Meier & Frank: How Oregon's Largest Building Became a Boutique Hotel
By John Tess President & CEO, Heritage Consulting Group | August 25, 2010
In the day, Portland, Oregon's downtown was home to a cluster of downtown department stores. With names as Rhodes, Olds, Wortman & King, and Lipman, Wolfe & Company, these were the local versions of retail giants as Gimbels, Macy's, Carson Pirie Scott and Marshall Field. The retail concept was simple - they sold everything and anything that customers would buy. Clothes, shoes, toys, sporting goods, furniture - even boats and bagels! They marketed themselves as THE destination for the 20th century woman including style shows, tea rooms and special events. Thanks to American ingenuity, women in this era enjoyed new found leisure but American family values did not permit entrance to the workplace.
In Portland, the grand dame of the genre was the Meier & Frank Store. It was a conglomeration of three buildings on a single block: The first built in 1909, the second in 1915 and the third in 1932. The first unit was patterned after Chicago's Carson Pirie Scott with a glazed and elaborate white terra cotta exterior. The second unit featured technological innovations as the first escalators on West Coast. The final unit featured "destination" amenities as a Georgian Revival tea room, a Pine Room men's grill, and a two-story auditorium with mezzanine for shows and events. The building was massive: eleven acres of floor area (each floor nearly an acre itself), a million bricks, and one thousand plus windows. At 650,000 square feet, it was the largest building in the State of Oregon and remained so until the 1970s. For this reason, the Meier & Frank Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
But over time, department stores became white elephants. The automobile redefined how department stores function. Price and selection became the focus of marketing - not destination. New auto-friendly stores were opened in malls and at the perimeters of the city with ample parking. Unprofitable product lines disappeared and the merchandising floors shrank until the stores themselves first consolidated with national brands and then closed.
By the 1990s, nearly every city had at least one major department store that had closed and many had two or three. And each closing had a multiplying negative affect on the downtown.
Such was the story of Meier & Frank. Locally owned and thriving, it opened a second store in the 1950s in a nearby mall. By the 1990s, they were an anchor in nearly every major mall in the city. These newer stores, more streamlined and smaller, became more and more profitable while the downtown store became less and less. Merchandising shrank, first the space on each floor and then entire floors.
The City of Portland was concerned. According to Ross Plambeck of the Portland Development Commission (PDC), "By location, size and heritage, the Meier & Frank Store played a defining role in the future of our downtown." PDC commissioned dozens of studies to explore re-use. These included rental housing, condominiums, office - and hotel. None of the uses proved to be viable exclusively. Nor was the Meier & Frank Company prepared to leave sell the building.