PORTLAND, Ore. -- The first thing that comes to mind when I enter the McMenamins Kennedy School -- an impressively original bed-and-breakfast housed in a former elementary school here -- is the sense of being lost on the first day of class.
Like many educational institutions constructed during the first half of the 20th century, the building is designed with two wings that branch from the main entrance. It resembles an experimental maze in which your biology teacher might place a quivering mouse. In other words, every corridor you turn down looks a lot like the one before it.
But the Kennedy School is not like the schools that came before it. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it opened in 1913, with 29 students showing up for classes taught in portable one-room structures. When the first permanent building was erected, in 1915, the Italian-style villa sat three blocks beyond the nearest streetcar terminus. In 1980, it was closed because of disrepair and low enrollment. But these days, the Kennedy School is a flourishing 35-room inn just a 10-minute drive from downtown Portland.
The lodge is an admirably self-contained complex. It has its own microbrewery, a courtyard restaurant, four specialty bars, a movie theater, a gymnasium, a beautifully tiled outdoor soaking pool, and a souvenir shop filled with various McMenamins tchotchkes.
Known as a top Pacific Northwest brewpub and hotel company, McMenamins runs six hotels in Oregon and Washington, each with an intriguing past life, including one in a once-notorious gambler's club (the Olympic Club Hotel) and another in a former Western Union office (the Hotel Oregon). The brothers McMenamin, Mike and Brian, have built their empire on respectable microbrews and quirkily revamped historical properties.
The Kennedy School's setting in a tree-lined, northeast Portland neighborhood makes it particularly attractive for retreat weekends and family reunions. The small city of Portland, situated on the banks of the Willamette River and surrounded by a regal triumvirate of Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens, has the double boon of being close to nature and culturally cosmopolitan at the same time.
Home to a population of 530,000, Portland has a cutting-edge restaurant scene, public arts projects designed by world-renowned artists, and thriving galleries, museums, and design stores located in the Pearl District's turn-of-the-century warehouses. It's also where you'll find Powell's City of Books, the celebrated independent bookstore that occupies an entire city block.
Despite the perks of the surrounding area, I harbored doubts about any hotel housed in an old school and claiming to be "steeped in vintage charm." But during our stay at the Kennedy School, my opinion was radically revised: The inn may have started as a clever idea, but what makes it truly stylish and comfortable is the attention to detail.
The classrooms have been refurbished into large suites (each with fairy-tale names such as the Thumbelina Room and Mr. Toad's Room) with high ceilings, walls of windows, and painted murals. Smartly updated with comfortable queen beds, throw rugs, and minimalist bathrooms, the rooms have incorporated original elements into their design: pull-down chalkboards over the cloakrooms (now spacious guest closets), stately antique writing desks, and hardwood floors.
Out in the corridors, there is also plenty to distract. A potpourri of sepia-toned photos and eclectic local artwork lines the walls. On the way to breakfast at the lively Courtyard Restaurant, one cannot help but pause every few paces to peer at the extensive collection of historical photographs documenting the school's evolution over the past century. Colorful murals and mosaics depicting maypole dances on the grounds and other scenes from the past take their place above porcelain water fountains located at knee level (which guests under 12 will no doubt appreciate).
Being a true B&B, the hotel includes breakfast every morning in its restaurant, the erstwhile school cafeteria. The food, however, has no doubt improved since those lunch-tray days. Among the best choices on the menu are heaping stacks of pancakes made with McMenamins' own Terminator Stout, fresh fruit with granola, and a hearty tofu scramble with bell peppers, mushrooms, and fragrant herbs. (If you are the type who likes to have all your meals in one, there's always the chicken-fried steak and eggs covered in sausage gravy.)
By night, the Courtyard becomes more brewpub in character, though the atmosphere is still family-oriented. When the weather is clear -- a notable event in Portland -- take advantage of the outdoor seating in the garden. The six-beer sampler gives you a complete survey of the light-to-dark handcrafted ales that come from the on-site Concordia Brewery.
A must-see is the brewing room itself, where each of the six fermenting barrels is painted with larger-than-life portraits of students and teachers and phrases such as "To make beer: Mash the grain, boil the wort, ferment the lot, condition it, keg it, serve it, and drink it."
On any given night, neighborhood locals and out-of-town guests descend upon the school's cavernous auditorium, which has been given a second life as a 300-seat movie theater. Audiences are encouraged to share a pitcher of McMenamins ale and a slice of pizza on one of the many slightly worn but appropriately vintage mismatched couches. The prices ($3 for a movie, $7.80 for a pitcher of beer) also reflect a bygone era (and the classic and second-run nature of the films). During the two days we stay here, I never do get straight which turn will take me to the restaurant, which will take me to the bathroom, and which will lead me back to the room. But it doesn't matter. There is always someone kind enough to point guests in the right direction.
Bonnie Tsui is a freelance writer who lives in New York.