Multnomah Hotel, Portland Oregon

Date added: July 26, 2022 Categories: Oregon Hotel
Historic view looking northeast

Erected at a cost of two million dollars, the Multnomah Hotel, located at 319 SW Pine Street in Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon, was built in 1911 in the American Renaissance style for the Gevurtz family by the R. R. Thompson Estate Company of San Francisco. It was the largest hotel in the city for a period of over 50 years.

Mushrooming urban growth after the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905 accelerated demand in many service areas in Portland's business community, not the least of which was the hotel and apartment industry. As older hotels expanded and new small and medium-size hotels emerged, it became clear that the city's economy could support yet more rooms. When ground was broken for the 750 room Multnomah Hotel on Feburary 15, 1911, plans for the construction of its soon-to-be prime competitor, the addition to the Oregon (now Benson) Hotel, were being considered, although construction on the building did not begin until 1912.

As originally planned, the exterior of the Multnomah was to have been as elaborate as the interior. Considering the enormous expense of completing the project, it can be supposed that financial consideration eliminated much of the costly ornament in favor of the interior appointments, which were characterized by Hotel News as a "wilderness of new astonishments in the way of conveniences, modern equipment and outfitting. .. "

Built for Gevurtz and Sons on land leased from the R. R. Thompson Estate Company, the hotel was christened by Mrs. Roy Yates, wife of one of the Thompson Estate Company officers who was to shortly figure prominently in the hotel's affairs. Opened on February 12, 1912, over 8000 visitors paraded through the establishment on the first day, and over 1200 persons dined in one of the nine banquet halls, dining rooms, and grills in the establishment. Lushly decorated in the classical tradition, the public rooms on the lower floors were designed for the maximum comfort of the guests and for the maximum amount of flexibility for the accommodation of conventions or other groups. Philip Gevurtz, president of the Multnomah Hotel Company, was responsible for the high quality materials used in the hotel. Exotic woods; the best furniture (from the parent company) 70,000 square yards of carpeting, and elaborate wall coverings were standard.

Color and gold leaf were used freely on the decorative motifs and "Multnomah Red," a color taken from Oregon Native American pottery, was employed frequently. The hotel also boasted such conveniences as filtered air, "washed, cleaned, and dried several time a day," and featured a system by which ice water was routed through the steam heating system in the summer for the comfort of the guests. Reportedly, the Multnomah also introduced the innovation of room service in Portland as well as the first tea room in the city to allow women the privilege of smoking cigarettes "without fear of rebuke." The entire seventh floor was given over to 65 sample rooms, each offering a bedroom and bath.

The hotel quickly became the social center of the city, being constantly booked for any number of meetings or social events, and its fortunes seemed secure. One of the most interesting early occurrences associated with the hotel came on June 15th of the same year, when before 50,000 persons, Mr. Silas Christoffer flew a Curtis Pusher bi-plane off of a 150 foot wooden runway. which had been attached to the roof of one of the north/south oriented wings. This event was said to be the first of its kind in the United States.

Unfortunately for Philip Gevurtz, the Panic of 1913 began to create havoc among his various financial obligations and by July, 1913, caused him to deny vehemently in public rumors of the hotel's insolvency. The hotel had been the most ambitious undertaking of Isaac Gervutz and Sons. The patriarch, born in Russia, emigrated to New York in 1869 and eventually settled in Portland in 1881, where he opened a second-hand furniture store which ultimately blossomed into one of the largest and most successful retailing enterprises in the city. Around the turn of the century, the company was reorganized and the eight children were given shares in the business. Philip Gevurtz was one of the most active, promoting the purchasing and construction of numerous small hotels and apartment houses in the city which resulted in the family becoming one of, if not the largest holder of this type of real estate in the city. The company holdings included the Mallory, Phillip, Carlton and Foster Hotels, plus the Highland Court, American, Cecelia, Lois and Lillian apartment buildings. Considered by many to be unscrupulous, Philip overextended his credit and his actions resulted in the bankruptcy of I. Gevurtz and Sons in the amount of $400,000. The major bank creditor offered to loan the company the funds to prevent this action, but only if Issac Gevurtz would personally take over the management of the firm. This was not the case, and eventually, the three youngest sons reorganized the business, which subsequently thrived and is still in operation.

The R. R. Thompson Estate Company acquired the hotel and continued operating under the guidance of Roy O. Yates, who became the sole stockholder in the Multnomah Hotel Company. This situation lasted three years until early 1916, when Yates filed for bankruptcy, stating that he had lost over $300,000 of his own money. Crucial factors were "apathy" on the part of Portland citizenry, perhaps because of the success of the more ideally-located Benson Hotel, plus a recently enacted law prohibiting the sale of liquor. Over 200 employees were laid off as the result of the closure, which was to last until the fall of that year.

The largest hotel in the city was not vacant for long. Millionaire mid-western railroad contractors Eric V. Hauser and Grant Smith purchased the property from the Thompson Estate Company for $700,000. Mr. Smith already owned several hotels and apartment buildings in the city. However, it was Mr. Hauser who was to be most closely associated with the hotel, becoming president and general manager of the Multnomah Hotel Company after he moved to the city from St. Paul, Minnesota.

Born in Minneapolis in 1864, he apprenticed from the age of thirteen in a newspaper office and eventually followed the printing trade for ten years. Subsequently, he became a contractor and with Grant Smith, operated one of the largest construction companies in the United States. He helped build the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads, and also assisted in the construction of the New York City subway. During World War I, he built ships for the United States government, and began doing work on the west coast at the turn of the century. Moving the headquarters of his other operations to Portland, he operated the Multnomah Hotel until his death in 1928. His son Eric V. Hauser, Jr., was a managing director and vice president of the hotel company until his father's death, after which he assumed the presidency.

Before the building reopened in October of 1916, Eric Hauser ordered several changes to the facade and interior. This included the redesigning of the Pine Street entrance, unspecified changes to the lobby, replacement of furniture and the repainting and repapering of rooms. Hauser wisely decided not to open all of the hotel's vast eating facilities at first, but did undertake an upgrading of the kitchen facilities. A dinner dance for 500 persons was planned for the re-opening and the menu, priced at $2.00 was as follows:

Rose City Cocktail
Canape Multnomah Salted Almonds
Stuffed Celery Hearts Ripe Olives
Tomato Bouillon, Bellevue
Fillet of Baby Salmon, Sauce Meunier
Pommes Julienne
Lamb Chops a la Nelson
Mint Sherbet, Brizzolari
Stuffed Jumbo Squab in Bird's Nests, Multnomah Style
Prime Ribs of Eastern Beef, Yorkshire Pudding
Baked Potatoes Green Peas
Apple a la Princess
Ice Cream Arcadian Assorted Cakes
Individual French Pastry
Neufchatel and Bar le Duc
Toasted Crackers Demi Tasse
After Dinner Mints

The Multnomah again became a popular gathering spot for meetings, luncheons, parties and conventions. Items announcing weekly events were regularly published in the press and no further scandal occurred at the hotel.

A few years after the elder Hauser's death, his son leased the hotel to Western Hotels, Incorporated, one of the largest operators of hotels on the Pacific Coast, whose holdings were located primarily in Washington state at the time. The hotel was leased to the corporation for fifteen years for a rental of approximately $1,250,000. At that time, gross revenues at the hotel were in excess of $1,000,000 per year. Eric Hauser, Jr., then became a director of the Western Hotels organization.

The corporation almost immediately spent $14,000 on the redecoration of the lobby. The Oregonian of June 28, 1931 noted that the "ceiling, walls and columns have been retouched in a modernistic style with 16 colors. . ." Other improvements undertaken by the firm of Tourtellotte and Hummel included alteration of the lighting system and the addition of 15 Austrian rugs. The repainting required the skills of twelve persons and took six weeks to complete.

A significant alteration to the Multnomah, also completed in 1931, was the addition of what was reported to be the largest neon sign in the United States. The structure, 39 feet high by 156 feet in length, was outfitted with letters eight feet in height and illuminated with "marine green" neon.

The company continued to invest in the refurbishment throughout the years, and employed local architects such as Pietro Belluschi. They offered innovations such as registration by television in 1956. By this time, the building was noted as Portland's convention center, offering 14 banquet and assembly rooms, and room to seat 2000 diners. Each week the hotel consumed 700 pounds of turkey, 3000 pounds of potatoes, 1800 pounds of prime rib, 700 pounds of coffee, and 600 dozen eggs. By then, the corporation owned 23 hotels in seven states, including the Benson, to which they were about to construct the existing addition. It could be argued that this move effectively spelled the doom of the Multnomah, since it signaled the beginning of expansion of the number of available rooms in downtown Portland, now somewhat at a distance from the Multnomah. Nevertheless, at the same time, the corporation announced that they would also spend $1,000,000 in a facelift of the Multnomah, which was to include a complete redecoration of public spaces and rooms, new air conditioning, and other updating of the facilities. This announcement occurred after Western signed another twenty year lease with the Hauser estate.

Unfortunately, this expenditure did not prolong the life of the Multnomah, now effectively associated with Old Town and Skid Row. As mentioned in the press in the summer of 1963, the size of the building, its relative isolation from the business center, and especially the encroachment of new hotels such as the Hilton, and the "motor Hotel." It was noted that over 2000 units (including those of the Benson addition) had been added since 1960 and that the city contained more hotel and motel accommodations per capita than any city in the United States outside of New York. As the occupancy rate dropped a few percentage points, the corporation considered turning the property into a residential hotel, but decided that it was in their best interests to sell it, even though company executives were denying these plans in public.

By October, 1963, it was announced that Lutheran Homes and Hospitals was to acquire the property and turn it into elderly housing, and would have included a 47 bed infirmary on the ground floor. Units were to be sold at life-time lease fees ranging from $2,250 to $22,000. In addition there was to have been a monthly service charge for meals, laundry, and utilities. If converted, the grand ballroom would have become a chapel, with the stage serving as the altar. Other changes included the addition of a bowling alley and other recreational spaces.

Regretfully, the Lutheran organization was unable to sell enough of the packages to make the deal work, and they withdrew their option in early April, 1964. While the hotel continued to operate, new owners were sought. By late 1964, it was announced that the hotel had been offered to the Internal Revenue Service or the Forest Service through the General Services Administration for a maximum rental of $49,122 per month.

As low bidder, the proposal was accepted and by March, 1965, notices were sent out to hotel guests that the building would be vacated by April of that year. While the commercial spaces on the lower floor exterior were to remain, $1,500,000 was to be spent converting the upper level rooms and part of the mezzanine into office space. It was noted in the Oregonian that the Multnomah would still "look somewhat like a hotel on the first floor..."

An auction of the hotel's furnishing was held on April 22, 1965. While some of the nicer furniture went to the Benson, the majority was auctioned, including the suite that had been installed for the visit of Queen Marie of Rumania in 1926. It was purchased by a Corvallis merchant for $2,100. A final party was held in the next month and the property formally turned over to the GSA in December of that year.

An article in the Oregon Journal on March 31, 1965, noted that "when people thought of Portland, they thought of the Multnomah Hotel," and remarked further that notable visitors to the hotel included Presidents Taft, Hoover, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy. Others included Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, The Lennon Sisters, Wallace Beery, Clark Gable and Jack Benny.