Music, Art, History Create Distinctive Districts
By Karen Rubin
Modern, cosmopolitan, vibrant and vital, Portland is a city of distinct neighborhoods and districts that add to the color and quality and charm, a sense of community and participation. Each of the districts has its own special character, like “Nob Hill,” “Pearl District,” and “Old Town/Chinatown.”
During our stay at the historic Heathman Hotel, we quickly come to appreciate why this is the “Cultural District”. Indeed, The Heathman has a secret passage directly into the adjacent Arlene Schintzer Concert Hall, which was only discovered in 1984 during a renovation. The passageway is used by celebrities and VIPs (who you may well encounter riding up in the elevator), but guests can use it also, to steal away during intermission for a drink at The Heathman bar.
The Heathman is adjacent to the Portland Center for the Performing Arts and a hop, skip and jump away from Pioneer Courthouse Square, where concerts and “happenings” and gatherings are a regular occurrence.
In this city of books, The Heathman is on the itinerary of just about every author who comes to Portland on their book tour, which makes for one of its truly unique attractions: it has the most incredible library of more than 3,000 first-edition books autographed by the authors who have stayed at The Heathman during their Portland book tours (yes, there is even a signed Harry Potter by J.K. Rawlings! and Amy Tan’s “Joy Luck Club”), which guests can actually borrow. The library presently consists of glass-enclosed bookcases is in a pleasant but ordinary mezzanine lounge, but that is being re-done.
The hotel also boasts a $1.5 million collection of original Andy Warhol “Endangered Species” lithographs, which provides an unusual, but appropriately “quirky” theme to a hotel so intimately connected to the arts scene (a Warhol Suite, a celebration of Andy, features green walls, shag green rug, evocative of his endangered tree frog.)
The Heathman is at the hub of Portland’s cultural life and an integral part of its arts and cultural community. For years it has sponsored “Give to the Arts, Even in Your Sleep,” a program which donates a portion of the hotel’s weekend revenue to local arts organizations. Many of the hotel’s guest rooms feature views of the “Traveler’s Song” mural, a 9-foot high work by artist Hank Panders that was commissioned to adorn the interior wall of the attached concert hall.
The Heathman even has a local gallery curator bring local artwork to grace the hotel’s lobbies.
What is wonderful is how The Heathman epitomizes Portland’s embrace of dualities: progress and preservation, modern and classic, “Kind of now, kind of then.”
Indeed, The Heathman is very much au courant in its style, with the exception of an extraordinary Tea Court which looks as if it had been frozen in time, (this because the wood-paneled room with banquet in the center is graced by a 100-year-old crystal chandelier from Czechoslovakia that once was in the US Embassy, and 18th century canvases by French landscape artist Claude Gellee), as the rest of the hotel fast forwarded. A marvelous effect is that false windows change from amber during the day, to blue at night.
The Tea Court is the place Portlanders come to celebrate Christmas-all bedecked, not to mention that Oregon has no sales tax and shopping becomes a popular attraction.
It also is where you can find live-jazz, Wednesday through Saturday nights.
All that Jazz
Portlanders have cultivated the best in books, brews, coffee and jazz. The amount of live music that pours out of some of the most unexpected places catches you by surprise.
As we stroll about on a summer’s night just a few blocks from The Heathman, we come upon JAX, a live jazz club (between SW Taylor and Yamhill on 2nd Avenue), where the Hank Hirsch Quintet is playing; it’s Wednesday night when the group invites anyone to come and jam.
As we walk through Old Town, music pours out of clubs. Old Town today is a bustling arts and entertainment district where you can find some of Portland’s best music spots and comedy clubs. It also has one of the largest collections of cast-iron buildings in the U.S., second only to New York’s SoHo District.
Old Town has a mysterious past. Tunnels below the streets are reminders of the days when unsavory characters, like Joseph “Bunco” Kelly, a notorious hotelier, shanghaied thousands of unsuspecting sailors, loggers and ranchers, selling them to ship captains in need of crew members. From 1850-1941, able-bodied men were drugged, dropped through trapdoors, held in underground holding cells and later sold to sea captains. Old Town Pizza, one of the most popular places to eat at, happens to be located above one of the trap doors to the tunnels, and now is featured as one of Oregon’s most haunted places. (You can actually visit the Shanghai tunnels, through a company called Portland Underground Tours, which offers a 1 1/2 hour guided tour, $12 pp 12 and up, $7/child; tours are by appointment, and leave from Hobo’s Restaurant; call 503-622-4798, firstname.lastname@example.org ,www.shanghaitunnels.info).
Portland’s Chinatown makes up a significant part of Old Town and is defined by traditional facades, Chinese restaurants, red lamp poles and cherry trees. An elaborate ceremonial gate (at Northwest Fourth Avenue and Burnside Street), given to Portland by its sister city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, marks the entrance to Chinatown (www.oldtownchinatown.org ).
The pride of Chinatown is the Portland Classical Chinese Garden. Named Lan Su Yuan, or “Garden of Awakening Orchids,” it was developed as a friendship project between Portland and its sister city of Suzhou, China. Sixty Chinese artisans spent months lending their talent and expertise to the elegant design of this garden. The final result: a walled oasis with serpentine walkways, ponds, bridges, a tea house and a landscape of rock groupings, trees, sculpted shrubs, lattice screens and pavilions. Open year-round. Admission charged. (NW Everett St. and 3rd Ave., www.portlandchinesegarden.org
The Pearl District is another district that has gone through this extraordinary revitalization. Connected to the Cultural District by Portland’s Street Car (free, fun and convenient), this Greenwich-village type of district has become an enclave of artists, where industrial warehouses have been converted to loft-style condominiums and row houses, elegant cafes, exotic boutiques, and fine art galleries (www.pearldistrict.org).
Halls of Art, History, Science
One of the anchors of the Cultural District, just a short stroll from The Heathman, is the Portland Art Museum, where you can find works of Monet, Renoir and Picasso, but more notably, the most superb collection of Native American and Northwestern artists and those who were drawn by the spectacular landscape such as Childe Hassam. Who knew that Portland was such a center for art, and that nearby Willamette University in Salem in 1880 became the first institution of higher learning to offer a full art program? That the Fed government sponsored art programs during Depression, 1933-43, which included construction and development of the famous Timberline Lodge, at Mt. Hood? A marvelous exhibit, “Back to Work,” showed Oregon and the New Deal Art Projects, “Pioneering Modernism,” shows that this area was hardly a backwater for art, but rather, a trendsetter.
The range of art is truly impressive, but what makes the Portland Art Museum truly stand out is that it houses the most incredible and encompassing collection of Native American art (notably, not merely for anthropological and archeological importance, but for artistic quality).
The Portland is the oldest art museum in the Pacific Northwest, and, since 2000, one of the 25 largest in the country, having concluded a $45 million renovation and expansion of its Belluschi Building, and a $40 million historical restoration of the Mark Building, formerly a Masonic temple. The 141,000-square-foot Mark Building now boasts 28,000 square feet of additional gallery space in the new Center for Modern and Contemporary Art; an underground passage/gallery linking the two buildings; new space for the NW Film Center; a 33,000-volume Art Study Center and Library; and the renovated Sunken and Grand ballrooms. 1219 S.W. Park Ave.,503.276.4246, www.portlandartmuseum.org ).
Across from the art museum and a boulevard of parks is the Oregon Historical Society, which also has undergone a major ($3.75 million) expansion and renovation.
You also come to understand the source of the fanciful character that has come to define Portland. The city of Portland began rather in 1843 when William Overton and Boston lawyer Asa Lovejoy beached their canoe on the banks of the Willamette River. Lacking funds, Overton borrowed 25 cents from Lovejoy to stake the claim and promised him a share in the claim in return. Soon bored, Overton sold his share to Frances Pettyjohn, a native of Portland, Maine. Overton and Pettyjohn disagreed on whose hometown would become the inspiration for their newly cleared land and decided to flip a coin – the “Portland Penny”- to settle the issue.
From the actual penny used in the coin toss that decided Portland’s name, to oral histories based on the diaries of Oregon Trail travelers, the “Oregon My Oregon” permanent exhibit expands your image of who, how and why this region was settled. In a room filled with old maps, there was a fabulous film about early exploration, “In Quest of the Unknown.” You can see a Conestoga wagon, as it was outfitted for the journey on the Oregon Trail.
It also offers special exhibits of historical significance, and I was particularly fortunate to see “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” (on through September 16), a traveling exhibit from The Smithsonian Institution that features over 350 historic and personal objects reflecting the personalities of our nation’s leaders and the challenges of their presidencies. Pieces range from the personal, such as hats and clothing, and toys used by the presidents’ children, to the public, such as campaign buttons and mourning ribbons. Some items, including poker chips and golf clubs, show how the chief executives found diversion from the job.
The Oregon Historical Society offers fascinating insight into regional culture. Its collection comprises over 85,000 artifacts, including ancient objects from the earliest settlements and objects that illustrate exploration in the Oregon Country, the growth of business and industry, the development of artwork and crafts, and maritime history, among many other topics. The museum also houses one of the country’s finest regional research libraries and photo archives, which are often used for genealogical research. Open year-round. Admission charged (allocate about 2 hours to visit). (1200 S.W. Park Ave., 503.306.5221, www.ohs.org ).
Across the Willamette River, commanding a stunning riverfront location, is another of Portland’s cultural centers, the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (known as OMSI). The fifth largest science museum in the country, it houses a five-story domed OMNIMAX Theater (where we saw the new “Superman” feature film), the Kendall Planetarium, featuring state-of-the-art Digistar II and SkyVision projection systems (where I saw the Tom Hanks-narrated “Passport to the Universe” show that I had missed at New York’s American Museum of Natural History).
Here, you can experience an earthquake registering 5.5 on the Richter scale, touch a tornado, climb into a space capsule. The range and quality of the hands-on exhibits are really incredible, particularly in that there are activities to engage children as young as toddlers (with a marvelous playground where you actually “do” physics, and make projects like building a bug or a walking machine). Located on the Riverfront, you can also visit the USS Blueback, a Cold War-era U.S. submarine which was featured in the movie The Hunt for Red October. (Open year-round. Admission charged. 1945 S.E. Water Ave. 503.797.4537,www.omsi.edu ).
Portland makes it easy to visit its most popular attractions. The Portland Attractions Pass, lets you visit the 10 major attractions within a seven-day period for a fraction of the combined regular price. The pass is not valid with any other discount offer, group rate or advance ticket sales. Purchase the ticket (adult pass $25; child’s pass $20) at the Visitor Information Center at Pioneer Courthouse Square, where you can also see Weather Machine’s predictions at noon each day, and which, in season, is the locus for some 300 concerts and cultural festivals a year (www.pioneercourthousesquare.org).
Another value plan is the Portland Big Deal, now in its sixth year, which gives you a great rate on hotel accommodations, plus free parking, free continental breakfast daily, and discount vouchers for dining at participating restaurants and shopping. Each hotel has a different offer. The packages have to be booked at the website, www.travelportland.com .
The Heathman Hotel
A downtown landmark, The Heathman dates from 1927 when Portland was experiencing prosperity of lumber barons and railroad magnates, who appreciated the high class of Italian Renaissance architecture and Art Deco décor.
The 150 guest rooms, which have just undergone a $2.5 million renovation completed in March 2006, have an eclectic, Asian fusion sort of twist-sophisticated and stylish. All the furnishings have been designed for the hotel, and just about everything is available for sale (The Heathman will soon have an online store).
Another unique twist is that instead of just being able to choose your pillow, you can actually choose your bed type-Tempur-pedic, European pillow top, European feather bed. Guests have actually rotated rooms during their stay in order to experience each type.
In addition, each room includes waffle robes; private label imported soaps, shampoos and body lotion, private bars offering Pacific Northwest regional foods and beverages, and access to a complimentary video/DVD library with 500 top run films (just call the personal concierge, and they broadcast to your television).
Rather than the more conventional coffee maker, The Heathman has opted for a “French Press” so you make absolutely fresh coffee.
There is maid service twice daily.
Our room is a king suite, which has a foyer and a sitting room with a huge sofa/settee, desk and chair, TV, coffee carafe, and serves as an office or a place where you could host a meeting. There is a dressing area with a double-closet where an umbrella hangs, along with thick terry robe and slippers, double-sink.
The Heathman Restaurant and adjacent Marble Bar provides a comfortable setting. An exhibition kitchen lets you view the lively and award-winning culinary activity led by executive chef and James Beard Award winner Philippe Boulot (who comes from The Mark in New York).
The hotel offers a fitness suite and guests can also enjoy access to a nearby athletic club.
With features like these, The Heathman is the only hotel in Oregon to earn a Four Diamond, Four-Star rating for 21 consecutive years, and was named to Conde Nast Traveler’s 2005 Gold List, and on the 2005 and 2006 editions of Travel & Leisure’s World’s Best Hotels list.
The hotel exquisitely expresses Portland itself: embodying progress and preservation, modern and classic–and quirky. The hotel, independently owned by English company, Taylor Clark LLC (which is soon opening another Heathman Hotel in Kirkland, Washington) for the past 10 years has had its doorman outfitted in a kind of British beefeater costume, conveying its British tie.
Package selections include a Girls’ Night Out, where guests enjoy an executive room with two double beds, two Cosmopolitan cocktails upon arrival, two Happy Feet Packags at The Barefoot Sage, a local spa, and lunch at The Heathman Restaurant, plus valet parking ($184 pp); City Breaks offers a deluxe guest room and continental breakfast for two, plus valet parking ($189).
© 2006 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com .