July 29, 2015

Fall Asleep in Class at Portland, Oregon’s Kennedy School

  • By: Lauren Walser

Kennedy School in northeast Portland, Oregon, was built in 1915.

Go ahead -- drink a beer or take a nap at northeast Portland, Oregon’s Kennedy Elementary School. We promise you won’t get detention.

Since its doors re-opened in 1997, Kennedy School, as it’s now called, has traded in reading, writing, and arithmetic for something a little different, thanks to its new owners, McMenamins. The popular Portland-based chain worked its magic on the long-vacant school, turning it into a combination hotel, restaurant, bar, brewery, theater, music venue, community garden, and community gathering space.

It was a big, but welcome, change for the elementary school building, completed in 1915. The last school bell rang there in 1975. Enrollment was declining, and the building was in desperate need of many expensive repairs. So it closed, and students were sent elsewhere in the school district.

Left: The entrance to Kennedy School, which now houses hotel rooms, bars, a restaurant, a brewery, a movie theater, and community gathering spaces. Right: Hotel guests can relax in the soaking pool, located in a courtyard where the former teacher’s lounge was located.

Then the school sat vacant for years. Demolition orders were issued. Its structure crumbled from neglect. Finally, a band of neighbors, former students, and other community leaders came together in the early 1990s to figure out a solution for the beloved local landmark. The group put out a request for proposals. McMenamins won the bid.

Renovations began in the spring of 1997. It was no small feat: The building needed new pipes and a new electrical system and a number of structural upgrades.

“But the bones were there,” says Renee Rank Ignacio, McMenamins’ marketing director.

Some of the hotel rooms located in former classrooms feature original chalkboards.

The school re-opened that October looking very much like the school it originally was -- the old chalkboards stayed in place, original 1915 bas-relief panels on the walls were restored, and you could still get a sip of water from the kid-sized drinking fountains.

But there were some obvious differences.

For one, sleeping is now encouraged. Former classrooms were converted into hotel rooms, with the original chalkboards and cloakrooms intact. Other rooms in what is now called the English Wing are around the school’s courtyard and feature literature-inspired themes.

Overnight guests get free passes to the on-site movie theater, located in the school’s former auditorium, as well as access to the soaking pools.

Kennedy School’s Courtyard Restaurant is located inside the school’s former cafeteria, with seating outside on the patio.

There are plenty of places to grab a drink, too. There’s the multi-level Broiler Room Bar, a bar located, unsurprisingly, in the former broiler room. And there’s the Cypress Room, which focuses on international rums. The Detention Bar permits cigar smoking, while Honors Bar plays classical and operatic music for its guests.

For hungrier visitors, there’s the Courtyard Restaurant, which serves classic pub food in the school’s former cafeteria and out in the courtyard, complete with fire pits.

And while there are new additions to the décor, like murals inspired by the school’s history that have been painted throughout the building, much of what’s on display is archival material -- like old photos and yearbooks, donated by former students.

Says Rank Ignacio, “When people walk in here now, they think it’s still a school.”

Read more about new uses for old school buildings in the upcoming Fall 2015 issue of Preservation.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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