BY BRIAN LIBBY
For more than 70 years after it was constructed in 1929, the Mission style on Milwaukie Avenue in Portland's Sellwood district was a quiet place where families bid goodbye to loved ones. But like the Chapel Pub in North Portland operated by the McMenamin's chain, The Woods not only has not only resurrected a funeral parlor, but introduced a celebratory mood seemingly at odds with the building's past yet finding a wonderful hand-in-glove fit in the old building.
The venue for a succession of local and touring acts, The Woods' hardwood floors, chandeliers and spaciousness evoke a kind of decayed elegance. This isn't a dank, filthy, cramped club like the celbrated rock venues of yesteryear, be it CBGB in New York or Satyricon in Portland. At The Woods you can not only bask a few feet away from the performing band, but you can wander around the corner to a quiet lamp-lit cubbyhole with copies of old tomes like The Book of Knowlege placed thoughtfully, if ironically, on the adjacent coffee table. Or you can wander out to the adjacent patio for a smoke (these are rock bands and their fans, after all, the last and greatest of tobacco loyalists), or peer from behind curtains seeminly picked out by Granny at the hipster-approved Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign.
"The atmosphere is part club-house, part secret society," the venue's website aptly proclaims. "Patrons will feel they have stumbled upon another world: candle-lit, eccentric yet stately. Karaoke, avant stand-up comedy and movie screenings are scheduled regularly on non-musical performance nights."
Or, as Woods business partner Richie Young described to the Portland Mercury, "like a 1930s lobby in the fanciest hotel in Missoula, MT... When you walk in there we don't want you to see any new technology except the PA, just kinda have this feeling you could be at a clubhouse in the '30s or '40s."
As it happens, this isn't the only Mission-style old building in Sellwood devoted to the dearly departed - although the ony one with rock shows. A few weeks ago I visited The Portland Memorial, a mausoleum that is the final resting place for many formerly prominent locals. One sees enduring family names there like Jantzen (of the apparel company) as well as forgotten but fascinating people like Mayo Methot, the former wife of Humphrey Bogart (about whom I'm writing a Portland Monthly article). Even though they fought so viciously that Methot even once stabbed Bogart, he continued sending flowers to her mausoleum slot at the Portland Memorial until his own death several years later.
The stage at The Woods, formerly an in-house chapel, also reminded me of other arts spaces in town reclaimed from utterly different original buildings. At Milepost 5, for example, the housing development for artists on 82nd Avenue that used to be a retirement home, there is a wonderfully intimate and cozy small theater and performance space that was formerly the facility's in-house chapel. From the preserved pews where Gladice, Doris and Abigail said once said their prayers, Tyler, Ashley and Austin are screening experimental films and bobbing heads to bands.
Given how Portland culture is, via the Portlandia TV show and other currents from food carts to indie rock, enjoying a kind of popular moment in the broader national zeitgeist, there's the temptation to look at these converted spaces and joke about how an old funeral home as rock club is just part of the increasingly cliche hipster surroundings: a utopian society for people in their 20s who simply "put a bird on it" to make art but earn a Ph.D in animal geneology for every chicken they order at dinner, all the while making sure their pants are tapered just so or their circus stilts are ideally absurd. Yet in converted arts spaces like The Woods there is something more authentic going on than any surface-level satire has the shovel to mine. Every society worth its mettle converts old architectural spaces into new ones. Yet the West Coast, for all its progressiveness in many social and political realms, trails the East Coast when it comes to appreciating the beautiful patina of old buildings and the handed baton of history that accompanies such renovations.
Maybe it's ironically funny and cool that rock bands are playing in an old funeral chapel, but it's also a genuinely inviting space with more built-in character than could ever be manufactured in a from-the-ground-up new venue. We're learning here, over the generations, the value in using what we have. It's not just more sustainable, but simultaneously deeply meaningful and frivolously fun. Like cities themselves, preservation isn't just about old and new architectural spaces versus old ones or natural settings versus built ones, but hybrids of both that are stronger than the sum of their parts. It's a matter, you could say, of seeing The Woods for the trees.