Brian's Photo Blog — Article 669
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Exploring the McMenamins Crystal Blocks
Saturday 8 July 2017   —   Category: Outings
In the McMenamins Pacific Northwest brewpub empire, there are a fair number of historical buildings and properties which have been lovingly and beau­ti­ful­ly restored. Among these are two along West Burnside Street in downtown Port­land, Oregon.

The historic (built 1914) Crystal Ball­room building, between SW 13th and 14th Avenues, houses Ringlers Pub, the Crystal Brewery, Lola’s Room, and of course, the Crystal Ballroom itself.

One block to the east, between West Burnside & SW Stark Streets and SW 12th & 13th Avenues, an entire wedge-shaped block contains the historic (built 1910) Crystal Hotel, with the Zeus Café on the ground floor, and the abutting historic (built 1917) Ringlers Annex, with Al’s Den sharing an underground space with the two buildings.

Taken together, McMenamins calls these eight venues on the two adjacent Crystal Ballroom and Crystal Hotel properties the Crystal Blocks.

I first visited the Crystal Blocks in Sep­tem­ber 2015 during the second half of my twelve and a half mile hike along Burnside Street, when I stopped for a bit to eat and to drink at Ringlers Pub.

My second visit was in June 2016, when I had a truly scrumptious breakfast at the Zeus Café before exploring Portland’s NW Alphabet District.

Up to that point, out of the seven re­quired stamps for the Crystal Blocks on Page 10 of my McMenamins Passport, I had gotten only the stamp for the Zeus Café, as I had not yet started my Mc­Men­a­mins Passport adventure when I refreshed myself at Ringlers Pub. I was definitely going to be returning to the Crystal Blocks to get the remaining six stamps.

Some Passport stamps require that you buy a ticket — usually one of their nine theaters, but also for the Crystal Ballroom itself and for Lola’s Room on the floor below.

It is doubtful that I would ever attend an event in either of these venues, but fortunately McMenamins offers a daily 2:00 PM tour of the building, which takes you through these two rooms, and allows you to get your stamps without buying tickets.

That is very accommodating and I really appreciate it!

After my October 2016 outing to Portland’s Japanese Garden, and lunch at McMenamins Market Street Pub, I arrived at Ringlers Pub around 1:30. That gave me enough time to enjoy a seasonal blackberry cider before the 2:00 Crystal Ballroom tour.
First stop on the tour was the second-​floor Crystal Brewery. We were not able to go inside, but merely looked and took pictures through the window. But that was OK, because I had been on Mc­Men­a­mins brewery tours before, and they all start to feel the same. After all, beer-​making is beer-​making. And now for something completely different....

Lola Baldwin was one of the first female police officers in the country, working with the Portland police department as the superintendent of the Women’s Pro­tec­tive Division, with the rank of de­tec­tive, from 1908 to 1922. The goal was to cleanse and uplift the evil city, and make it morally and physically safe for fam­i­lies, single working women, and chil­dren. She led a crusade against venues that she believed contributed to the ex­ploi­ta­tion of young women, which in­clud­ed dance halls.

In the early 1920s she repeatedly raided the Cotillion Hall (the original name of the Crystal Ballroom) for morally of­fen­sive jazz dancing. “A great majority of women and girls owe their downfall to the dance hall,” Baldwin declared. Sti­fling regulations were passed and dance steps were banned. Baldwin even tried to impose a standardized dance position from which no one was permitted to stray. A dance hall inspector made the rounds of all the city’s public ballrooms to ensure no funny business was hap­pening.

About twenty years later, she wrote a letter, published in The Oregonian news­pa­per, decrying the sale of alcoholic bev­er­ag­es at dance halls. In light of all this history, and Lola’s antagonistic con­nec­tion to the Crystal Ballroom building, it was with a cheeky sense of irony and humor that McMenamins named the building’s smaller concert and dance venue Lola’s Room, and that one of the McMenamins artists painted her larger-​than-​life portrait on a beer-​making tank in the brewery. She must be turning in her grave!

Speaking of Lola’s Room, that was the next stop on the tour. It was just down the hall from the brewery, on the second floor.

The third and final stop on the tour was the magnificent third-​floor Crystal Ball­room, with its exceptional ‘floating’ dance floor. This historic dance hall, built in 1914, has had a fascinating his­to­ry spanning over a century. As Mc­Men­a­mins puts it:

The hall has seen countless first loves unfold, police raids, visits by silent screen idols and Beat poets, psychedelic light shows, narrow escapes from fire, demolition, and neglect, and a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it is a vital, thriving Mc­Men­a­mins owned and operated live music palace that hosts everything from rock and roll and country to hip-hop and big band swing.

In their literature and on their tours, Mc­Men­a­mins likes to promote the idea that some of their historic locations are haunted. Our tour guide spent some time telling Crystal Ballroom ghost stories (follow the link and scroll down to the Manifestations section).

I wasn’t interested in all that blah blah blah, so I wandered away from the group to admire the ballroom in more detail, and to take some pictures.

One highlight of the hall is the large paintings on the wall opposite the huge windows. Created by McMenamins art­ists, these striking pieces of art must be eight to ten feet in diameter. Most of them did not seem to be signed by the artists, so perhaps they were a group effort.

Another captivating attraction is the two Murano glass chandeliers, from an orig­i­nal set of three.

After getting my three Passport stamps for the Crystal Ballroom building I walked east one block to the Crystal Hotel. The Ringlers Annex and Al’s Den bars were not open yet, so I decided to concentrate on getting the stamp for the hotel first.

In order to get a Passport stamp for a McMenamins hotel, you have to find a certain piece of art or an object and take a selfie in front of it. The clue is gen­er­al­ly found at the front desk. When I was visiting that day, the clue was:

It is here that you must find the beauty of life and death combined. A wreath of blossoms grace your head, a shawl of life to crown the dead.

I spent some time wandering up and down the halls of the hotel, on multiple floors, looking for something on the walls that would match the poetic clue. Eventually I came to a piece of art by one of the McMenamins artists, painted in honor of the Grateful Dead, using the skull and roses imagery from the cover of their untitled 1971 live album.

It seemed to fit the clue, so I took a low-​quality selfie with my iPad Mini. As I have written previously, seeing that I hate the selfie craze, it is very ironic that in order to get certain McMenamins Passport stamps I have to take a selfie.

By this time Ringlers Annex was open­ing at 3:00, so I went to the other end of the block to get my stamp. As you can see, they have both indoor and sidewalk seating, just like Zeus Café next door.

I had originally planned to have a drink here, but I was still full from the pint of cider so I just stuck to the stamp. I wouldn’t mind going back there one day and spending more time there.

The bartender also gave me the stamp for Al’s Den. This music venue and bar in the basement under Ringlers Annex and part of the Crystal Hotel (there’s a soaking pool in the other part of the basement!) is open irregular hours, only when there is an event.

Al’s Den is accessed through cellar doors flush with the side­walk on the west end of Ringlers Annex. As you can see in the lower-​left of this photo, the doors are under a type of covered porch with a railing on each side. This serves both to keep the rain off the stairs during Oregon’s long rainy season and to keep people from accidentally falling in.

Because the doors were open, I went down to take a look around. It’s a really cool spot, with a small bar in the front and a large room behind. Unfortunately, it was so dark that I wasn’t able to get any good pictures. But at least I got this one at the entrance.
Now that I had collected the four stamps for the Crystal Hotel buidling, I had completed Page 10 in my Passport. So I went back to the hotel front desk in order to collect my prize.

McMenamins hotels generally give you a choice of prizes. Sometimes they are pretty decent, and sometimes it’s thin pickin’s. In this instance there was nothing very interesting to choose from.

After a few agonizing moments of deliberation, I finally settled on a small matchbox with a nighttime photo of the Crystal Ballroom building, as you can see in the photo below.

Well, I don’t know that it is exactly a matchbox, even though it came filled with matches, because there is no place to strike a match to light it.

No items like this are sold in the McMenamins online store. However, I did find similar ones in the Edgefield gift shop. They called them “mint boxes” and were sell­ing them for a spendy $6.95. I don’t know if they con­tained mints or matches, or were empty. Whoop-dee-do!

I took a total of 46 photos that October day at the Crystal Blocks. The best 34 have been added to the Mc­Men­a­mins Crystal Blocks 2016 album.

For more tales about other locations, see My McMenamins Passport Adventure.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 669
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