Of the 56 McMenamins bars, hotels, and theaters around Washington and Oregon, almost all of them used to be something else. There’s an old elementary school, a former Masonic retirement home, an ex-mission, and a repurposed brothel or two. Now they’re all McMenamins—a chain that represents the curious intersection of architectural preservation, Northwest hospitality, and drinking culture.
Not that Brian and Mike McMenamin, who opened their first pub in 1974, would call it a chain. The Portland-raised brothers, chill as a pair of aging hippies, shrug off categorization. “We’re just a bunch of pubs,” says Mike.
“We get nervous with some of those names,” adds Brian. “Chain and empire are two of the worst ones, I think.” Whatever they call them, the 56 properties add up; they’re so common around Portland that one blog labels them “McDonaldmins.” The pub fare most serve—burgers, fries, pizzas—has an unremarkable reputation, and the two Seattle eateries, the Six Arms in Capitol Hill and McMenamins in Lower Queen Anne, fly under the radar. But the McMenamins have built a family business that has employed all five of their adult children and saved some of the Northwest’s historic structures.
“We take buildings forward and make them viable rather than a museum piece,” says Mike; their model is the opposite of mothballing. They started on crumbling old relics simply because the old buildings were cheaper than new construction. “The stuff we buy, there is no competition,” adds Brian.
The not-an-empire’s biggest property is Edgefield, the former Multnomah County Poor Farm, on the eastern fringe of the Portland suburbs. It’s not exactly a resort, but it has a spa and two par-three golf courses. It’s not primarily a production site, but around the 1911 brick edifice are vineyards, a winery, a brewery, and a distillery. Locals know it as a music venue for the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though the outdoor amphitheater is little more than a sloped corner of a big field.
What Edgefield is, what every McMenamins property is, is a pub—in the broadest sense of the word. There are no stark divisions between where you eat, drink, sleep, or socialize. The brothers wander the Edgefield property in fleece and hardy Northwest sandals, giddily pointing out the bars in every corner of the property: one tucked into the old icehouse, another in a garden shed, and one under the front stairs.
Like many of the company’s nine hotels, most of the Edgefield rooms are European style, sharing hall bathrooms; the brothers just don’t see the need to add in-room loos to the older spaces. They cite affection for hotels like San Francisco’s San Remo, which has merely one shower to serve 10 rooms (at McMenamins, it’s closer to one for every five or six rooms).
The McMenamin aesthetic is one constant throughout the disparate buildings from different eras, a golden-hued blend of quirk and kitsch. It incorporates stained glass windows, repurposed metalwork, wall murals, exotic tchotchkes, and vintage posters. There’s never a white wall, and even the exposed pipework is decorated with tiny goblin faces.
On one corner of Edgefield’s 74 acres sits a former county jail, a concrete structure with a central guard station and nine wings emerging like spokes. It’s rusty, dusty, and institutional. But Mike and Brian see its future: nine wings of hotel rooms with cinderblock walls and steel ceilings, maybe a wine tasting room in the center, probably a bar in the basement.
They may have secured corporate success with their model, but no company has seriously tried to buy them out: “Nobody’s that crazy,” says Mike from behind a brushy gray beard. They’ve purchased the sites for their next two hotels, a former Elks Lodge in Tacoma and the old Anderson School in Bothell. Each will have some combination of bars, eateries, soaking pools, and game parlors meant to draw guests out of solitary rooms and into shared spaces.
“We really have always been a pub,” says Mike. “But the definition of a pub keeps evolving.”