- This story was sent to you by: =Lou=
...for all the destructive, unimaginative wrecking-ball-mentality cement-heads out there, as in the recent Grand Theatre saga this week (and all the others), once in a great while a dreamer and a do-er will show up. Here are two of them...
Oregon's Brian and Mike McMenamin rescue historic properties and give them a quirky twist
By Robert K. Elder
Tribune staff reporter
January 28, 2004
PORTLAND, Ore. -- This story contains corrected material, published Jan. 28, 2004.
When the McMenamin brothers went back to school, they bought the building.
True, they didn't actually attend classes at Northeast Portland's Kennedy School, but it resembles the Oregon grade schools where they studied. The difference: Their detention room now serves McMenamins' own Hammerhead Ale and Terminator Stout. A heated soaking pool steams up a courtyard, and overnight patrons slumber in antique-furniture-laden classrooms. Original blackboards remain on the walls, chalk still in the trays.
Brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin have turned the former grade school, once a boarded-up neighborhood eyesore, into a center of civic pride: a 35-room multiuse hotel, complete with four pubs (including the Detention Bar), a movie theater and its own on-site brewery. One of 52 McMenamins properties opened since 1983, the Kennedy School embodies the brothers' grass-roots empire built on the Northwest's appreciation for local art, longing for community and thirst for handmade microbrews.
"If there were a dozen more entrepreneurs like them, we wouldn't need a National Trust for Historic Preservation," says Anthony Veerkamp (the name as published has been corrected here and in subsequent references in this text). spokesman for the Western offices of that private non-profit organization.
More than just businessmen, according to Portland Mayor Vera Katz, the McMenamin brothers and their properties have been revitalizing agents in the city.
"In the early '70s there was an effort to restore historic buildings and a rethinking of what a great American city was," Katz says. "The McMenamin brothers have an eye; they have the ability to spot public places . . . and begin looking how not only to provide civic benefit but still make money."
McMenamins locations are treated like art installations with a beer tap and restrooms. Each one is designed and expanded to reflect neighborhood history and the people who visit there. Mike, the elder brother at 52, focuses on the design and art aspects of properties.
"I think if [Mike] wasn't an entrepreneur, he would have been a writer or a painter or a musician. He's a creative person who happens to be a businessman," says longtime McMenamins artist and collaborator Lyle Hehn. "He's not a hippie in any sense of the word. He's a very down-to-earth, practical person who goes through his day arranging things to be done."
Not that there has been some elaborate plan to marry the neighborhood pub to historic preservation and urban renewal, say the brothers. They can't quite explain why their ventures click in the Northwest. They say they don't even think about it, unless asked.
"It's always been an experimental, organically follow-your-interest, follow-your-excitement sort of thing," Mike says, sipping coffee with his brother in a corner booth at the Kennedy School's Courtyard Restaurant. "It keeps changing all the time still. It was hard to tell, though. It's always been the same thought, or the same non-thought."
The more understated of the two, Mike sports a bushy Santa Claus beard, jeans and workman's shirt with the sleeves rolled up (fashion sensibilities also shared by his younger brother). He also has more business experience, having first started opening eateries in 1974 with friends.
Brian, now 45, joined creative forces with his sibling nine years later and tends to focus on McMenamins' business interests. In conversation, they finish one another's thoughts, interrupting while the other nods in a "couldn't-have-said-it-better-myself" gesture.
Both political science graduates of Oregon State University, they seem an unlikely pair to have masterminded one of the Pacific Rim's most successful businesses. They call themselves "guerrilla restaurateurs," although a list of McMenamins' properties paints them as much more.
Last year, they rescued Centralia's Olympic Club Hotel and Theater from abandonment. Before that, in 1997, Portland's legendary Crystal Ballroom, once home to acts such as James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Tina Turner, experienced rebirth as a concert venue in their hands.
"They've stuck to what they've known, despite the diversity of properties," Veerkamp says. "Their enormous customer loyalty seems to show a lot of respect for the community they are setting up in. They seem to have an `act locally' philosophy where they really respond to the sensibilities of the area."
The most ambitious project was 1990's conversion of suburban Troutdale's weed-infested, barbed-wire-ringed "poor farm" into McMenamins' flagship property. Named Edgefield, the property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and boasts a sprawling 38 acres of pubs, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast rooms, a winery, a movie theater, a conference center and a golf course.
Each property has its own look, says artist Hehn, who helps cultivate the quirky visual design of each place, from the goofy faces painted on pipe joints (called "pipe people") at Edgefield to hidden messages in historically themed murals throughout the locations.
"There's a sense of mischief that people appreciate," Hehn says. "If you're going to have the public looking at stuff, you can play all kinds of games."
Each location receives a full regiment of local color, from ceramic artists and painters to sculptors and stained-glass artists. One in a small army of regional artists including Jennifer Joyce, Myrna Yoder and Joe Cotter, painter Hehn attributes his longevity with the McMenamins to "stamina . . . the ability to work at a construction site on ladders, at all hours, in bad light."
Although it's not uncommon for communities to repurpose historic buildings, no one has done it quite on the McMenamins' scale or commitment to Oregon artists, says the National Trust's Veerkamp.
"Their projects seem organic and to come out of the places where they are," he says. "I don't know another example like that [in the country]. I'm really highly impressed with their work."
Similar project in St. Louis
Joe Edwards, best known for revamping St. Louis' Blueberry Hill from a warehouse into a hip burger joint and concert venue, says urban renewal isn't for the half-hearted businessman or weekend preservationist.
"There are a lot simpler ways to do things with real estate than they are doing," he says of the McMenamins. "But the rewards are greater too. The contributions are greater."
Edwards should know, he has helped St. Louis' Delmar Boulevard grow from almost complete decay to the home of more than 100 unique storefronts. Among them are his own rehabbed Tivoli Theater and the Pin-Up Bowl, a nostalgic art deco alley that opened Dec. 12. The McMenamins' success gives him hope for St. Louis and other cities focusing on renewal, he says.
"I think it's phenomenal and a positive sign that if things are done properly, they can succeed long term," Edwards says.
But in their pursuit of doing things properly, the McMenamin brothers say they operate with no plan, no corporate blueprint.
"Our kind of thing is learn by doing, and there's a lot of expense in that," Brian says, laughing.
A conscious anti-branding ideology also permeates the pubs -- few of them are actually called McMenamins.
Instead, each carries a name unique to the building's history, such as Forest Grove's Grand Lodge or the Cornelius Pass Roadhouse and Imbrie Hall. Calling each place McMenamins, Brian says, would be "too conforming."
"We want each place to have its own identity," Brian says. "It's a natural thing when you get bigger to make everything the same, but we fight that all the way, for better or worse."
Mike answers: "The typical bank thought is do the same thing if you're successful at it, and keep doing it. But that's not very much fun. And it's fun to keep experimenting. You just see that the value of something is not just in dollar and cents over a period of time."
Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune
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