McMENAMINS ARTIFACTS TAP INTO HISTORY
If you live in Portland, chances are high that you've hung out at a McMenamins location at some point or another — it's one of the city's most ubiquitous brands.
What makes the McMenamins chain unique is its knack for acquiring items that once made up the fabric of "old Portland" — be it antique propellers, beams from destroyed historic buildings and other such items — and giving them a new life.
Most recently, last year, McMenamins salvaged a massive, 30-foot cherry-wood bar top that was previously in the famous Lotus Cardroom and Café, making its way to the Back Stage Bar, 3702 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. The historic drinking establish-ment closed last year after 92 years. Naturally, McMenamins came to the rescue.
"That's a reason that McMenamins likes and really seeks these artifacts that represent a certain period or a certain place that reverberates with people who have those same collective memories," says McMenamins' own in-house historian, Tim Hills.
Hills discussed with the Tribune the business of salvaging funky old items for new adventures, including the Lotus bar:
Items from hotel go to school
The Portland Hotel was a big old building that once occupied the space where downtown's Pioneer Courthouse Square now sits, from its opening in 1890 until its demolition in 1951.
Of course, when it closed, much went up for auction. People had 24 hours to take whatever they wanted that was still left in the building.
According to Hills, McMenamins folks met up with Lawrence Miller, who in 1951 paid $100 for some items at the time, including these "incredibly ornate beautiful iron braces" that were supports of the porticos outside, or the roof near the entrance where people could drive their carriages or cars.
When Mike and Brian McMenamin — the brothers who founded the company — were getting ready to open the Kennedy School, they were contacted by Miller and his wife, Dorothy, who were interested in donating the pieces so they'd be forever open to the public.
"In the hallways (at Kennedy) there are a number of big, long murals painted by our artist and the black iron borders are those braces from the Portland Hotel," Hills says. "They just add this touch and architectural flourish that's amazing and adds more depth to the whole experience of being there."
Additionally, the Cyprus Room, a small bar within the Kennedy School, has several light fixtures from the Portland Hotel.
Barley Mill's kitty litter grinder
This one's interesting. So in the middle of Barley Mill Pub on Southeast Hawtorne Boulveard and 17th Avenue, there's a strange fire-engine red contraption that was, at one point in time, used as a kitty litter grinder.
Why's such a thing inside the pub, you ask?
Well, apparently Oregon's first microbrewer, Charles Coury, in 1979 was desperate to get his new venture, Cartwright Brewing, up and running; it was on the other side of Hawthorne.
But there was a problem — there really wasn't much beer equipment around to buy, meaning folks interested had to get creative.
"So he went around to these different sales and different companies just to see what equipment he could get," Hills says. And he found a grinder, one that was originally made to grind up the material that cats use for that one certain purpose, and found an alternative purpose in grinding his barley for beer.
A true innovator, Coury showed people at the time that they didn't have to compete with the top dogs like Budweiser.
"You could do a small operation, you could create your own type of beer," Hills says.
But there was yet another, more serious problem. Coury's beer, unfortunately, wasn't of the delicious variety.
"His business limped through for about a year or a year and a half or so, and he was forced to close," Hills explains.
The McMenamin brothers picked up that old kitty litter mill and installed it in their location.
As a fun annual tradition for the McMenamins, on their "brew-versary," which is in June, they drink a special beer brewed a month prior using barley ground up in the kitty mill.
They celebrate at their Hillssdale Brewery, which was their first brewpub opened in 1985.
One has to wonder if it's very tasty.
The massive pub behind Bagdad Theatre, aptly called the Back Stage Bar, recently got a brand new bar top — the 30-foot cherrywood antique from the 1880s that was previously the centerpiece of the Lotus Café and Bar, which closed last year. A high-rise hotel will take the café's place.
Neither Hills nor anyone else knows much about the bar top's history pre-1962, when it was acquired by the Lotus owner at the time, Kenneth Wilkinson.
"It's said to date to 1889 ... It didn't show up to the Lotus until 1962 and there's different stories of where it had come from," Hills says.
Apparently there's a bullet hole in it, though it was patched up and isn't easily visible. Also, a compete twin of the bar exists in the world somewhere, although no one knows where it's at. It was, at one point, in the old Hoyt Hotel, which closed in the 1970s.The property was liquidated and the bar top lost.
"Of course the Lotus was just one of those remarkable spots anyway, so to have this storied kind of mystery, since we didn't know where it was coming from, it added intrigue to it and of course the Lotus already had lots and lots of intrigue," Hills says. "Perfect fit."