The Mariners Building was built in 1881 by the Portland Seamen’s Friend Society, an organization dedicated to providing a better standard of living for the sailors upon whose backs so much of Portland’s industry rested. The Mariners Building served as a safe place and boarding house for sailors, its objective to keep them away from the harmful influence of booze, drugs, and the Shanghai tunnels during their stay in Portland. The building’s owners and purposes have changed over the years, but its cast-iron facade and recessed pilasters have remained largely the same. Only about 20 such facades remain in Portland today, and the only greater concentrations of such architectural gems in the United States today is in Lower Manhattan.
The Years Between
Originally, the building was only three stories tall, but In 1891, 10 years after its initial construction, the sturdy brick structure was elevated and a new first floor was constructed to provide four full floors. In 1938, a guest scribbled on one hotel room’s wall: “The Frisco Kid stopped here … headed south.” The message still stands nearly 80 years later, an echo of the wanderers and wayfarers who have lain their heads to rest in our hallowed halls. Through the 1960s and 70s, the Mariners Building’s first floor found new life as a Chinese dance hall and a center of activity for Chinese citizen groups and Chinatown’s thriving community. In 1990, parts of the hotel were used for the 1990 movie “Come See the Paradise” starring Dennis Quaid and depicting a Japanese-American family torn apart by the American internment camps of WWII. Legend holds that even gypsy royalty once inhabited our fine establishment during its dormant decades, and when the clan’s matriarch died, a parade was staged in her honor all along 3rd Avenue.
In 2013, Jessie Burke, Jonathan Cohen, Matt Siegel, and Gabe Genauer acquired the building and began a total renovation project to restore this once-great building to its former glory and become home to The Society Hotel. The building’s upper floors had not been touched since 1945, and exploring them for the first time in 68 years later was like stepping into the past. The upper floors were practically a time capsule, providing a still life of what life was like here in the final years of WWII. Old stoves, furniture, dishes, garments, roller skates, and WWI newspapers, all were found just as they’d been left. A jug of wine was discovered between floorboards during renovation. It had likely been stowed there for safe-keeping during Prohibition. Once uncovered, it dropped 18 feet to a hard landing without breaking–a telling homage to the building that has endured so much history of its own. Today, with the birth of The Society Hotel, we look to the future, where a new and vibrant history will be written in these rooms and halls. You might find yourself in those pages yet to be.