Much to Amuse in City that Embraces Progress & Preservation
By Karen Rubin
It doesn’t take us long to see why Portland, Oregon, has gained a reputation as the city of “books, brews, blooms & bikes” and how it embraces with such aplomb both progress and preservation.
On our first evening in Portland, we headed out of The Governor Hotel toward the Pearl District and quickly discovered one of Portland’s most famous attractions, Powell’s City of Books. The largest independent bookseller in the world, the three-story store takes up a full city block and houses 1.5 million volumes. It also boasts the only three-door elevator west of the Mississippi. The place is so enormous, there are people to give guided tours and distribute maps to help you get around. A recent expansion has added an art gallery and space for author readings, an expanded Rare Book Room, and, at the northwest entrance, this marvelous “Pillar of Books” sculpture, where an interesting sign is posted: “no rollerblades.” There is a neat café. The store is open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. The main entrance is at Northwest 11th Avenue and Couch Street.
Portland is a city of quaint districts and neighborhoods. The Pearl District, reminiscent of Tribeca in New York City, has experienced this phenomenal redevelopment that epitomizes the changes. As we stroll down SW 11th Avenue, we come upon La Zhu, specializing in Asian Arts and Antiques, a cooking school, and an architectural design studio with a window front posing the question, “How many architects does it take to change the future?” At SW11 at NW Hoyt, a factory has been turned into gorgeous rowhouses.
We came upon Jamisan Square, an urban park with a spray-fountain where kids were frolicking on a warm summer’s night. A Flexcar-a kind of timeshare car that cuts down on cost and pollution-was parked at the corner.
We stroll to Henry’s Tavern, on the Brewery Blocks, named for Henry Weinhard who 100 years ago proposed pumping ale through the Skidmore Fountain. The building won a Green award for its redevelopment from a brewery to a pub. The burger there was the most delectable ever-served on a Tillamook cheese Kaiser Roll with creative seasonings that changed the whole notion of a “burger”. Here, the menu for beer is almost as big as the food menu (which is saying a lot, considering the wide variety, from Chinese-Thai-Cantonese to pasta to seafood to steak), with precise descriptions of the color, flavor and finish of each selection. Judging by the line of people, the bar is also one of the most popular in town (10 NW 12 Ave., 503-227-5320).
Brews are a huge deal here, with more than 25 craft breweries earning Portland the nickname, “Munich on the Willamette.” During our visit, there was the annual MicroBrewers Festival that takes place the last weekend in July, and took up much of the waterfront park for several days and nights, drawing some 60,000 people.
The themes of “people” “playfulness” “preservation and reuse” actually resound in Portland’s approach to pubs-at least by the two McMenamin brothers who have completely reinvented the concept. Imagine a family-friendly pub, a place to catch “a brew and a movie.”
“Children, grandparents and the whole of the neighborhood should feel comfortable at a pub, whether it’s three stools in a shed or a 38-acre manor,” the two brothers, Mike and Brian, write. “Keeping this in mind, we giddily wrangled with the established bounds of what a pub could be, adding such new twists as historic preservation (the Cornelius Pass Roadhouse being our original National Register property), theater pubs (The Mission Theater became the first in 1987), wine-making, distilling, gardening, lodging, and golf (all first served up at Edgefield, which opened in 1990), and the staging of national music acts (at the historic Crystal Ballroom, beginning in 1997).” They also incorporate art and other “visual surprises.”
One of their great achievements was the restoration Portland’s 1914 Crystal Ballroom. Closed and neglected for nearly three decades, the ballroom was reopened in 1997, one of the many urban revitalization projects undertaken by brothers Brian and Mike McMenamin of McMenamins Hotels, Pubs & Breweries. It is now one of the nation’s only remaining “floating” dance floors, made possible by a series of ball bearings attached to 800 rockers to produce a magical floating sensation. Decorated with whimsical artwork created especially for the site by local artists, the venue features musical events several nights a week, from hip-hop and bluegrass to alternative and classic rock. (Admission charged; 1332 W. Burnside St., 503.492.5448).
The McMenamins have assembled some 40 properties over the last 20 years, ranging from brew-’n'-view theaters, and bed-and-breakfast inns in such unlikely places as a former elementary school (www.mcmenamins.com).
Along with beer, the other popular brew is coffee, and there is any number of coffee houses to idle the time away.
Portland is called the “City of Roses” and I soon come to see why.
On our first day in this, the most bike-friendly city in the nation, I follow the directions of Jeff Hadley, from Waterfront Bicycle Rentals, and after leaving the glorious bike path along the Willamette River, wind my way through Old Town, through the Alphabet District, higher and higher until the 24th Avenue entrance into Washington Park. This was actually the easy ascent into the park, but I was pretty proud of myself – and breathless -when I regarded the view.
It was already near sunset, and the tallest buildings in city below were turning an orange rose color in the reflected light. And I discovered the International Rose Test Garden- perched on a series of terraces affording an incomparable view down to the city with majestic Mount Hood in the distance.
The largest of three Portland public rose gardens, the International Rose Test Garden was established in 1917, making it the oldest test garden in the United States. The 5.12-acre site features 9,000 rose plantings representing some 590 varieties, including Savoy Hotel, Livin’ Easy, New Zealand, Climbing Ophelia, and Sweet Juliet. Kids will imagine they are Alice in Wonderland, but you can see why this is a popular place for wedding photos and community happenings. Returning on a second day, there were a group of Scottish dancers practicing a routine, a wedding party getting photographed, and extended families picnicking.
Washington Park is a Central-Park equivalent that makes you feel you are in the deep forest while in the middle of the city, and even connects to an Audubon Society Sanctuary.
Many of Portland’s most popular attractions (especially for families) are all situated in this park, , including The International Rose Test Garden, Oregon Zoo, and Japanese Garden, enough to make Washington Park a full-day’s visit, this time, coming by the Light Rail, which we caught just around the corner from The Governor Hotel (purchase the unlimited travel ticket for the day, at $4; the ticket also gets you a 50 cent discount on zoo admission, and you can use it on the Washington Park Shuttle which connects all the attractions in the park).
The Zoo station is an attraction in itself (as a Portland man kindly explained as we were on our way): the station is 265 feet below the ground and the city has turned it into a geology lesson that takes you back more than 15 million years. A core sample in a glass cylinder stretches just about the length of the station, to a time of volcanic activity, when as much as 500 cubic miles of lava in a single flow would sweep over the landscape at up to 30 mph. As you look at the display, a train comes rumbling out of the tunnel. Very cool.
Founded in 1887, The Oregon Zoo’s 64 acres are home to animals from all corners of the world, including Asian elephants, Peruvian penguins and Arctic polar bears, who are presented, as much as possible, in a “habitat”. About 1,029 specimens representing 200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are on view; of these, 21 species are endangered and 33 are threatened. The zoo’s botanical garden has more than 1,000 species of exotic plants, including firebird heliconia, pelican flower, and ground orchid.
More than mere displays, though, the Zoo does a fantastic job as a center for conservation, research and education, as well as a place of discovery and fun. Though “zookeepers notes,” “caretaker talks” and a host of other activities, the Oregon Zoo does an excellent job of engaging people of all ages (in fact, you can have VIP encounters, at $100 for nonmembers, behind-the-scenes encounters at $40 and family encounters at $30, 503-220-2781, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to register or for information). A summer concert series, seasonal events such as the winter ZooLights festival, and the Zoo Railway help this popular Oregon attraction draw more than one million visitors each year. (Allocate about 2-4 hours. Open year-round; Adults/$9.50, seniors/$8, youth 3-11 $6.50, 4001 SW Canyon Road, 503-226-1561 www.oregonzoo.com).
An attraction within the zoo, The Zoo Railway, is a delightful way for families to enjoy a four-mile ride on a five-sixths scale replica of yesteryears’ iron horses-there is a western-style coal-powered locomotive, a 50s style engine and other classic train styles. Unlike the Bronx Zoo’s wonderful safari train, which gives you a close view of animals, this is a ride through the forest of Washington Park; it stops at a station at the other end, where you can get off to visit The Rose Garden, Japanese Garden or let the kids romp in the Rose playground, reboarding another train after visiting for the return to the zoo. It is the last operating railway to offer (and receives requests from around the world) for its unique postal cancellations. ($3/adult, 2.25/children and seniors).
Directly across from the Zoo is the World Forestry Discovery Center Discovery Museum. A $7.5 million reincarnation of an exhibit that has been around since 1971, it has been made interactive and more engaging, mainly utilizing video in a creative way. The theme is the vital importance of forests to human society, and how each forest is different, from climate zones and cultures. One of the most effective ways it does this is you take a world “tour”: Ride the Trans-Siberian railroad to view a boreal forest (the video images appear out the windows); view temperate forests from your seat on a Chinese boat; explore subtropical forests on a Jeep safari; get a bird’s eye view of a tropical Brazilian forest from inside a canopy crane; visit the Krieger National Park by seaplane. You can sit in a “parachute” that descends into a forest to fight fire (there is the smell of smoke) and try your hand at the controls of a harvester (by video).
A second floor gallery is devoted to temporary exhibits that explore art, history and culture from around the world. During my visit, I was fortunate to see a fascinating exhibit of rare carvings in ebony from the Makonda, in East Africa (on view through September 17). Some 60 of these exquisite sculptures, so revealing about the traditions and history of this tribe, which was originally from Mozambique, but now is based in the southern Tanzanian highlands. Restricted in the jobs they could pursue, the carvings were even used as currency. This rare collection, on loan from Chaim Sil, includes the world’s largest Makonde carving, a 19-foot crocodile, and a group of Ujama, which are somewhat like a totem pole, displaying how people are supported by their ancestors who came before.
The museum is unusual, and is telling because forests and lumbering are so important to Oregon. $7/adult, $6/senior, $5/3-18, www.worldforestry.org
A short distance from here, you can experience the splendors of a forest habitat, at the Hoyt Arboretum, home to plants from all seven continents. This is a 185-acre hiker’s paradise with more than 1,100 species of trees and 12 miles of trails, so remarkable because it is within an urban setting. At the south end of the arboretum are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a Holocaust Memorial. (Free, open year-round. Free guided tours are offered weekends, April through October, at 2 p.m. Visitor center offers maps, trail guides and information.)
I took advantage of my metro day pass to hop the Washington Park shuttle bus, just outside the zoo, to get to the Japanese Garden, located just above the International Rose Garden.
Try to visit the Japanese Garden toward the end of the afternoon, when the complete tranquility of this place will envelope you. You enter through a traditional gate, and walk a serpentine gravel path higher and higher until you are 500 feet above the city (a shuttle bus is provided for those who are not able to walk the path).
This 5.5-acre oasis is known as the most authentic Japanese Garden outside Japan, displaying five garden styles (the Strolling Pond Garden, the Natural Garden, the Sand and Stone Garden, the Flat Garden and the Tea Garden), a tea house and a pavilion. Designed to take advantage of “borrowed scenery,” the garden showcases the immensely tall Douglas firs of the surrounding Washington Park. You follow its winding pathways to a koi pond, over bridges, passed a dramatic waterfall and raked stone areas. Japanese gardens have an ancient history influenced by Shinto, Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, manifested in the interplay of plants, stones, water, the sound of the waterfall, the movement and color of the Koi, the curved lines and changes in elevation-you find yourself lost in contemplation of small things and narrow views, rather than become overwhelmed by seeing everything at once. Celebrating more than 40 years of beauty and harmony, the garden’s elements are designed to inspire meditation, reflection and calm. (Open year-round. $8/A, 6.25/Sr and college; $5.25/students, 503.223.1321, www.japanesegarden.com).
The Governor Hotel
Historic hotels are more than architectural treasures. They provide a unique connection to a place, somehow encapsulating the story of the people and events that shaped it, through good times and the bad, and hopefully, back again to prosperity.
Staying at The Governor Hotel, \an architectural treasure listed on the National Register of Historic Places, we felt very connected to this place and this pioneer city’s remarkable embrace of progress and preservation.
Opened in 1909 as the Seward Hotel, it was built in the boom years following the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition, which was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous explorers’ arrival in the Pacific Northwest. The hotel immediately became one of Portland’s finest and was billed as “the hotel of quiet elegance.”
America’s last “handmade” buildings, with an Arts and Crafts-inspired exterior detailing and interior furnishings, architect William Knighton employed his beloved bell motif throughout the property, such as in the stained-glass dome room in the restaurant, and along several walls and pedestals.
The older hotel building is connected internally to the newer Princeton Building, built in 1923. It was loosely modeled after the Farnese Palace in Rome. You can see a number of Italian Renaissance flourishes, particularly in the aptly named Renaissance Room and the Grand Ballroom on the third floor. There are historic photographs and reproductions of original blueprints in the second and third floor hallways. Originally the Portland’s Elk’s Lodge, the building also housed the WPA, a World War II induction center, and several Portland businesses before being incorporated into the hotel.
As so many of these historic hotels, The Governor had fallen on hard times and languished until it was bought in 1986 by a partnership dedicated to restoring it to a first-class hotel. The design team of Stastny Architects (which did the 1984 renovation of the Princeton Building) and Candra Scott & Associates restored the original structure and took pains to infuse the sense of Oregon’s history and spirit.
The principals of both firms are Oregon natives and the teams worked painstakingly to record and catalogue the historic details throughout the building, even sifting through layers of carpeting to uncover the original carpet design. Furnishings were recreated from research of the international arts and crafts movement and a study of the history of the Northwest.
Reopened in 1992 as The Governor Hotel, it was acquired by the Grand Heritage Hotel Group in late 2003, which undertook a multi-million dollar renovation that refreshed and updated the décor in a most pleasing way.
In essence, The Governor is actually a new hotel within a historic shell. All the guestrooms were completely redone (originally, most of the guestrooms did not have private bathrooms).
The original hotel did not have a kitchen or dining facilities; the new incarnation turned the original lobby and guest lounge into a fabulous restaurant, Jake’s Grill, which exudes atmosphere and manifests the hotel’s Northwest theme. One full wall of the restaurant is a massive mural, painted in four sections, depicting the history of the Northwest. Though the painting is actually contemporary, by San Francisco artist Melinda Morey, you would think it is 100 years old. It traces the journey of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and in the last panel, depicts a dramatic, windswept image of Sacajawea, looking across the Oregon Coast to the Pacific.
The revitalized Governor retains that same sense of “quiet elegance,” of the original, delivering luxury and style. Earning an AAA Four Diamond rating, the Governor has also been named one of the “Top 500 hotels in the World” by Travel & Leisure magazine.
As befitting a luxury hotel, it offers 24-hour room service, concierge, valet parking, voice mail, turndown service, morning newspaper, coffee in the lobby (and coffee makers in the room), overnight shoeshine and terrycloth robes in the rooms. (Despite this elegance, families would feel completely comfortable.)
The hotel affords 100 guest rooms including 24 suites, some with dramatic views of the city’s skyline; some rooms have fireplaces, wet bars, jet baths, terraces or skylights.
A convenience is the Starbuck’s in the grand lobby, plus a stunning lounge that is set off like a living room (with computer terminals as well as fireplace and comfortable sofas).
Its restaurant, Jake’s Grill, harkens back to the 1910s when grills were the rage. Embracing American tradition, it features meat and seafood served in a classic, uncomplicated way (it’s sister restaurant, Jake’s Famous Crawfish, was established in 1892).
The hotel is within walking distance of just about everything, but also is around the corner from the Street Car and Light Rail, which gets you just about anywhere, including the airport.
Clearly a favorite, there were four weddings underway the weekend we visited.
The Governor Hotel is a member of Historic Hotels of America (www.historichotels.org ). (614 SW 11 Ave., 503-224-3400, 800-554-3456, www.governorhotel.com ). Various packages are available at the website, such as the “Portland Oregon Governor Hotel All Around Town Package,” which includes overnight accommodations in a Superior Guest Room, overnight Parking, and a breakfast voucher for two to Jake’s Grill, priced from $185.
For further information, the Portland Oregon Visitor Association has an excellent website with information about attractions, accommodations, travel packages, 87-PORTLAND (toll-free, 1.877.678.5263),www.pova.com.
© 2006 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com .