Kennedy School – Portland, OR

July 22, 2002

I had read about Kennedy School online before hitting the road, so I knew a little about it in advance. What I didn’t expect was how nice it would be. I had envisioned—for what reason I have no idea—an urban school, maybe several stories high, with a small restaurant inside the lobby or next door. Therefore the full block expanse of sprawling school, smack in the middle of a residential area, came as a surprise to me.

Still maintaining the outward appearance of the actual elementary school it used to be, this is one of several historical sites developed and run by the McMenamin brothers, who’ve created an empire of unique restaurant, pub, and lodging locations scattered around Oregon and Washington.

Considering I was a primary grade teacher back in the 70s, I felt like I should be digging in my book bag for lesson plans as I walked up to the front entrance. I stepped inside and looked around, impressed. Artwork and mosaic sculpting filled the long corridors. Even the rugs resembled those gray mats designed to keep school hallways from turning into giant Slip-N-Slides on rainy school days. 

The former school auditorium now served as a movie theater, with a posted schedule of films to be shown. In addition to regular seating rows, plush couches, chairs, and end tables had been added, creating a perfect theater/living room combination. Not to leave anything missing, a nearby snack bar served popcorn, pizza and, of course, beer, the McMenamins’ trademark. 

The Courtyard Restaurant, located not far from the movie theater, boasted a large interior dining room of booths, tables, and colorful hanging lanterns. An outdoor patio offered additional seating around a sculpted fireplace. 

Just down the hall, a door led to the Soaking Pool, which measured 35 feet by 8 feet by 3 ½ feet deep, with water set at 102 degrees. Accessible by key only—for guests or paid visitors from the community—a hidden haven of mosaic work and garden beauty surrounded this oasis of a hot tub. 

Artwork is prominent throughout Kennedy School, from the four bas relief panels in the front entry—reproductions of Luca della Robbia’s works for the cathedral in Florence, Italy—to the wonderful murals by local artists that are scattered throughout the buildings, depicting life in Portland in the early 20th century. It seemed everywhere I turned a new painting or architectural detail caught my attention. 

So I asked to see a room. I mean, why not? I needed a place to stay anyway, and wasn’t committed yet to anything for that particular night, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take a peek at the accommodations. Well, so much for taking a quick look. I wanted to move in, especially with a package deal that included plush accommodations, breakfast, dinner, movies, soaking pool, and free ale, all for about a hundred bucks – a complete vacation in one easy budget.

Lodging at Kennedy School is uniquely situated in former classrooms, with thirty-five guest rooms in all. Chalkboards still remain on the walls, and chalk and erasers are provided. I was given the Toy Boat Room, located at the far end of a typical school corridor. I dropped my purse on the bed and looked around at the antique furnishings and lush red drapes. The ceiling must have been twenty feet high, the floors were hardwood, and the windows seemed to go on forever. Two mugs sat on decorated coasters, along with a jar for retrieving a complimentary beer from one of the pubs on the property. I would later negotiate a Diet Coke with my drink coupon.

Memories of teaching school flooded back to me. I looked at the chalkboard and did the only logical thing: I wrote my name, followed by a list of student names, which flowed from the past as easily as if it were only yesterday that I stood in front of a room full of first-graders in Venice, California, introducing myself. 

But that was 1974 and this was 2002, so I set the chalk back in the metal tray, admired a Robert Louis Stevenson poem that was painted on the wall, and then brought my belongings in from the car. I set up my laptop and connected easily into the internet. 

I was off the road early, compared to my usual travel mode, so I enjoyed the luxury lounging around after showering and washing my hair in the large, pristine-clean bathroom. After sitting at the room’s antique desk for some writing time, I eventually wandered back out and down the hall to check out the movie theater.

A chalkboard by the auditorium-turned-theater indicated The Rookie was showing at 5:30. It wasn’t in my plans to see a movie, but I hadn’t seen this one before, it was only fifteen minutes before the film started, and admission to the theatre was complimentary for lodging guests. I helped myself to a giant glass of cool water from a large container filled with ice and lemon slices, near the back of the theatre. Finding a cozy stuffed armchair about halfway up to the screen, I settled in for movie viewing. 

Maybe it was because I was away from home, or relaxed from an earlier check-in time than usual, or simply in adventure mode, but I found the movie unexpectedly moving. I didn’t see it as being about baseball, but instead about choices we make in life, how and why we make those choices, and the importance of making decisions for ourselves, not because of the expectations of others in our lives. For me, The Rookie was a journey into soul-searching. 

I left the theatre bleary-eyed from introspection—or lust over Dennis Quaid, one or the other—and returned once again to the room to check email and get my dinner coupon.

Returning to the main area, I grabbed a table in the fairly-crowded Courtyard Restaurant, formerly the school cafeteria but now a dark, comfortable eatery with large booths and an attractive assortment of hanging lamps in varying shapes and colors. I annoyed staff and customers in my usual manner, flitting around with my camera, then took a seat and splurged on blackened prime rib, served with garlic mashed potatoes and seasoned veggies. They subbed a Diet Coke for my free ale, as I suspected they would. 

The meal was delicious and exceeded my dinner coupon allowance by just pennies. When the restaurant computer tallied everything up, vouchers included, my bill was exactly twenty-five cents. Amazingly, I had found a quarter on the floor, underneath the table. So I set the quarter on the whopping bill, left a sizable tip for the server—who was wonderful, showing none of the single person lesser service that I’ve experienced now and then—and started back to my room. 

I stopped in at the Soaking Pool to admire the garden and mosaic work but didn’t have time to enjoy the pool myself, as it closed at 10PM. The movie and dinner had consumed most of the evening.

After a sound night’s sleep on a heavenly mattress with luxurious sheets, I woke up to early morning coffee in the room, followed by a delicious ham and cheese omelette with home fries, back in the Courtyard Restaurant – not an easy choice, as Blueberry French Toast was another option.

I reluctantly checked out around 10AM after picking up a T-shirt and coffee beans from the gift shop. I left determined to visit other McMenamins’ locations in the future. I recommend this not only as a destination for those traveling through Portland, but also for locals in need of an easy retreat. Grab a room and enjoy everything Kennedy School has to offer. Looking for an entertaining escape from everyday life? It just might be time to go back to school.