I spent a long weekend at McMenamins Kennedy School Hotel recently, a bit of whimsy that I initially thought about last year, when we went to Portland for our first visit with Michael's son, MG, and his family. The hotel popped up on a Google search of Portland hotels and it looked interesting, a hotel in a school with a salt-water soaking pool. Last year, however, they were booked for some of the nights we needed and I put us in the Doubletree instead. (Gotta love those cookies!!)
This year, I determined to get into the Kennedy School and I booked early. Michael wanted to go to a hotel closer to MG et al, but the Kennedy School just appealed to me and I talked him into it. I was, therefore, the one on the hook when we arrived at the hotel and were underwhelmed by our first impression.
In fairness, we arrived late - two hours later by Houston time than it was in Portland - tired, and hungry. Our room, Thumbelina, had the vaultingly high ceilings of an old elementary school, a wall of windows at least eight feet tall, and a small space heater to combat the icy atmosphere. We put down our suitcases, jacked the heater up to high heat and max blower, and went to dinner.
Along the way to the restaurant, we looked out the window to get a glimpse of the saltwater soaking pool that had captured my interest online. It was outdoors, a fact that I knew but had not, until that moment, realized meant outside in the cold. And, because it was closed, it was swathed in plastic insulating tarps, making it look as uninviting as possible. What have I done? I wondered. This place is going to be awful.
The hamburger I had in the restaurant tasted great and the roaring fire in the adjacent courtyard looked inviting, but we were still cold and apprehensive. Walking back to Thumbelina, we noticed a plethora of artwork on the walls and signs pointing the way to the Honors Bar, the Detention Bar, and the Boiler Room Bar. There were quite a few people in the hallways and the premises looked very big and spread out, which, in fact, they were.
Unfortunately, Thumbelina had not warmed up appreciably in our absence. I did take a minute to notice the welcome sign written on the chalkboard, the lines from the story of Thumbelina inscribed on the wall, and the mural of leaves sprouting and spreading around the top of the room.
The chalkboard ranged across one entire wall. The headboard of the bed appeared to be an antique that may have started life as a door, the storage in the room consisted of a wardrobe and two bedside tables. The room offered a table and chair as a desk and a comfortable Victorian sofa for seating. Period pillows rested on the sofa and the bed.
We took care of personal necessities in a rather unimpressive bathroom, outfitted with a pedestal sink, a small, square shower, and two shelves to store our toiletries. The only decoration consisted of Thumbelina's leaves invading the bathroom walls like kudzu. Having done everything possible to delay undressing in our Arctic room, we gave in and got ready for bed. As I pulled my slinky, satiny nightgown over my head, I wondered why I hadn't thought to bring flannel jammies.
Day two began somewhat better because, when we woke up, the room actually felt warm. We had breakfast in the Courtyard Restaurant, which Michael enjoyed and I did not. I had muesli, which tasted okay, but the waiter served my steamer lukewarm. In case you aren't familiar with them, a steamer is frothed, flavored, steamed milk, a latte for people who don't like coffee. (I got a lukewarm steamer with a deeply frothed top in a latte cup on Friday and a piping hot steamer with no froth in a glass on Saturday. Call me picky, but neither one made me happy.)
After breakfast, we decided, with some trepidation, to try the saltwater spa. When we arrived at the changing room and got ready, I wondered what the heck we were doing. Walking out the door to the atrium produced chills on every square inch of my body, but, oh, the water was heaven! Soaking in that hot water, watching the steam rise lazily from its surface, occasionally wafted one way or the other by a stray breeze, and admiring the lush greenery, which included banana trees, I felt absolute contentment. This is why I came here, I thought, this is perfect.
The Kennedy School's place in its community unfolded for us when a play group of toddlers and parents began to assemble in the pool. They were not rowdy or unruly; perhaps something about the hot saltwater relaxed and soothed everyone as much as it did me, and we shared the pool contentedly until Michael and I felt ready to leave.
Over the four days we spent at the Kennedy School, I came to appreciate the atmosphere of community it fostered. The school auditorium had become a movie theater which was sold out every time we tried to see a movie. (The lesson there is to plan ahead, because guests can attend movies for free. Outsiders have to pay $5.00.)
The two-story Boiler Room Bar has fixtures and railings made from parts of old mechanical heating plants and a cute, little, waist-high, open-topped elevator to get disabled visitors downstairs. The place had a crowd every time we walked by. The Honors Bar, by comparison, fit into what had probably been a janitor's closet and had no customers when we visited. We did not ever get to the Detention Bar, but I imagine it had a bigger population than the Honors Bar.
Having stayed at the Kennedy School Hotel once, I have satisfied my curiosity sufficiently and may never stay there again. But I definitely recommend it to others. Just remember to pack warm pjs for the first night if you visit during cold weather, and plan to get your steamer fix at a nearby Starbucks instead of the Courtyard Restaurant.
Repurposing old buildings into something productive and community-building is a feat that I wish Houston businesses would emulate. Our wonderful Alabama Bookstore, an old-time movie theater turned into a Barnes and Noble bookstore for many years, might still be operating instead of facing a wrecking ball if Houston took renewal as seriously as Portland does. McMenamins would be a good source of information about conversions of old properties because they have successfully converted several in Portland and its surrounds. Hey, Houston developers, check them out!!.