Historic Hotel in Portland Offers an Elegant Detour

Posted By Mike Padgett

Oct. 27, 2011

PORTLAND, Ore. – What is happening here? Are the visitors entering a time portal into Oregon history?

They remember handing their car keys to the bellman and the concierge following them with their luggage from the curb near Fourth and Pine streets. Downtown Portland is busy, with its eclectic mix of office towers, condo buildings, hotels, restaurants, retailers and light rail.

But inside the hotel doors, downtown’s energy morphs into elegance. The expansive lobby offers a look into Portland’s earlier years. In a world of fast lanes and 24/7 connectivity, a short detour into local history is welcome.

The understated exterior of the Embassy Suites Downtown-Portland belies its history and interior elegance. Photo © by Mike Padgett

The visitors are standing in the lobby of the former Multnomah Hotel. In a few weeks, the hotel – reopened in 1997 as the Embassy Suites Portland-Downtown – will celebrate its 100th birthday.

First-time visitors entering the hotel, if they appreciate history, often can be spotted. They are the ones looking up and around as they walk sideways and backwards on their way to the desk.

These two new visitors are distracted by the seating areas in the grand lobby with its soaring ceiling and the 24 marble and terracotta pillars. The visitors imagine intimate conversations among friends sharing hors d’oeuvres on bone china and coffee spiked with bourbon in demitasse cups.

The charming hotel opened Feb. 8, 1912. It dates to a more gracious and refined era in which women in formal dress often carried lacy umbrellas and men wore suits and hats. The lobby might have featured a baby grand piano, where a pianist played softly during afternoon tea.

Cozy seating areas in the hotel’s carpeted lobby offer quiet retreats for private conversations. Photo © by Mike Padgett

The visitors step to the reception desk at the left inside the door. The concierge, likely smiling at the guests’ predictable reactions, waits nearby with their bags on a brass cart.

My Best Friend and I are the visitors enjoying the historic hotel. She pauses by the display case filled with examples of the hotel’s antique china. The hotel first caught my attention in 1997 when I wrote for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from Portland. That year, I started a mental folder about Multnomah Hotel because of its role in the history of the Pacific Northwest.

The Embassy Suites Portland receptionist taps her computer. She finds our reservation. We hoped for a corner suite on an upper floor to avoid street noise. I ask her for more information about the hotel. She steps over to a desk and pulls out a copy of a history book about the hotel. She loans us the book, “The Grand Lady of Fourth Avenue,” during our stay. The book, written by Cait Curtin, was given to guests during the renovated hotel’s reopening in 1997.

In the far right corner of the lobby is the entrance to a popular restaurant, Portland Prime. Its specialties include salmon, steak and seafood. In the lobby’s far left corner are stairs leading down to Arcadian Garden, a popular venue for weddings, receptions and other meetings. It also offers complimentary breakfasts and afternoon receptions for hotel guests.

The hotel’s renovation included restoration of plaster details on the columns, walls and ceilings. Photo © by Mike Padgett

The hotel was among the largest in the Pacific Northwest when it opened. It became a favorite gathering place for social groups as well as business leaders, many with lumber, railroad and shipping interests.

The hotel’s lobby, mezzanine and exterior are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The hotel occupies a city block a short walk from the Willamette River. For Portland visitors who appreciate history and a central location, the hotel is an ideal choice. Visitors can leave their cars parked because the downtown hotel is within walking distance of office buildings and a wide selection of retailers and Irish, Chinese, Lebanese, Italian and other ethnic restaurants. We enjoy dining at Portland Prime, Jake’s Famous Crawfish and Kell’s Irish Pub.

During our stay, I wonder who of importance stood here before us. What decisions did they make here? What were key world and local events when the hotel opened in February 1912? Did they appreciate the intricate cast iron grillwork on the stairs?

Each visitor to this Portland hotel – and every other historic site – is like a grain of sand in that most go unnoticed. But some visitors are weightier than others because their business or political importance gives them more impact.

What notable business leader, politician or writer stayed in our room and walked these stairs or punched these elevator buttons before us? While they stayed in this historic hotel, were they inspired to make an important decision or start a new book?

Curtin’s book answers many of my questions. The Multnomah’s guests included several presidents, Queen Marie of Romania in 1926, Charles Lindberg in 1927, Elvis Presley in 1957, and Sen. John Kennedy and brother Robert Kennedy during JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign.

The hotel hosted many notables, including several U.S. presidents and entertainment legends, including Jimmy Stewart, Lana Turner, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope, according to a history of the hotel.

The nine-story hotel was built in the American Renaissance style. Its original employees were recruited from major hotels across the country. A newspaper ad, reproduced in Curtin’s book, says the hotel opened in 1912 with 725 rooms and suites, of which 300 had private baths.

When the hotel began its decline in the 1960s, Lutheran Homes and Hospitals Inc. considered buying it for conversion into a senior citizen life care center, Curtin says in her book. The proposal was rejected.

In 1965, the closed hotel was refitted into offices for the U.S. Forest Service and Internal Revenue Service.

The government offices vacated the building in 1991. The former hotel sat vacant until 1995 when it was sold for $1.4 million to two investors in Vancouver, Wash., according to The Oregonian newspaper.

After a $35 million renovation, the hotel reopened to a welcoming public in November 1997 as Embassy Suites Portland-Downtown with 276 suites.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden is a short walk from the Embassy Suites Downtown-Portland. Photo © by Mike Padgett

Our stay in the historic hotel was too short. Each time we left our suite and wandered the hallways and lobby on our way to the Lan Su Chinese Garden, Powell’s Books, or a nearby restaurant, we paused.

The history of the Embassy Suites caught our attention during our travels because we share a passion for local history. Some of our other favorite historic hotels are the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix; Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, Calif.; The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver; US Grant Hotel in San Diego; The Benson Hotel, which is a landmark in Portland; The Palace Hotel in San Francisco; and Hassayampa Inn in Prescott, Ariz.

History found in restored elegant hotels can be intoxicating.

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Oct 27th, 2011

One Comment to 'Historic Hotel in Portland Offers an Elegant Detour'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    Hello Mike:
    Thanks for sharing the photos and your story of “The Grand Old Lady”.
    Beautiful!

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