Thursday, September 26, 2013

Heady brew

From a painting by Myrna Yoder that hangs in the Kennedy School. It refers
to another McMenamins revival project, Edgefield near the Columbia River
northeast of Portland, once a poor farm for the elderly. Mirthful yet menacing.
Source: McMenamins Website.
Serendipity loves company, and if it weren't for jobs to do and the dog to feed back home, I might still be in Portland, Oregon, staring at the walls.

And doors and brew kettles and transoms and bedboards and ceilings and floors — stuffed floor to ceiling with beguiling, entrancing, unsettling art. And maybe sucking on a beer all the while, trying not to spill on my shirt.

My friend John from elementary school (!) (another wonder of facebook®©!) who never lost his schoolkid wonder and zeal, had the gracious sense to take us out to a place called the Kennedy School in Northeast Portland during our visit.

John could have taken us to a nice Portland pub, because he knows beer and this is Beervana, and I
Source: McMenamins Website
would have been happy, drinking to learn. But Kennedy School is ecstacy.

Not for the beer. The beer is great. I craved its eye candy.

The Kennedy School spent most of the 20th Century as an elementary school, built in the Italian Renaissance style, stately and dignified — you know, a school.

Then it closed in the mid-1970s and the neighborhood fretted what to do with the space while fending off attempts to tear it down.

Lyle Hehn sketch for McMenamins' signature
Hammerhead Ale. Source:
The Beer Here Column
Brothers Brian and Mike McMenamin proposed turning into it into a hotel-restaurant-event complex. The place lives again as a result, probably more boisterous than its first go, yet nestled in its old neighborhood, a part of the place.

The McMenamins established Oregon's first brewpub, having helped usher legislation allowing retail brew establishments, and created the first fruit-infused beer in the state. McMenamins also distills liquors and roasts coffee and markets music.

(Why yes, this is a barefaced plug for McMenamins, if you want to frame it that way …)

A fellow serendipitor, John slowed our roll before dinner to show us throughout the school, from the bottom up. The boiler room in the basement had been turned into a restaurant, the classrooms subdivided into hotel rooms with chalkboards intact. The cafeteria is another restaurant, one gym a movie theater, another a banquet hall. Tiny equipment closets are now tiny cigar and liquor bars.

And everywhere — everywhere! — art runs riot.

We'd been to a couple of McMenamins pubs in Eugene, where our daughter goes to school. Wood paneling, semi-dark, ferns, somewhat ornate, quirky, what looked like clip-art on the menu, enough graphic sameness to lend the vague sense that the two places are connected. Pubby — nothing extraordinary. We knew nothing of McMenamins, which sounded like a made-up name, like Betty Crocker or Häagen-Dazs.

Detail for headboard at the Crystal Hotel in north Portland. Each headboard
gets inspiration from song. This one by Lyle Hehn honors Merle Haggard's
"I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink." Source: Willamette Week.
But spellbound by what I found at Kennedy School, I craved to learn more: That the McMenamins like to rescue historic (even if only to the neighborhood) rundown places and grow them into neighborhood anchors, honoring each place's first life with art and architectural flourishes.

A fifth of the McMenamins' 56 sites across Oregon and Washington comprise such rescues, including a former poorhouse north or Portland now named Edgefield, a closed Catholic school in Bend, and soon a former Elks Lodge in Tacoma.

All are different but linked in small measure by the rune-inspired typeface of the McMenamins logo above the sign for each place, and in large measure by the art.

McMenamins boasts a staff of fine artists and graphic designers who festoon the nooks and crannies and drainage pipe elbows and wide open spaces with their art. Not for art's sake, but to immortalize the history of each place. McMenamins hires historians and artists consult artifacts to imbue sense of place and people.

Olivia Behm's whimsy on a waterpipe. Source: McMenamins Website
Each artist does so mixing surreal, German expressionism, Alphonse Mucha-inspired Art Nouveau, 1960s psychedelia, American folk art, African contemporary art, Seussian goofiness, Magritte illusion, tromp l'oeil, Hopper grit and their own styles — and riffing off each other. Throughout the art, icons repeat — all-seeing eyes and torches, suns and stars and Masonic symbols and hammerheaded people (the last a nod to McMenamins' signature Hammerhead Ale).

It's all silly and secretive and irreverent and oh-so-slightly sinister, and given McMenamins' expansion within sites and to new sites, the work expands exponentially.

In a word, I'm jealous.

Not for myself alone — that's a wonderful life's work — but for my town. I can't think of anything that comes close to the McMenamins' vision in Sacramento. Sacramento is boosting its downtown nightlife, to be sure, but I don't fit the nightlife demographic in too many ways to count. The Kennedy School makes all welcome without making anyone feel they need fit someone else's social peg.

Why can't Sacramento have something like this?

Serendipitous disappointment: Wandering through downtown Portland, Nancy and I wandered past the Lompoc Tavern, one of several sites for Lompoc Brewing. I'd heard about it — couldn't help it, really, since I come from the town of Lompoc, California — and here it was. We had to go in.

The beer is terrific, and so were the people running the place. It's the name! Not only is it pronounced LomPOCK here (as opposed to the correct LomPOKE), but it's named after the town in a W.C. Fields movie, "The Bank Dick," which was filmed in and set in LomPOKE but called LomPOCK throughout the film.*

My hometown already has the second worst name in the country (Oxnard is the answer to your question, which is just over in the next county), so mispronouncing it does not help.

Our waiter said we were the first people from LomPOKE he had met. He won't meet anyone from LomPOCK.

Travelogue finis: Our journey home and a last hug with our daughter brought us to Oakshire and more beer. Oakshire is in a semi-industrial Whiteaker neighborhood region just northwest of the University of Oregon — with Ninkasi Brewing and Hop Valley forming a brewery district. Good beer, but no food. Instead, a semi-permanently parked burger truck serves meals in the alley alongside the brewery, which also lists all the places that will deliver to your table while you drink Oakshire beer. Patrons can bring in their own food too, and eat on the sanded but rough-sawn plank tables throughout the place.

A sculptor was wall-hanging her human figures, made of thin steel plates and bolts and enough hinges to create a myriad poses with each hanging, while we drank.

My head is spinning.

*OK, my killjoy of a sister [;)] wants you to know the truth, that "The Bank Dick" wasn't filmed in Lompoc (reports the Lompoc Valley Historical Society on its Website); also apparently W.C. Fields just liked to call the place LomPOCK (maybe it was funnier?). He was not popular in LomPOKE, I think.