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McMenamins says hi to site of many goodbyes

North Portland funeral home gets a creative makeover
by: JIM CLARK, The transformation of Little Chapel of the Chimes mortuary shows the trademark McMenamins redo: original fixtures, such as a sconce by iron artist O.B. Dawson, contrast with modern pieces celebrating the building’s history, in this case a portrait of longtime organist Germaine Webster.

The McMenamin brothers - known for acquiring neglected historic properties and converting them into theaters, pubs or hotels - are used to hearsay. An elementary school closes, and neighbors begin speculating that it might reopen as the next Kennedy School.

But morbid tongues have been wagging since the company announced it would convert the Little Chapel of the Chimes mortuary on North Killingsworth Street into a family pub.

It was rumored the crematorium would be turned into a pizza oven. In fact, the previous owners - who sold the property in a move to consolidate their assets - removed the second-story crematorium before the McMenamins took possession of the building.

'Where was the embalming room?' people ask. (It was upstairs.)

And then there are the jokes: 'Let's go to McMenamins for a stiff one.'

When Clarence and Bertha Wilson acquired the property in the 1930s, they hired underemployed artisans of the Great Depression to construct a palatial funeral home, the penultimate resting place for the dearly beloved and a comforting environment for the bereaved.

Wrought-iron balustrades and gates were crafted by O.B. Dawson, who oversaw the original ironwork at Timberline Lodge. A 1926 Robert Morton organ - once the musical centerpiece of the Strand Theatre in Seaside - was installed in a small room off the chapel to provide traveling music for the glory bound.

'Once the press broke the story that McMenamins had acquired the property I got this call from an older woman who wasn't angry,' says company historian Tim Hills, 'she was just confused. She said, 'I just don't understand how McMenamins could buy a building where my relatives are buried.'

'As far as we knew there weren't any interments here,' Hills says. 'Fortunately, the corporation that sold this to us, and is in the process of consolidating various funeral homes in the area, had moved all of their records to Ross Hollywood Chapel. They found her family's record, and the remains had been given back 60 years ago.'

Crystal tips off serendipity

Hills began working for the McMenamins in 1995 before their renovation of the Crystal Ballroom, which opened in '97.

'I've always had a fascination for history since I was a little kid,' he says, 'but I never expected to make a living doing it.' As historian for McMenamins, his enterprise is to unearth the history of the properties the chain acquires.

A Vermont native, Hills and his wife, Andrea, moved to Portland in 1993 after completing graduate school at Washington State University in Pullman. They became habitués of such McMenamins venues as the Bagdad Theater and the Fulton Pub.

'I loved those places and always had a really good time,' he says. 'But I always left with questions like 'What was this place?' 'How long has it been around?' 'What happened here?'

'Essentially I put that in a letter to Mike and mailed it to him. It was just dumb luck because it was exactly when they were looking for someone to really get the history of the Crystal,' he says. 'They weren't advertising the position. I had no idea they were even thinking that way. It was just the right place at the right time.'

Hills searches for records, whether public - perhaps housed at the National Archives in Seattle - or private documents gathering dust in a home. The part of his job he really enjoys is talking to people who have stories and memories about a property.

'One great contact is when a story is run in the paper and people become aware this project is going on,' Hills says. 'They may have stories or some connection with the property. They get in touch with us and tell us a couple of other names. We have hundreds of interviews we've taped over the years.'

The accumulated stories and photographs are sometimes turned over to artists, whose paintings reference historical characters or episodes at the property or in the neighborhood.

One portrait in the Chapel Pub is of organist Germaine Webster with the multiple arms and hands of a Hindu goddess.

'We have a lot of stories about her,' Hills says. 'She was one of those people who had done this so long, she'd be playing for a service here and people would be coming and going with flower deliveries, staff coming and going through the organ room, and they'd often engage in conversation or she'd have to sign for something. It was like she had six hands. She could do all these things at once. And that's what the artist did with the image of that story.'

Paying homage, with a wink

McMenamins has moved its corporate offices from the Mission Theater to the second floor of the building on Killingsworth, space that once served as living quarters for funeral home proprietors and a display room for caskets.

Once filled with pews, the chapel now is the location of the bar. During memorial services, the minister stood next to the casket behind the open wrought-iron gates, in front of the chimes.

Before the renovation, the opaque glass windows in the bar divided the chapel from the 'slumber rooms,' where family and friends could view the departed. That area now houses the kitchen.

Peripheral spaces on the ground floor - used for families to gather before a service - are now dining areas.

There was discussion as to how McMenamins might (or whether it even should) pay homage to the original function of the building.

'We could have gone the way of trying to commemorate everyone who ever had a service here,' Hills says, 'but that seemed really the wrong way to go and an impossible task; there was obviously so many over the years. The people, their life was over by the time they got here. We do obviously pay tribute to what it was and respect what it was, but we're not really memorializing. This is a new chapter.'

In their conservation and reuse of a building, Mike and Brian McMenamin avoid pinning the look to one era.

'The history is really about the life of the building,' Hills says. 'Certain buildings, like this one, really have not changed over time, significantly, at all. But to some extent they're playing away from that, too. It's like putting up psychedelic posters in buildings from the early 1900s. There's kind of a wink of the eye against the norm, I guess.'

When the Chapel Pub opens today, it will feature McMenamins signature burgers, salads and daily seasonal specials. Many folks have written, called or e-mailed, saying they had a loved one whose service was at the chapel, and they're coming back.

'One woman says she's coming back with the remains of her husband in an urn,' Hills says. 'She can't wait. Other people are saying, which I completely respect, 'I just can't bring myself to come here. There's too many memories.' '

Hills is gratified to work for a company that makes history a priority. This emphasis, of course, has come to define McMenamins' corporate image.

'If you celebrate the history you maintain the connections and sense of belonging of the surrounding community,' he says.

'People come back because they have their memories and they bring other people because they're proud of that. It's a symbiotic relationship. We get a reward more than financial. It legitimizes everything we do. … You know when you go in a McMenamins there's going to be some interesting history, décor and artwork.'

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