This 27-Year-Old Left a Promising Architecture Career to Revamp Her Family’s Struggling Hotel Business

UPDATED: April 9, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 13, 2024
Emily Nelson, owner of The Brooks Hotel in Wallace, Idaho

Emily Nelson spent every summer in the small mining town of Wallace, Idaho, where her grandfather, Lance Stanley (affectionately known as “Papa Lance”), owned The Brooks Hotel. A miner by trade, Papa Lance acquired the property in 1993 after he gave up his career mining silver and took over the inn from owner Sam Brooks.

The Brooks Hotel is a historic fixture in downtown Wallace, and Nelson remembers her childhood summers spent listening to her grandfather develop relationships with the people who visited the inn year after year. Running the hotel was an all-hands-on-deck operation, with Nelson jumping in to wait tables from age 8, staffing the front desk as a young teen and cleaning rooms when needed.

Nelson was always aware that they were just barely making ends meet, and that Papa Lance heavily relied on the summer festivals to bring in visitors who would stay at the hotel.

While Nelson never planned to go into the hospitality business herself, the summers she spent ingrained in the day-to-day workings of the property prompted her to choose to study architecture. “When I wasn’t waiting tables or… learning about all these customers, I was exploring this building,” Nelson explains. “There’s 10,000 square feet of unfinished space upstairs, and I got to run around there and in the basement and see how all of our systems were exposed or how this open-frame space could be one day.”

Shortly after Nelson arrived at the University of Idaho, she learned that Papa Lance had suddenly fallen ill with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and died. Not in a position to take over the property themselves, she and her mother Rachel Stanley decided to pass the property on to some cousins who were interested in running it.

The Brooks Hotel falls into disrepair—physically and financially

Three years later in August 2019, Nelson graduated from college and started her architecture career in Boise. Her mother told her what a dire state The Brooks Hotel was in. The cousins running the business had not been paying the taxes or the mortgage, and the physical building was falling apart. “We were about ready to file bankruptcy because everything had been drained,” she recalls. “There had been no money put back into the hotel.”

She flew up to Wallace to discuss the situation with her mother, but this was more than she was prepared to handle as a 22-year-old just out of college. There were two choices: take over running the property themselves or sell it. According to Nelson, there wasn’t even a question about what would be done. “With my grandpa’s love for this place, my mom and I both decided to see what it had to offer and give it our best shot—so at least we could say we tried.”

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The dire financial situation was made especially evident the second week that Nelson was back in Wallace, when six armed officers from the Idaho State Tax Commission showed up at the property demanding back taxes. “They went into our safe and took everything there. They went into our restaurant where people were dining, and they took the till. They went to our bar where people were drinking, and they took the till there,” she explains. “It was just so embarrassing.” 

Starting fresh isn’t easy

After the tax agents left, Nelson’s great-grandmother went to the bank to withdraw $500 from her personal bank account so that they would be able to make change for the patrons at the bar and restaurant. To say this was an eye-opening experience would be an understatement. 

Not only were the property’s finances a dire situation, but an enormous amount of work needed to be done to update the building. Nelson started by hiring out jobs like hanging drywall and replacing outlets, but soon she was rolling up her sleeves and doing the work herself. “I was looking at the product and thinking: ‘We can do better.’ So I started learning all these electrical wirings and how to drywall, how to mud, how to texture, how to paint, and I have been doing that all on my own with some help here and there,” she says. 

COVID-19 hit and everything shut down less than a year after Nelson took over the business. While the pandemic resulted in a huge struggle financially, it allowed her to dig in and work on some of the bigger projects like removing the unsightly drop ceiling in the restaurant and restoring some of the historical elements of the building. Her architectural background proved to be invaluable.

The Brooks Hotel in Wallace, Idaho, today

Nearly five years after Nelson took over running The Brooks Hotel things are more settled. Wallace businesspeople Anna and Mark Berger assumed the property’s debts as lienholders so they would be able to purchase a parking lot owned by the hotel. The Bergers wanted to build a coffee shop on the lot, as there’s very little vacant land left in the downtown area of Wallace. 

According to Anna, they decided to take on this business arrangement because they were inspired by Nelson. “The biggest reason for wanting to help and be a part of it is just because you could see her drive, and you could see what a good thing it was going to be for the town. So if we could play our part to help, we did,” explains Anna. 

Nelson is now looking to the future with an eye on new ventures that might take her beyond Wallace. “There are still things that can be done at the property, but I feel like I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to and I’m proud of it. I think my grandpa would be proud of it, and I think everybody in this town is grateful that somebody came in with the energy and the excitement and the passion to get it all done,” she shares. “If you stay longer, you’re here for life, and there are so many more things I want to do. If the right project comes across my table, I would like to be ready for it.” 

Photo by Kelsey Knutson Photography.