Apart from fever dreams of growing up in Nanaimo, never would I have imagined victoriously walking down a high school hallway with an unconcealed beer cradled in my hand like a golden chalice — let alone purchasing said beer in a bar located in the bowels of the school before heading to the auditorium to watch a band perform.
But that is exactly what I did on a recent pilgrimage to Portland, Ore.
Maybe it’s a lack of red tape and bureaucracy, less stringent liquor laws or more creatively-minded developers, but there are things you can do in Portland that you can’t do in Vancouver.
You can sip coffee in an old auto body shop, sleep in what was once a department store and, yes, drink and rock out in a former high school.
That’s not to say Portland is blemish free when it comes to preserving its heritage. Last year, the City of Roses saw 376 residential homes demolished. But that’s still a far cry from the nearly 1,000 buildings that came tumbling down in Vancouver. And unlike Vancouver, Portland boasts a bounty of repurposed spaces that have avoided the wrecking ball through adaptation and ingenuity.
Situated in the always-surprising, mixed-industrial Central Eastside neighbourhood, Coava Coffee Brew Bar, like dozens of local caffeine dealers, roasts its own single-origin beans and serves a mean pour-over. But it also occupies a former auto body shop that sat vacant for years before the coffee geeks inherited the earth. The 10,000-square foot space is shared with Bamboo Revolution, which showcases the collective’s stylish bamboo designs, from furniture to luggage, while the airy room retains much of the former shop’s industrial feel with salvaged machinery and repurposed work tables.
For a higher calling, head over to Taborspace, located in the chapel commons of the century-old Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church. Or catch a ride to Tōv, an Egyptian coffee house that operates inside a colourful, double-decker bus parked in the Southeast Hawthorne neighbourhood.
Something to chew on
Eschewing the all-too-common food court offerings of grease and sadness, the relatively new Pine Street Market is located on the ground floor of the 1880s Baggage and Carriage Building. The downtown space was originally used as a livery and horse-drawn carriage garage before morphing into a storage facility, then an Old Spaghetti Factory, before shaking its booty in a string of failed nightclubs. These days, and a $5-million reno later, Pine Street Market is a buzzing food hall of gourmet vendors and communal seating, featuring everything from killer bibimbap courtesy of Kim Jong Smokehouse to gourmet hotdogs from OP Wurst, Salt & Straw ice cream and Marukin Ramen, one of the first stateside outposts of the famed Japanese ramen chain. And you can order and drink a delicious beer with your meal. Sweet relief.
Across the river, Olympia Provisions doles out charcuterie goodness and other West Coast-inspired delights from its corner ground floor space in the Olympic Mills Commerce Center. Erected in the 1920s, the former Olympic Cereal Mill occupies an entire city block and once boasted an eight-storey grain elevator. In 2007, it was transformed into the “dynamic hive of creative offices” and ground floor retail spaces.
Built in 1924, Southeast Portland’s Washington High School eventually closed its doors in 1981, serving as administrative offices before sitting vacant for years. Although the brick building was used periodically for arts festivals, it reopened in earnest in early 2015, with classrooms converted into office space for a number of creative agencies, the corporate offices for grocery chain New Seasons Market occupying the top two floors and the auditorium revamped into a soft seater music venue called Revolution Hall.
To appease the hungry and thirsty masses, Marthas operates a full-service bar and eatery connected to Revolution Hall. Plus one of the bartenders apologized for his country’s president and bought me a free drink when he learned I was Canadian. So I am forever charmed.
Further afield, near the Alberta arts district, the Kennedy School is a circa 1915 elementary school operated by McMenamins, with classrooms converted into 57 guest rooms, a gymnasium that screens nightly movies, a restaurant, a soaking pool, several bars and a brewery set in the former girls’ lavatory, which might be the most quintessentially Portland sentence I’ve ever typed.
If you go…
In addition to the scholastic-minded Kennedy School, repurposed spaces enthusiasts can bunk down at the Hotel Monaco (formerly a Lipman’s department store), the Nines (formerly a Meier & Frank department store), or 1960s motor lodge-turned-boutique party palace the Jupiter Hotel.
Note: the writer was a guest of Travel Portland. For more info, go to travelportland.com.