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Historic Retreats: Portland’s Governor Hotel

One of the Pacific Northwest's finest landmarks offers history at every turn. By Demetra Aposporos

    The Governor's grand main entrance is a tribute to classical architecture, complete with pilasters, columns, carvings, and Greek key detailing.

    The Governor's grand main entrance is a tribute to classical architecture, complete with pilasters, columns, carvings, and Greek key detailing.

    Buildings, especially those on the National Register, don’t often have more than one architectural style. The Governor Hotel in Portland, Oregon, however, has a true split personality. On one side, it showcases a range of Arts & Crafts elements. On the other, it’s an exact copy of a 16th-century classical Italian building. So how did these two distinctive faces—initially separate buildings spanning the same block—come to be one complementary structure?

    The Governor Hotel began life in 1909 as The Seward, one of Portland’s finest establishments, promoted as “the hotel of quiet elegance.” Designed by Oregon’s first State Architect, William C. Knighton, it features his signature bell-shaped architectural elements throughout, on the interior woodwork, columns, and fireplace mantels. The Seward was considered one of the most unusual designs of its day, thanks to its integrity of design and mix of handcrafted woodwork, terracotta, and stained glass.

    It’s also known for the tall, geometric figures resembling robots that Knighton perched atop the building. “I’ve had kids on tour refer to them as Transformers,” says Jason Staats, chief concierge of The Governor, who adds that the design was very futuristic for its time. The figures actually show influences of the Austrian Secessionist movement, a European school of thought contemporaneous to the Arts & Crafts.

    The elaborate plaster detailing on the walls and ceiling of the Grand Ballroom, unearthed during the 2003 restoration, had been hidden by a two-story structure of office cubicles built inside the cavernous space.

    The elaborate plaster detailing on the walls and ceiling of the Grand Ballroom, unearthed during the 2003 restoration, had been hidden by a two-story structure of office cubicles built inside the cavernous space.

    The other side of the hotel was built in 1923 as the Portland Elks Lodge, designed by architects Houghtaling and Dougan to resemble Rome’s Farnese Palace, which was created largely by Michelangelo. “In the 1920s, fraternal organizations wanted to show how legitimate they were by adopting classical languages,” says Barry Smith, project architect for The Governor’s 2003 restoration. Showcasing inlaid marble, coffered ceilings, polychrome tile, and frescoes, the lodge space is fluent in classicism.

    The Elks lost the lodge in the Depression, and like so many grand buildings, it fell on hard times for a number of years. It housed soldiers during World War II, and one of its ballrooms served as a military induction center. “Hundreds of men went through the grand ballroom in their briefs, getting registered,” says Staats. Decades later, a two-story office space was erected inside the same room, complete with cubicles and a tiny shaft elevator. “There was actually a 39′-tall concrete and steel building inside the grand ballroom,” explains Smith. “Luckily it was installed off of the walls, so the plaster detailing was largely preserved—I think the architect who created it had some sensitivity about historic buildings.”

    It was this building within a building that turned the restorative tide. “The owner of Grand Heritage Hotels got a peek behind the office walls, and realized what a treasure was there—that’s what made him decide to buy the hotel,” explains Staats.

    “When he saw the bones of the room, he said, ‘Why isn’t this space a great ballroom, like it wants to be?’ ” says Smith.

    Frescoes line the vaulted ceiling of the Renaissance Room, an area where Elks Club members frequently held dinners.

    Frescoes line the vaulted ceiling of the Renaissance Room, an area where Elks Club members frequently held dinners.

    The massive restoration, led by Smith, included removing the cubicles, updating the major systems, finessing seamless connections between the two buildings (first joined in the 1980s), and moving the hotel’s reception desk from the Seward side to the Elks side to create a better flow. The biggest challenges, Smith says, involved adding modern requirements in a way that didn’t adversely impact the historic details. “We had to add lights in the ballrooms so they could be used, but we didn’t want them to overpower the spaces. So we hid them in the reveals to make it appear that they had always been there.” The lighting nicely complements the liberated 40′-tall Corinthian columns and pilasters that ring the room.

    Angular figures resembling modern-day robots ring the top of the Seward side, and have become one of the hotel's most famous features.

    Angular figures resembling modern-day robots ring the top of the Seward side, and have become one of the hotel's most famous features.

    To make the relocated reception area blend seamlessly, Smith’s team looked to the building for clues. “We copied the reception desk from the marble base of the Vault Room, which was the Elks’ money exchange area, and we decided to put a dome over it.” The stained-glass dome mimics an original installed over Jake’s Restaurant, which fronts the Seward side of the building. That dome has a famous story itself. Believed to have been designed by Knighton personally (it shows his signature bell), it was removed from the building by long-term tenants and luckily kept in storage for nearly two decades before it was restored and returned to its original location in 1990.

    Today, the hotel is an architectural wonder. From the impressive entry lobby boasting bronzed ceiling medallions, to the upstairs meeting rooms full of frescoes and statuary, to the rich woodwork and oversized murals depicting the journey of Lewis and Clark (Portland was a stop on their trail), the hotel offers up history and period-appropriate architectural detail at every turn. And let’s not forget those unusual rooftop figures, which are both memorable and mysterious, and which seem to make a lasting impression on everyone who sees them—especially Staats, who has a theory about their significance. “Personally, I think they were sentinels of some sort, like gargoyles, that were placed on the building to watch over and protect it.”

    You could argue that they’ve done a good job.

    Published in: Old-House Journal March/April 2009



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