The Woman Who Keeps McMenamins Restaurants, Bars, and Stocked with Antiques and Oddities
Shannon McMenamin weaves between pallets of Ruby Ale cans, past a stiff, leathery roll of snakeskin, through a whole wing of antique signage and concert posters, and around a massive barber pole and a rare Rock-Ola 9000-X CD jukebox. She laughs at an anatomically correct giant wooden lion deity “with man hands,” and sifts through a wall of lampshades looking for one handmade by a woman named Esther. “We’re always looking for light fixtures, especially ones that are really big and unique,” she says. “We don’t like it when they get too cute. We like things that are a little bit more organic: the metals and woods. We love the Moroccan vibe.”
Shannon is the daughter of Mike McMenamin—cofounder, with his brother Brian, of the Pacific Northwest’s eponymous 45-year-old empire of quirky, geeky, history-packed brewpubs, theaters, restaurants, and family-friendly resorts. And by “we,” she’s referring not just to her forebears, but also a second generation of McMenamins—Shannon, her two brothers, and her cousin, who are all now taking on leadership roles within the business. Shannon—who did data entry at the McMenamins main office in high school, sold tickets in the Crystal Ballroom box office one summer, helped historians with microfiche research, and helped open the spa as hotel manager at the Grand Lodge—is now supervising the build-out and renovation of McMenamins’ guest rooms. Operational control also means appointing new guardians of the highly personal style for which McMenamins locations are known, even as the list grows to 55 properties and counting, from the 35-year-old Hillsdale Brewery and Public House (a former tuberculosis hospital, it became Oregon’s first official post-Prohibition brewpub) to the year-old, Hawaiian-themed Kalama Harbor Lodge on the Columbia.
But make no mistake: despite the veritable army of McMenamins-affiliated antique dealers, designers, artists, builders, and historians, the brand’s generational handoff remains astonishingly hands-on. One repository for the company’s magpie finds hides behind Edgefield in Troutdale, in an asterisk-shaped building that once housed a county jail. As Shannon strides up and down its nine spokes, past backstock antiques, oddities, and vintage light fixtures, she has stories about many objects, like the old Blue Bell Polish Mop tins bought on a whim, or a stuffed mongoose (now gracing Tacoma’s newly refurbished Elks Temple)that freaked out her dad, who “isn’t into the taxidermy thing, necessarily.”
The personal touch infusing McMenamins décor is likely part of why die-hard fans approach the establishments with the zeal of obsessed collectors, stamping “passports,” hunting for its phosphorescent hidden corridors and secret bars, geeking out over custom touches like the Elks Temple chandeliers made by Portland’s Hippo Hardware from bits of other light fixtures.
“We’re hands-on with picking every single element ... from the toilet paper dispensers to the pillows,” says Shannon. “The designer I work with, she always jokes, ‘Well, I don’t really do anything.’”
Inside that county jail behind Edgefield, Shannon pauses inside the structure’s central control tower—an abandoned, caged-in panopticon stacked high with slightly dusty seating options. Here, Shannon’s in her happiest place, surrounded by the objects she says are a favorite part of her job: chairs.
“I love the diamond tufting,” she says. “To take these old pieces and pick really soft, plushy fabrics, and give them new life.... For me, it’s the early 1900s to 1930s that’s my sweet spot.” (Her older brother, Dan, is responsible for the more South Seas themes.)
“We all bring our own twist; it keeps things progressing,” she smiles. “We do try to go back to spaces keep them fresh. We’ve really got an unending list of projects.”
Shannon surveys the treasures that have transformed this jail from a place of confinement to reinvention, and hints that plans are afoot to transform the jail itself—with lodging and bars and maybe even a secret passage. It just might be the McMenamins brand’s greatest metaphor yet. If Shannon supervises the decoration, maybe that snakeskin belongs here in the end?