For Portlanders Matt Siegel and Jessie Burke, owning and operating a hotel wasn’t something they ever imagined.
Burke is the owner of Posies Bakery and Cafe in the Kenton neighborhood and Siegel is the proprietor of Building Blocks, a local “design and build” company located in Portland. Yet here they are in the midst of a development project that aims to land them at the helm of Chinatown’s newest hotel in decades.
“I am a professional risk-taker,” Burke says with a smile while sitting down for coffee at Theo’s restaurant in Old Town, a block and a half from the future location of the 36-room boutique hotel she and her team are in the midst of creating.
The Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood is in a period of transition. The Pearl District looms large to the west and slightly north as a potential harbinger of things to come, and Old Town hosts a growing nightclub scene that floods the area with youthful indulgence on the weekends. A few businesses have moved in, in recent years, but still, this community has been slow to grow.
Homelessness, rampant drug use and years of neglect are just a few of the challenges Burke and Siegel face, along with a fiercely protective community wary of entrepreneurs seeking to acquire this valuable real estate just north of downtown.
Burke appears undaunted. “I remember making the choice between climbing the ladder, and hopefully reaching the top at the end, or trying lots of interesting things before I died, and maybe never reaching the top of any of them,” she explains.
Portland’s Chinatown is one of the oldest of such cultural districts in the United States and its history played a key role in defining Portland’s identity in the mid-19th century.
Back then, the City of Roses was a logging and shipping boom town with loose rules and a reputation for lawlessness. The city was also infamous for its population of shanghaied sailors who were left destitute at the whims of manipulative shipping con artists known as “crimps.”
Crimping, a practice of trafficking kidnapped sailors into indentured servitude, was so rampant that a number of social service charities established boarding houses for the derelict seamen who were left with no money and no place to live. As the economy and infrastructure of Portland changed, these boarding houses evolved from serving shanghaied sailors into providing temporary housing for the city’s homeless, and shaped the character of the neighborhood.
Siegel, Burke and their partners recently purchased a 12,000-square-foot building that once served as a refuge for such sailors. Now they are in the process of transforming it into the hotel they’ve conceived on paper.
Located on the northwest corner of Third Street and Davis, the building looks somewhat nondescript. From a distance it stands out only because of its two-toned, green and pink, birthday cake-like facade. But its architecture, design and history place it among some of the city’s most historic buildings.
Walking into the ground floor of the building reveals a large hollowed-out space reminiscent of an abandoned waiting room.
“The most recent tenant was the Macdonald Center, but now they have a new location nearby; this is the place where they were last. The upper floors have been vacant for 70 years,” says Burke, who is flanked by retired architect and consultant Bill Hawkins and principal architect on the hotel project, Philip Sydnor.
Hawkins has been working with Burke and Siegel to help them with their goal of listing the completed renovation on the National Register of Historic Places. In order to do that, very careful consideration must be given to specific architectural elements and fixtures, such as bannisters, handrails, windowsills and other original design touches.
“The building was built in the early 1880s — It was sort of a religious place for seaman who were really abused at the time by the crooked shipping industry,” explains Hawkins. “This was to be a refuge for them.”
Currently four stories high, Hawkins notes that the building was a floor shorter when it was originally built. “But it didn’t work out as a Seaman’s Bethel,” Hawkins goes on to explain, “so the city decided to raise the building and add a floor in order to accommodate retail space for vendors. In the meantime, the upper floors went unused, virtually until today.”
Siegel, Burke and their team have been met with a lot of enthusiasm from the neighborhood. The community sees the boutique hotel as an opportunity to help improve the neighborhood while still maintaining cultural and historical connections.
“The first thing that came out of their mouths was that they wanted to revitalize Chinatown and help the community show signs of improvement,” says Stephen Ying, president of the Chinatown Consolidated Benevolent Association. Ying says the hotel will support the community’s ability to host large cultural events by bringing guests and tourists directly into the neighborhood.
“I think for me, and it’s different for everyone on the team, it is about getting the neighborhood back and invested into growing into something,” says Burke. “Sometimes things can become stagnant without new energy coming into it — kind of rallying everyone and saying, ‘This is what we’re interested in doing, what do you guys think?’”
That attitude is welcomed by many businesses and community members. Fears of urban gentrification and cultural displacement have swirled around the community for years.
“One of my big concerns was that the Pearl District would keep growing and take over Old Town/Chinatown,” Ying says. “That and the entertainment district were both of my biggest concerns. We don’t need another strip club.”
Ying has talked with Burke and her team extensively and explained that there are nine traditional Chinese businesses that still operate in the neighborhood.
“All of the other businesses are excited because the building that Burke and her partners are revitalizing was owned by a Chinese family,” says Ying.
“I also happen to be a quarter Chinese,” Burke reveals. “In a way, I think that helps the community feel like this is more than just a business venture.”
Howard Weiner, chair of the Old Town Chinatown Community Association, echoes Ying’s thoughts and the sentiments of other businesses in the area.
“The community welcomes the renovation and renewal of this historic property, bringing new life and vitality to the neighborhood,” Weiner says.
Still, Seigel, Burke and their grassroots team have a long road ahead. They have spent the last few weeks preparing the building for the first stages of construction. In the process they have discovered more and more history beneath the decaying and dilapidated structure.
With rotting wood, exposed wiring, chipped paint and shattered plaster around every corner, the condition of the building gives the appearance of being abandoned and possibly haunted, so much so that even Grimm, NBC’s supernatural television series, has contacted them about using the site as a potential location for filming.
Bringing this building back to life will be a delicate and complex process. In the end, Burke hopes the new hotel will have a positive impact on the community.
“We hope that this is successful for us, but we also hope that this is successful for everybody,” Burke says. “It’s not hard — it’s a vacant building. The fact that something would be in a vacant building is exciting.”
Burke says that when it comes down to it, it’s that simple.
“We’re hoping to have a hundred people a day there that weren’t there before, roaming the streets and checking out the shops in the area, and that’s good for everybody.”