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 60 Years of Memories for Albert Gentner as
 He Sells Portland's Landmark Mallory Hotel
By Katy Muldoon, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Aug. 23, 2004 - The leashed, muzzled, pitch-black cat stood as tall as a St. Bernard. Tail twitching, it strode out of the elevator and through the Mallory Hotel lobby as if it owned the place.

The beast didn't hiss, growl or purr, and neither did Albert W. Gentner Jr. as he warily watched the most exotic guest ever to stay in his hotel.

Not that Bob Hope, Jonathan Winters, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell and James Beard weren't exotic in their own ways. But that panther -- if that's what it was -- that sleek, powerful guest that padded across the lobby some 50 years ago, stands out in 60 years' worth of memories that Gentner gathered first working in, then owning, one of Portland's landmark hotels.

As he retires this month, selling the Mallory to the Aspen Hotel Group for $7.9 million, it cheers Gentner to know that the new owners plan to keep, among other charms, the longstanding pet-friendly policy. After all, as his father did before him, Gentner built his business and his reputation on the kind of hospitality that for generations has made the Mallory a favorite stopover for traveling salesmen, families, politicians, power brokers, athletes and the occasional couple in search of a surreptitious love nest.

As the city's core sprouts shiny new chain hotels and its suburbs make way for cookie-cutter, corporate-run inns, the Mallory, on downtown's fringe at 729 S.W. 15th Ave., stands as a reminder of Portland's gracious and comfortable past.

Inside its buff-colored brick exterior, bridegrooms danced with their brides beneath crystal chandeliers, Rotarians plotted good civic deeds surrounded by soaring gold-trimmed columns, Sunday brunch-goers feasted on German pancakes, and fledgling hipsters discovered in the deep darkness of the Driftwood Lounge that a Perfect Manhattan really is.

It was in the Mallory that the University of Washington football team took shelter from a force even more ferocious than Oregon State's front line -- 1962's Columbus Day storm. In 1991 at the Mallory, then-Gov. Barbara Roberts called for a truce between those who supported the Persian Gulf War and those who abhorred it. In the Mallory, too, Bob Packwood, who resigned from the U.S. Senate in 1995, set reporters straight in 1998: "I have no immediate plans," he said, "for running for anything . . . not dog catcher . . . not City Council, not anything."

Time-tested hotels are rich with stories, and the Mallory started telling them in 1912, when Rufus Mallory, a New Yorker who had found his way west and thrived in Oregon, built the 130-room property. Mallory, who had been the U.S. attorney for Oregon and a U.S. congressman, died two years later.

Albert Gentner's father, another attorney and a native Portlander, bought the Mallory in the early 1940s. Eventually, he gave up his law practice to become a full-time hotelier, buying the Imperial Hotel -- now the Hotel Lucia -- on Southwest Broadway in 1950.

Gentner, an only child, went to work at the Mallory while he was still a Lincoln High School student. Desk clerk. Housekeeper. Bellboy. "You name it," Gentner remembers. "I was assigned to whatever place I was needed."

He graduated from Lincoln in 1946, spent two years at Stanford University, then enrolled in Cornell University's prestigious School of Hotel Administration.

His first winter there, Gentner recalls, he wanted to fly home for Christmas aboard a DC-6 charter for Ivy Leaguers from the Northwest. Much to his consternation, his father refused to advance him the fare, saying that flying in the winter wasn't safe.

So Gentner accepted an invitation to a fraternity brother's family home in New Jersey. There, two days into his holiday stay, he met a 5-foot-2-inch beauty.

Carol Johnson was a bright, stylish Skidmore College student, and "It occurred to me," Gentner remembers, "that I didn't want to meet anyone else anymore."

They were "pinned" within 10 days and married as soon as they graduated.

That charter flight that Gentner didn't have the cash to catch? On its return trip east, it crashed just after takeoff from Portland, killing several passengers.

"My father took credit," Gentner says, "for keeping me alive and for getting me engaged."

Back in Portland, the younger Gentner took the reins of the Imperial Hotel, while his father operated the Mallory. When his father died in 1977, Gentner moved to the Mallory and put his son, Stephen Gentner, in charge of the Imperial. The family sold the Imperial to the Portland-based Aspen Hotel Group in 2002 for $10.4 million.

Albert Gentner, a ruddy-cheeked, mannerly fellow inclined to stand when a lady enters the room, earned the deep loyalty of his employees, just as his father had. Housekeepers and clerks, janitors and managers stuck with him for 10, 20, 30 years and longer.

Linda Anderson, the outgoing general manager, went to work for Gentner's father in 1965, the day after she graduated from Oregon City High School. She had stopped in to pick up her mother, Ruth Smith, a longtime Mallory desk clerk, when the elder Mr. Gentner asked if she could fill in for his secretary, who had just been fired. Fifteen years later, the younger Mr. Gentner promoted Anderson to general manager, a job she held until the hotel's recent sale.

"You treat people the way you want to be treated," Gentner says simply. "I treat my employees the same way I treat my family, my guests."

For many of the hotel's 85 to 90 employees, that all-in-the-family sensibility proved a good fit -- so good that most would not support two attempts to unionize. In the 1950s, culinary workers picketed the Mallory when the restaurant operator's lease expired and the hotel took over the dining room. And in 1999, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, disrupted business when they staged a work stoppage and a raucous rally in the hotel lobby.

Such bumps in the road, though, didn't deter travelers from booking their favorite rooms and packing along children and pets -- the dogs being quick to figure out that treats were doled out from behind the front desk.

Several older guests made the Mallory their full-time home. Mary Corbett Robertson, for instance, lived in Room 621, paying the daily rate for 17 years -- leaving it just once, when a firefighter carried her out. Otherwise, she spent her days surrounded by Ming vases, jade and other treasures she had collected on a round-the-world trip.

Linda Anderson would lunch with the petite, ladylike Robertson once a month, and from time to time, her doctor or lawyer would visit. But otherwise, the four walls of her Mallory room were the old woman's entire world.

"She was a lovely woman," Gentner remembers, "but eccentric."

Other Mallory regulars were more mainstream. Pauline Caine Shelk of Prineville and her late husband Stuart Shelk started staying at the Mallory in 1956, the year they married. It was a favorite, she says, of Central Oregonians, while those from Eastern Oregon were more inclined in those days to check into the Imperial.

Stuart Shelk was a lumberman who often had business in Portland. And the couple would bring their children across the Cascades for dental work or shopping trips, to visit the Portland Art Museum, or to see plays.

"I always felt that it was a home away from home," 89-year-old Pauline Shelk says. "Mr. Gentner Sr. created a hotel with a distinct family atmosphere . . . and his son carried through on it."

Today, the Mallory's room rates run from $70 to $175. Shelk, who often still stays there, says her 10-year-old granddaughter, Lisa Caine, an experienced traveler, recently told her, "Oh, Grandma, it's my favorite hotel."

Albert Gentner enjoys the satisfied-customer stories. Sitting in the Mallory dining room, dapper at 75 in a seersucker suit and cufflinks, he smiles when an old-timer taps him on the shoulder and reaches for his hand. And he gets a kick out of the young crowd that has discovered the Driftwood Lounge, a sultry throwback to '50s decor tucked into a corner off the hotel lobby.

"Now, suddenly, it's a retro bar," Gentner says, a knowing smirk crossing his face. "Well, it's not retro -- it's original."

-----To see more of The Oregonian, or to subscribe the newspaper, go to http://www.oregonian.com.

(c) 2004, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail reprints@krtinfo.com.

 
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