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A Safe Place for Sailors
Built in 1881, The Seaman’s Friends Society constructed this hotel, the Mariners Building, to serve as a safe haven for sailors who came into port and were often exploited and hoodwinked by ship captains and crimps. Seeking to get sailors back onto ships for another tour, it became hard to find willing folks to return to this dangerous and arduous work of being a sailor, so ship captains turned to crimps whose job it was to get young sailors into debt during their stay in Portland, with housing, food, drinks and prostitutes, so that they would have to return to the ship to pay off their debt. The Mariners Building, now The Society Hotel, was one of the only safe places for sailors to lay their heads.
The building was originally three stories, and was later lifted, and what is now the first floor was constructed. The unique window configuration on the front of the building is attributed to the fact that it was once the entryway. One of only twenty cast-iron front buildings in Portland, the unique Italianate architectural style has been studied by many, and revered by the architectural community.
Several years after The Seaman’s Friends Society opened as a hotel, business began to dwindle, and the building was eventually rented to the Portland Hospital for one year. During the renovation process, the original register of patients was found, with signatures of visitors including Lovejoy, Ladd and Hawthorne.
The California Hotel
In the early 1900s until the bombing at Pearl Harbor, the Mariners Building was home to The California Hotel, a Japanese owned hotel that served primarily Japanese immigrants. Portland’s Japantown, or Nihonmachi, had its heyday from 1910 to 1941. After the Chinese Exclusion Act, but before the Immigration Act of 1924, a significant number of Japanese came to work for the railroads, lumber companies, farmers and canneries.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the owners of the California Hotel were sent to government internment camps, and the building was sold to a Chinese fraternity (tong).
The Last 70 Years…
The Chinese American Citizens Alliance (C.A.C.A) had their meetings and social events in the Mariners Building for many years, and during renovation, many Chinese newspapers were found, as well as artifacts from their time, including an old C.A.C.A. banner and safe that is on display in our stairwell.
Through the years there were many other communities that made their start in Mariner’s Building, including many Jewish merchants, Gypsy royalty who lived on several floors, and most recently, the MacDonald Center – a nonprofit that serves those in need and still exists today just up the road.
The Society Hotel
In 2013, Matt Siegel reached out to long time friend Jonathan Cohen to pitch the idea of a hotel in Old Town. An avid traveler, he wanted to bring a unique hospitality proposition to the city he loved, and needed a team to do it.
After Jonathan assured him he was crazy, Jonathan shared the idea with his wife, Jessie Burke. A long-time traveler herself, and knowing the unique opportunity of Old Town, having worked in a developing neighborhood with her other business (Posies Bakery & Cafe), she assured Jonathan this was not crazy, but perfect. And so the team began the work of finding a property.
More than simply taking over an existing hotel, the team’s objective was to transform something dormant and forgotten, to revitalize it, making a lasting, worthwhile change in an area where such change was needed. Matt, a building contractor specializing in historic restoration and preservation, coupled with Jessie’s vast experience with community building and hospitality, and Jonathan’s engineering background and business that specializes in retrofitting commercial and residential energy systems, they seemed to have the perfect skills to enter the hotel business – or at least the chutzpah to try.
As the team readied to secure the finances required through lenders and crowd-sourcing, they met with Gabe Genauer, one of Jonathan’s colleagues in the construction industry. Gabe originally came in to consult, but after a looking through the building, the business plan, and the incredible view from atop the Mariners Building, he immediately declared his desire to be a part of the team. So with his vast knowledge and experience in the commercial real estate development, Gabe joined Jonathan, Jessie, and Matt as their fourth partner, and the The Society Hotel was born.