, bringing a touch of old-time, personal industry. Swamped by piles of Sheetrock in the unfinished space, the normally natty artisan looks tired and rumpled. But, like all the new tenants, he prefers involvement. "I really love old buildings and I care about Belltown. So whatever the elbow grease, I'm enjoying it."

He runs a hand through sweaty hair. "Still, I can't wait till I'm actually working here. I love the idea of a guest who just drops in, who consults about a piece of custom clothing. Then, when he leaves Seattle, maybe he'll be wearing my label."

Kuhlman hopes to be in business by October or November, but many of his colleagues see early 1999 as their opening date.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Weigel is already looking at toothpaste - which he has custom-ordered for The Ace. He is engrossed by the streamlined, tricolor logo. "Isn't this just the coolest thing?" he asks, waving a sample. His attention then turns to a square of dark brown carpet. "They call this stuff coconut husk," he says, stroking it. "We're gonna use it down our halls, like the old-time runners."

It's easy to get caught up in Weigel's ardor, and passersby have deluged both workers and owners with questions. Public sentiment seems unanimous: People love seeing this run-down building treated with dignity.

"We care tremendously about that, too," says Weigel. "This time, just for once, something's being respected - not razed. Even the old 7UP sign on the side is staying!"