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Downtown Portland Landmark, Once a Notorious Den of Iniquity,
Becomes the Crystal Hotel, a 51-room Boutique Hotel

By Anne Saker, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 15, 2011--Once a den of Portland's own flavor of iniquity, the three-story building at Southwest 12th Avenue and Stark has stood forlorn, a down-at-heel island of city history all but abandoned in the middle of the rushing river that is West Burnside Street.

Today, the building has survived its notorious past and the 2008 recession to return to life. On May 3, the 100-year-old building will open as the Crystal Hotel, a boutique 51-room lodge with a restaurant -- wood-fired oven! -- on the first floor and a below-ground bar.

The intent is to hook the hotel in customers' minds to the Crystal Ballroom, the legendary music venue just a block on West Burnside. Perhaps not surprisingly, both businesses are owned by the McMenamin brothers, Mike and Brian.

"They bought the building in 2008 with the intent of turning it around right away," says Renee Rank, the company's marketing director, while leading a walkthrough this week. "Then the economy came alone and put a halt to what we wanted to do."

So for more than two years, the company bided its time, making minor repairs to the structure, until credit relaxed, "and then this past December, Mike said, 'It's back on, and we're opening in May.' " The construction company, Pacific Crest, added an extra shift of workers last week, Rank says, to make opening day, now just six weeks away.

McMenamins paid $3 million for the building. Rank would not disclose the cost of the renovation, but it's clearly a bundle, from the special music-inspired decor in each room to seismic upgrades to a salt-water soaking pool to murals for the interior staircases.

Rank says the hotel will create 70 jobs. Room rates are $85 to $165. Nine rooms will be suites with separate bathrooms; the others will have shared bath facilities on each floor. The hope, Rank says, is to entice artists playing the Crystal Ballroom and people attending shows to stay at the hotel. Hotel guests who want to go to a Crystal Ballroom show will be able to buy tickets even if the show is sold out.

Rank also says there won't be any televisions in the rooms. "We want you to go out and experience this neighborhood."

The basement bar, as yet unnamed, aims to showcase acoustic music, Rank says, and the hope is for an artist to play in residence for a week or so at a time.

Company historian Tim Hills has been collecting details, photographs and stories on the building -- and wants more from anyone who has them.

"At first, this building was part of 'auto row' here," he says, when nearly every business on West Burnside nurtured the American love affair with the car. "Then with World War II, and the influx of people to Portland, places of entertainment started opening up."

In 1946, the Zakoji family returned from an internment camp and took over the hotel, calling it the Majestic and cultivating a family atmosphere by rearing their own children on the second floor. The ground floor, called the Desert Room, was another, wilder story.

"It was clear that whatever you wanted, you could get it at the Desert Room," Hills says.

Phil Stanford, author of "Portland Confidential" about the city's demimonde, says the Desert Room was "the hub of all sorts of acceptable and unacceptable criminal behavior" that eventually drew a federal investigation into racketeering in Portland. Club owner Nate Zusman even appeared before a congressional committee and cracked wise under the questioning of young government lawyer named Robert F. Kennedy.

In the 1970s and1980s, the building became central to the "gay triangle" in downtown Portland. The nightclub operated under a string of owners and names; the last was Silverado, which left the building in 2007.

When the Crystal Hotel opens, the first-floor restaurant will be called the Zeus Cafe, a play on Zusman's name.

-- Anne Saker


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