THE McMENAMIN brothers have built their reputation on redeveloping beloved buildings all over Portland with a respect for the histories of the former schools, hotels, and movie palaces. But how will the company tackle the history of its newest venture—a building that was a gay bathhouse for 30 years?
The triangle-shaped building, wedged between Stark and Burnside on SW 12th, became a men-only bathhouse back in 1971. As the gay district grew around it, the four-story establishment—first named Club Baths, then Club Portland—anchored the several blocks of gay bars and gay-owned businesses known as the Triangle Scene. Now the gay neighborhood has dispersed (for the most part), and on May 3, the old steam rooms will open as McMenamins' 51-room Crystal Hotel and Zeus Café.
Back in ancient history (that would be 2007), Club Portland billed itself as the Gateway to the Gayway, advertising its "gloryhole maze" and "porn-stage theater" on its website. Male patrons forked over a $30 membership fee to enter, then paid by the hour for rooms or to use the sauna. The club closed suddenly four years ago. When construction crews started ripping apart the building, they found a filing cabinet full of membership records of Club Portland patrons, along with over 100 hypodermic needles and an actual Army Jeep in the basement, Just Out reported.
"It was a nightmare," remembers one former patron. "You went to meet someone and fuck in a little room and get out.... It was well known as being a very easy place to score drugs."
The place was made for easy hookups, but it wasn't as filthy as people play it up to be, counters Gary Lee, who worked as a janitor and doorman at Club Portland from 2004 to 2006. The sheets and floors of the club's 50 rooms were cleaned regularly, and the Cascade AIDS Project provided free condoms to the hundreds of patrons who entered the doors every week.
"Yes, it was run down and the building was in disrepair—you wouldn't eat off the floor. But I wouldn't say it was a cesspool," says Lee, who liked working in the club's laidback atmosphere. "There's definitely tasteful ways to go about commemorating its history. In its glory day, it was kind of the linchpin of that whole Triangle Scene that's no longer there."
The rundown building was worth only $375,000 when it sold in 1996. But by the time development company Gerding Edlen bought it in 2007, they had to cough up $2.25 million for the deed. Gerding Edlen then flipped the building to McMenamins for $3 million in 2008. The hotel (replete with salt-water soaking pool and room rates starting at $85) was supposed to open in winter 2009, but the economic collapse put the project on hold.
Surprisingly, McMenamins historian Tim Hills doesn't shy away from the building's less reputable history, not even for an instant. "Thousands of people have been through those doors," says Hills. "The gay triangle era is probably the most historically significant thing that happened in that building."
Hills points out that its recent reputation is just one chapter in a long list of infamous uses for the building. When the space first opened as a nightclub during World War II, it was the Outlaw Club run by notorious local vice and gambling overlord Al Winter. It was Club Mecca, then the Desert Room; in the '80s, the place was run by a "big-hearted gay man named Flossie" who would host Thanksgiving potlucks, says Hills.
McMenamins' plan is to incorporate the building's history through paintings of its different eras. It also hopes to display some of its more memorable artifacts, including DJ setlists from the Silverado nightclub, some of the whiskey flasks found stuffed in the bathhouse walls, and, of course, the basement "dungeon gates" and Army Jeep. "The Jeep will return," says Hills, "the only question is where to put it."