Monday, April 1, 2013

Cupid in the Coffee Cups

Mr. Hartvigsen, “the Danish Count,” a part owner of the original Pine Street Coffee House. Photograph from Gottlieb Haehlen’s book Historical Sketch of the Pine Street Coffeehouse. Courtesy of the Multnomah County Library.

            Middle-european coffeehouse culture came to Portland early and was very popular right from the start. The Pine Street Coffeehouse opened for business at 26 Pine Street, between Front and First Streets, in the fall of 1878.  It was popular right away, not just for the coffee, but also for the presence of the elegantly mustached Danish Count, Mr. Hartvigsen who was a part owner of the business. Coffee and hot rolls became a favorite breakfast of Portlanders who worked in the busy area, now known as Old Town.
            The owners of the Pine Street Coffeehouse had ambitious plans for their shop and three times before 1893 the restaurant went bankrupt. Usually it was a case of spending too much money on fancy place settings and decorations in an attempt to draw an upscale clientele. Sticking to a good cup of coffee and plain solid food, such as “two cackles and a grunt,” their idiosyncratic name for ham and eggs, and their signature German pancakes the coffeehouse always had a steady flow of customers. In 1893, after owner H.F. Weiderman closed the shop in favor of his Old Portland CafĂ©, just around the corner, Frank Smith, a long time waiter, and two of the regular cooks went into partnership to keep the place open.
            In 1895 Johann Gottlieb Haehlen, a Swiss immigrant, bought the Pine Street Coffeehouse and an important era of Portland history began. Haehlen, born in 1861 in Lenk, Berne canton, Switzerland, came to Portland by way of San Francisco in 1883. He and his brother opened the Knickerbocker Coffeehouse on SW Washington and 4th Ave. Gottlieb, as he was known, was an accomplished vocalist, who directed the choir at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and was famous for his yodeling and zither playing. When he had saved enough money to go into business for himself he bought the Pine Street Coffeehouse and hired his nephews, Christian, Arnold, Emanuel and Jacob Zeller and Albert Haehlen to staff the place.

Gotlieb Haehlen and his nephews [top from left: Christian Zeller, Arnold Zeller, Albert Haehlen; below: Emanuel Zeller, Gotlieb Haehlen, Jacob Zeller.] Photograph from Gotlieb Haehlen’s book Historical Sketch of the Pine Street Coffeehouse (1918). Courtesy of Multnomah Co. Library.
            Haehlen took great pride in the quality of the food he served and created a comfortable, welcoming environment full of music and hospitality. Soon the rundown old restaurant was doing a booming business. At breakfast time the place was packed and people shared the tables. As some of the wealthy merchants and bankers who worked in the bustling business district began to frequent the Pine Street Coffeehouse the cheerful cry, “Here comes another millionaire!” became common. Soon the popular coffeehouse got the unofficial name The Millionaire’s Club. Prominent Portlanders such as William C. Ladd, Edward and John Failing, Charles F. Beebe and George Dekum could be seen in the run down dining room; eating off of plain white plates with inexpensive “eating irons.”
            By 1914 the old wooden building, which had survived numerous floods, was in bad repair. The foundation had partly washed away and the floor had a perceptible slope down and back toward the kitchen. The neighborhood was changing as the heart of the city moved west, away from the river, but the Pine Street Coffeehouse still had a great location. In the spring of 1914, the coffeehouse temporarily relocated to 3rd Avenue, across the street from the US Bank, while the old building was demolished and a new one built. In August, 1914 the Pine Street Coffeehouse reopened in a brand new building at its old location.

Emanuel Zeller, Joseph Fuchs, John Dorner and Chistian Zeller in the kitchen 1914. Photograph from Gotlieb Haehlen’s book Historical Sketch of the Pine Street Coffeehouse. Courtesy of the Multnomah Co. Library.

            The new building opened just in time for the Great War, which ushered in the end of the popularity of coffeehouses in Portland. Many of Portland’s coffeehouses, which were undergoing a fad at the time, were owned by Serbians and became the focus of violence by German and Austrian Portlanders. On December 13, 1914 twenty Austrians attacked Pete Nick’s Coffeehouse on Northwest 14th Street where twenty Serbians were playing billiards. In the bitter five-minute battle that ensued every piece of furniture in the place and all the pool cues were broken and at least two men were hospitalized with serious injuries. That was the worst, but not the only case of violence.
            Coming hard on the heels of a prostitution scandal involving some Greek-owned coffeehouses, which resulted in a city ordinance barring women from serving coffee in North End coffeehouses, the violence helped end the coffeehouse fad and they went out of style for more than forty years. Except for the Pine Street Coffeehouse. Maybe it was because the Haehlen-Zeller family was from neutral Switzerland or maybe it was just the good food and the warm atmosphere; but whatever it was the Pine Street Coffeehouse remained popular until Gotlieb Haehelen closed the doors on the anniversary of the day he bought the place in 1939.
            By then the business district had moved several blocks west and the area that would become known as Old Town was squarely in the Skid Road district. The large population of homeless Portlanders who can still be seen in that neighborhood was firmly established and the Pine Street location was no longer good for business. Now the location where the coffeehouse was is a parking lot around the corner from Kell’s Irish Tavern. During its long, and tasty history the Pine Street Coffeehouse was the setting for thousands of Portland stories. One of my favorites is the romantic tale of Louise Zeller, daughter of Jacob “Jack” Zeller, who was the famous cook of Jack’s German Pancakes.
Louise Zeller, in the dark dress standing between her father and her uncle, in 1914; two years before she married William Taussig. Photograph from Gotlieb Haehlen's book Historical Sketch of the Pine Street Coffeehouse (1918). Courtesy of Multnomah Co. Library.
        Louise Zeller began working at the coffeehouse, as a cashier, in 1912 when she was a teenager. She wasn’t affected by the prohibition against women working in coffeehouses because the Pine Street Coffeehouse was a couple of blocks south of the North End, and it had evolved into a full-fledged restaurant by that time; now famous for its grilled steaks as well as its hearty breakfasts. Louise worked at the counter, though; taking money and selling coffee to go with a bright smile.
            William Taussig, manager of the school books department of the J.K Gill Company that was located on SW 3rd Ave, just blocks away from the coffeehouse, became a regular customer and soon began to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Pine Street Coffeehouse. Taussig must have been a very quiet guy, because his friends were surprised one day four years later when he said he was going on vacation. Before leaving town for British Columbia he quietly married Louise Zeller. One friend said, “He ate there all the time…but everyone thought he was a confirmed bachelor and nobody guessed the great attraction.” and books and pretty girls…now that’s Portland.