All that's left of a hotel where Bobby Kennedy still has an unpaid bar tab is the entrance to a fondue restaurant.
Downtown on Sixth Avenue and Main Street today stands the Congress Center building, a glassy office tower built in 1980. But the previous occupant of this corner site was once an intrinsic part of the city's culture and built environment: the Congress Hotel.
Recently, as part of the Portland Development Commission's Storefront Improvement Program, the street level windows of the Congress Center office building were outfitted with an informational display and photos configured by Portland retail design firm Vizwerks intended to evoke the history and feel of the old hotel, which was demolished in 1977.
The Congress Hotel has a colorful and compelling history. Completed in 1912 from a design by architect Herman Brookman, it was the city's first reinforced concrete Class A building. Concrete was mixed onsite and winched up the eight stories by a primitive elevator. The hotel itself was also a progressive project for being spearheaded by a woman, Hedwig Smith according to an Oregonian article from 1977. Her husband had become wealthy from the Smith Brothers Iron Works company but become ill, leaving Hedwig and their son to found the hotel. After World War I made Smith Brothers even bigger, she expanded the hotel in 1924.
The 119-room Congress Hotel was the place to stay and to hang out in Portland, particularly with its Pompeiian Room lounge. Local Congresswoman Edith Green and mayor Frank Ivancie held victory parties there. Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and even Robert Kennedy stayed there. The hotel actually had difficulty with the bills for all three. According to an Oregonian article from 1977, "The ex-vice president's tab, including the T-bone steaks he ate with catsup, was finally paid. A settlement was reached with McCarthy. The Kennedy bill was written off."
Standing there today, the Congress Center is a rather oppressive building in terms of its interaction with the street and nearby architecture. Although it has a handsome enough hexagonal form, courtesy of architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (this, along with the US Bancorp Tower - "Big Pink" - was one of the last SOM buildings in Portland), its darkly tinted windows allow for no transparency, and its granite base seems incongruent with the lighter structure that rises from it.
Part of what killed the Congress Hotel and made the Congress Center possible was the building of the downtown Transit Mall. According to one of the hotel's final owners, Bill Martin, in the Oregonian article, during construction the hotel's business dropped by 41 percent. Giant piles of dirt and debris were even said to be left directly in front of the Congress's mahogany front doors.
If TriMet works hard to help businesses survive amidst construction today, as with the MAX construction on the Transit Mall in recent years, perhaps it's because the agency learned the hard way the importance of doing so. After all, while one it's not productive to blame the Congress Center building itself, in the hindsight of history I'd argue that Portland today would be better off with the hotel than the office that replaced it. Of course the Congress Hotel might have gone out of business anyway; there's no guarantee it would be around today even without the Transit Mall difficulty in the mid-'70s, as much for its cultural history as its architecture, although I admittedly find the old terra cotta and concrete hotel preferable stylistically to the '80s office tower with its almost oppressively unwelcome tinted glass.
For the Congress Hotel display project now at street level, the Vizwerks team (including Shauna Stinson, Erik Scholtes, and Randy Higgins with help from journalist Lisa Radon and former Oregon Historical Society director Chet Orloff) created a series of collages made from historic photos of the hotel and the streetscape as it then existed. In their research, Vizwerks also found in the Oregon Historical Society archives a street photo of pre-World War I Portland taken by the legendary photographer Minor White; it's the bottom left photo in the collage above.
A couple other fun factoids I learned from the 1977 Oregonian article about the Congress Hotel's closure and demolition: A 913-pound Hereford was once the honored guest at a banquet. And, according to the paper's BJ Noles, one in-house lunch spot, The River Room, "is swamped at lunch time with politicians doing a little log rolling over Chef Charles Altorfer's London broils. Chef of the Congress for 23 years, Altofer's sesame shrimp Fridays are a Portland tradition."
Perhaps it's fitting, then, given its foodie history, is that the one place you can still find physical remnants of the Congress Hotel is at the entrance to the underground Melting Pot fondue restaurant. Here the hotel's original terra cotta arches are festooned with fruits, flowers and rams.
"So what is spelled 'progress' for downtown," Noles concluded in 1977, "is spelling 'demolition' for the 65-year-old dowager and entertainer of lumbermen, politicians and show people."