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Hotel returns to grand roots

TribTown • Architects confront damage, neglect to preserve Cornelius
by: L.E. BASKOW, Architect John Heili shows the current state of the Cornelius Hotel and describes plans to renovate it over the next year into the 66-room boutique Alder Park Hotel.

Though the bathhouse days of the downtown Cornelius Hotel are at an end, it isn't a renovation of the tiled bathing tubs that once served Portland's gay scene that architects had in mind during talks about the hotel's historic preservation.

The roughly 40-year-old tubs are still there, anchored in the now-vacant building's basement like an indoor version of Portland's Ira Keller Fountain. A nearby wall has at least one mural intended for a bathing audience.

But all that will be hidden by the time the 1908 building is reborn as a business-class hotel in June 2009.

By then, the tubs will be the forgotten part of the building's history.

Only the freight elevator that's destined to share the shaft with the classless mural will know the difference.

At the corner of Southwest Alder Street and Park Avenue, the Cornelius Hotel, owned by Portland developer Tom Moyer, will begin its transformation into the Alder Park Hotel in June.

Through the project, the building's 100-year history in Portland will be channeled into the newest downtown boutique hotel and armed - wireless Internet and all - for the 21st century.

Though it will lose all memory of its bathhouse days in the 1960s and 1970s, it will regain some of its former grandness of the early 1900s, when it was known as the 'House of Welcome.'

In its heyday, the hotel was operated by Dr. Charles Cornelius, who developed the building and named it for his family, which founded the town of Cornelius to Portland's west.

That locale was named for Cornelius' brother, Col. Thomas Cornelius. Their chief claim to history is that their father emigrated to Oregon with Joseph Meek, famed fur trader, lawman and politician, in a day when you could be all three.

It isn't just the Cornelius family history that makes the seven-story hotel unique. Its architecture is its main glory.

Built in the 20th-century baroque style, it is made entirely of brick - red on the interior and buff-colored on the exterior. Its grand windows and dormered roof, made from decorative sheet metal in a classic French style, are striking from the street and skyline.

'The building is on the (National) Historic Register, and we're doing a full historic preservation of the exterior,' said John Heili, principal architect with TVA Architects, the Portland firm leading the hotel's renovation for Moyer. 'As for the interior, most of that fabric is gone, but we'll be returning the coffered (ceiling) in the lobby.'

Where that 'fabric' - or the innards of the building - disappeared to is among the unsolved mysteries of its sordid years. Much of its character was sold off after an enterprising clan attacked its finer features with crowbars.

The walls have been stripped bare, the doors and doorknobs are gone, and the wainscoting that once lined its halls and stairs remains only in portions. Old radiators and even some of the windowsills also have vanished.

Today, the Cornelius is a drafty mess, strewn with dust balls and a few leftover pillows. It has been vacant for at least 10 years. Damage by a small fire in the 1980s indicates that vagrants occupied it even then.

Charged with reclaiming both the hotel's character and its dignity, architects plan to put most of their restoration ideas into what remains of the lobby, recovering an ornate coffered ceiling there and lowering the floor back to street level, to give the entrance the cathedral look it once had.

'It's fun,' Heili said. 'It's something different that we don't do every day, and so there is that history detective part of it, where you try to figure out what the building is about and what we should restore about it.'

Along with a new entry and a canopy that complements the building's original character, the hotel also will get a seismic upgrade, sprinklers, and new mechanical and electrical systems.

The exterior brick will be completely cleaned, plaster work will restore original accents where brick is damaged, and the sheet metal on the roof will be restored.

'For me, I think it's kind of unique because it's not a high-rise hotel; it's a little more quaint than that,' Heili said.

Heili said state historians who have reviewed the restoration plan don't want the architects to 'fake it' with features that aren't original. Once refurbished, the Alder Park's 66 hotel rooms will be made with newer materials that aim to build on the building's historical flair.

The rooms will be small, like original rooms in the Cornelius Hotel, approximately 220 square feet.

They will cater to business clients who like the privacy of their own bathroom but are social enough to enjoy meals on the town or in the ground-floor bar and restaurant.

New windows that mimic the original, large double-hung wood frames will give Portland visitors broad views onto the city's streets. They also will add a sociable element to the scene inside, recalling the busy scene that occupied this space through the early 1900s.

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