By Molly • Molly Walker • 

Years of history highlighted in Hotel Oregon

Marcus Larson / News-Register
Remodeled 15 years ago, the Hotel Oregon is a centerpiece of downtown McMinnville.
Marcus Larson / News-Register
Remodeled 15 years ago, the Hotel Oregon is a centerpiece of downtown McMinnville.

In May 1976, a developer proposed turning the old hotel, described as a “historic” but “slowly decaying” edifice, into a senior citizen housing complex. But the plan hinged on Section 8 financing from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was not forthcoming.

Had the financing come through, the multi-story structure would feature 33 apartments for the elderly. Instead, it has rooftop and cellar bars, a bustling ground-floor restaurant and an assortment of B&B-style rooms on the second, third and fourth floors, thus serving as a major local tourist magnet.

Over its long history, Hotel Oregon has seen its share of changes.

The building was constructed in 1905 as a the two-story Hotel Elberton by developers Fenton & Link. They upper floors were added five years later.

The original proprietor was Thomas White, who first came to McMinnville to build the original Columbus School. A one-time restaurateur, he would continue to operate the facility until two months before his 1932 death.

Tim Hills, a historian employed by brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin, was able to connect with grandson Pete White after the McMenamins made the commitment to renovate the grand old hotel in the late 1990s. Hills brought him from Portland to offer his insights before the McMenamins launched their  endeavor.

White, in his 80s by then, “walked through and had this whole vision of it 70 years earlier,” Hills said.

The third and fourth floors were added in 1910, following announcement that a pair of new commuter rail lines would serve to link McMinnville to Portland. An electrical system was installed in conjunction with the expansion.

However, only one rail line actually was built, and it didn’t start service until 1914. As a result, the fourth floor remained unfinished until the McMenamins took over in 1998.

After White’s death, a $5,000 renovation project was launched. It resulted in provision of hot and cold running water and an elevator — elements that would be considered utterly basic in any four-story building today.

Ethel Clark Fuller took control on White’s death and began operating the establishment as the Oregon Hotel. She gave way to Portland hotelier Arnold “Nic” Nicolai in 1945.

The Nicolais continued to run the establishment until 1967, when a burst pipe put them out of business, and owned it until the 1970s.

Hills also managed to track down Nic’s son, Tom, who grew up in an apartment the Nicolai’s created in the southwest corner of the otherwise unfinished fourth floor. And it was still there when the McMenamins took over..

“He looked up into the rafters and said, ‘There’s my tree fort,’” Hills recalled.

He said Tom also showed him a pen he built for his puppy and graffiti he’d scrawled on the walls. “He had a great memory,” Hills said.

A bus depot operated from the ground floor. Tom said one of his childhood duties was filling a box with candy bars, snacks and nuts and hawking them to bus passengers.

A winter freeze eventually did the Nicolais in. Water froze in the plumbing system, causing pipes to burst in many of the rooms, and the damage was more than they could manage.

When McMenamins embarked on their renovation more than 30 years later, Hills said, they had to gut the entire structure and install a steel framework. He said that served a dual purpose, both bringing the building into compliance with seismic codes and permitting construction of a rooftop bar.

However, he said efforts were made to match the original historical character of the structure wherever possible. As a result, the hotel’s history is told in multiple ways.

The Paragon Room is named after a night club operating there in the 1940s and 1950s, independently of the hotel. It’s proprieter was Mattie Hanna, and the McMenamins named a second-floor room after her.

Hills said Hanna was of Irish heritage, like the McMenamin brothers, and knew how to throw a party. So the hotel not only throws a St. Patrick’s Day party every year, but also a half way to St. Patrick’s Day party at mid-point between.

In preserving and celebrating the history of facilities like McMenamins Hotel Oregon, one of the brothers’ half-dozen or so signature projects in Oregon and Washington, it helps define the properties and their communities, he said.

The rooms in Hotel Oregon all bear names, the majority belonging to individuals associated with either the hotel or community.

Asked if he had a favorite story from the hotel’s past, Hills said it’s hard to say, because there are so many. But he ended up settling for the story of Harry Devlin.

On the eve of World War II, the hotel was having a hard time keeping the lights on. But once the war got underway, troops started moving through the state and business picked up.

Devlin was an FBI agent dispatched to the West Coast to monitor radio traffic for signs of Japanese submarine activity offshore. He set up a powerful receiver in the Amity area and took up residence in the hotel for the duration of the war.

In the process, he fell in love with the proprietor’s niece, Patty. After the war, they married and settled in McMinnville.

Forced to part ways with the FBI and launch a new career, Devlin embraced the law and eventually became a Yamhill County circuit judge.

McMinnville’s annual UFO Festival was launched by the McMenamins not too long after they opened the hotel.

Hills said that the Trent case — where UFO photographs were taken on a farm near McMinnville in 1950, published in the Telephone-Register and picked up nationwide — has no direct tie to the hotel. But it fits because of the impact it has had on the community, he said.

Chris Miller has been serving as property manager since October. He previously served as assistant general manager at the Lodge at Suttle Lake in Sisters.

“It still feels like a smaller family business to me,” Miller said, even though the McMenamins have come to operate more than 60 of pubs around the Northwest. He said the family remains involved in every property it owns.

With ground-floor and rooftop bars, each doubling as restaurants, plus a cellar bar, multiple event venues and an array of rooms, there’s plenty to manage, Miller said. With so many moving parts, it’s never boring, he said.

When the rooftop bar opens its multi-level outside seating, it doubles the establishment’s restaurant capacity, Miller said. He said few outsiders would realize what a big difference that makes — enough to force him to hire more help.

He said another of Hotel Oregon’s secrets is its cellar bar, accessed by a rather obscure entrance. But by offering live music every weekend, he said, it has developed a lot of local fans.

The hotel rooms are European-style, featuring shared bathroom facilities down the hall. And they don’t contain amenities like TV sets.

For some visitors, that can pose issues, Miller said. But he said it’s greatly appreciated by others.

He said another big draw is the building’s history, on display not only through its well-restored and preserved architecture, but also through words and paintings adorning the walls throughout. It is faithful to its period of construction, he said.

Miller suggests people who haven’t visited before take the elevator to the rooftop, then work their way down the stairs, flight by flight. That will give them the full flavor of what McMenamins Hotel Oregon has to offer, he said.

The hotel is located at 310 N.E. Evans St., where it anchors McMinnville’s Downtown Historic District.

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