Note: For an article that started life as a simple photo-dump, I must say that this post wound up being one of the most research-intensive projects I’ve done on this blog for quite a while–in addition to web research I had to go back nearly 40 years into microfilm archives. The things I do for you, my readers!
A few weekends ago, at the end of August (2016), my husband and I took a weekend out of town and stayed a hotel in the Portland, Oregon area, the Red Lion Jantzen Beach Hotel. It was partially a vacation, but I was also attending a convention, for one day at least, for a charity organization (Kiwanis) with which both I and my family have been involved for many years. Our evening at this hotel was quite fascinating and thought-provoking. Though modern in the sense of not being a classic, historic or antique property, I found this hotel curiously haunted by its history and just on the cusp of falling out-of-step with the modern world. Though a comfortable, well-staffed operation that put on an excellent convention and served pretty good food, there was something strange and haunting about this place, its location, its architecture and its mood that really struck me. I’m presenting some of the photos I took here, but I’m not sure they fully capture what we experienced there.
The Red Lion Jantzen Beach is the sole survivor of a complex of hotels that once filled the Columbia River waterfront with commerce and recreation.
The Red Lion Jantzen Beach Hotel is located on Hayden Island, a flat, sandy island in the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington where the Columbia and Willamette Rivers meet. Hayden Island has been known about since the earliest days of white settlers in the region in the 1790s; it got its name from Gay Hayden, who built a mansion on it in 1851. What’s called Jantzen Beach, the side that fronts the Columbia, really got going after a bridge, connecting Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, Washington, was built just west of the site in 1917. An amusement park called Jantzen Beach opened in 1928 and was a huge draw for Portland’s families for decades–the Coney Island of Portland. It closed in 1970. After that important date, the cultural, economic and architectural history of Hayden Island becomes a confusing murk of business deals, real estate developments, and the booms and busts that have characterized American and Pacific Northwest history since that time. It’s this confusing history that created the empty rooms and vaguely brooding corridors that I photographed a few weekends ago.
Hayden Island’s fortunes are closely intertwined with what was happening across the water on the north bank, in Vancouver, Washington. In 1959–still in the amusement park era–two partners, Tod McClaskey and Ed Pietz, constructed a hotel on the Oregon side called the “Thunderbird Inn.” The next year across the river in Vancouver they also built a hotel that came to be known as Red Lion at the Quay. McClaskey and Pietz built the Red Lion business into a huge brand, ultimately with properties in many parts of the U.S. West. In 1971 the original Thunderbird was reconstructed as the “Thunderbird Hotel.” By then, the amusement park was closed but developers had their eye on Jantzen Beach as a shopping and commercial destination. An old restaurant called Waddles, which had a famous neon sign involving a duck, was a landmark there for generations, until it was bought by the fulsome restaurant chain known as Hooters.
This convention room, empty and silent when I saw it, is still quite usable–but it probably sees a lot fewer meetings than it did in 1978 when the hotel opened.
By the later 1970s, McClaskey and Pietz decided to expand their operation. There was a shortage of hotel rooms in the Portland area, especially for conventions. So in 1977 they announced a plan to develop an even larger complex around the Thunderbird Hotel site. In a two-phased plan, a hotel with 325 rooms and huge banquet facilities would be constructed to the west of this site. Later, 275 rooms would be build in a 16-story tower on the property next door. This would make Jantzen Beach/Hayden Island the largest convention destination in the U.S. north of San Francisco. The building I stayed at, the Red Lion Jantzen Beach, was phase one of this project. It was built between 1977 and summer 1978 and was a magnificent complex which included not only guest rooms but tennis courts, a river walk and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It wasn’t even finished yet when it opened for business in June 1978, due to a dire need for hotel rooms for conventioneers. It is not clear to me whether phase two was ever completed, though I believe the old Thunderbird Hotel, now called the “Red Lion Columbia River,” was remodeled to match the new Red Lion Jantzen Beach.
Conventions were the mainstay of this complex, as well as the Red Lion at the Quay across the river. In the heyday of this cluster of hotels, which peaked roughly in the mid- to late-1980s, the Red Lion company was raking in the money from conventioneers and especially from food and beverage services, which were regarded as among the best in the American hotel business. It’s toward the end of this heyday when my family and I entered the picture in a very small way. In the summer of 1992, when I was home from college on a break, I remember helping out my parents who were attending a convention–for the same charity organization, in fact, who held the convention this year–at the Red Lion Jantzen Beach. Part of my job was to babysit the kids of conventioneers who were staying at the hotel. At that time I remember either the RLJB or the hotel next door, the Red Lion Columbia River, or perhaps both, had restaurants that sported a kind of kitschy Polynesian “tiki bar” type of vibe. (Think Brady Bunch goes to Hawaii). I also recall the hotel was swarming with people, probably full-up.
The hotel is a maze of stucco pillars, walkways and staircases–most leading back on themselves, like an M.C. Escher design. Note the chains hanging from the eaves.
Things obviously changed in the 1990s. Even by 1985 the Red Lion’s owners came to understand that hotels in Portland were “overbuilt,” in marked contrast to the shortage in 1977-78 that had brought the RLJB into existence. They also knew that their business model depended on conventions to a greater degree than did other hotel chains. Convention business appears to have declined in the ’90s. In 1996 Red Lion was bought by the Doubletree hotel company, who de-named all three Red Lions fronting the Columbia river. That didn’t go so well. Within a year Doubletree sold the properties again to another outfit, Promus Hotel Corporation, who revived the Red Lion name fairly successfully. But the party was obviously over. With convention attendance waning and three huge hotels to fill, they couldn’t all survive. The Red Lion Columbia River, still known to many Portlanders as the Thunderbird Hotel, was sold to another owner in 2004 and closed for business, for the last time, in 2005. There it stood, empty and abandoned, one of those “urban decay” type places that people post photo portfolios about on Flickr and similar sites. It burned down in a catastrophic fire in September 2012. Last year, 2015, Red Lion at the Quay closed for good, leaving the RLJB the only survivor.
What happened to change the fortunes of these hotels? Something cultural, I think, some change in the way we think about gatherings or about business or about leisure, but it’s clear from browsing around the Red Lion Jantzen Beach that the convention era has changed. Businesses and organizations still have conventions, of course, but they seem to be different, smaller, less exuberant. The Kiwanis convention I attended was far smaller in terms of head count than the mega-conventions of the 1980s and 1990s, and the vast majority of conventioneers were elderly, in their 60s or 70s. The days when you needed volunteer babysitters to look after conventioneers’ kids, as I did, are long-gone–these organizations have failed to replenish themselves with younger generations of members. The hotel rooms at the RLJB, though comfortable and modern, seem vaguely built for another era. The tiki bars are gone, replaced by a more standard restaurant. While the main ballrooms were busy, there was little need for the endless corridors of meeting rooms. I passed many such rooms that were silent and empty, in various states of repair or remodel. In one empty corridor I half-expected to see the spectral twins from The Shining urging me to come and play…forever and ever and ever.
Last call? This former pay phone alcove is one of the many reminders of how society has changed since the hotel was built.
I found a number of subtle reminders at the RLJB that it was built for a different era. Walking around a balcony-like walkway that surrounds the buildings, I saw chains hanging from the eaves–buildings used to have these in lieu of downspouts, and they also seem to be nautical-ish holdovers from the “tiki bar” era. Lobby-like rest areas between room corridors have communal bookshelves filled with paperback volumes of Judith Kranz, Danielle Steele and the sort of “airport fiction” novels they used to make TV miniseries from. Most haunting was an empty alcove that used to be filled with pay phones, now obsolete in the cell phone era. This hotel is still comfortable, modern, clean, well-run and attractive. But something about it whispers almost silently that its glory days are over. When it’s gone, an era will have quietly ended. I wonder if anyone will really notice.