Sunday, July 26, 2015

Golden West Hotel

Between 1906 and 1931 the Golden West Hotel on NW Broadway and Everett was the only hotel in town that would accept black guests.  It became a central location for African American social and economic interaction.
              By the time it closed in 1931 the Golden West Hotel, at the corner of NW Broadway and Everett, had become the center of the African American community in Portland.  The five-story, one-hundred room hotel included a Chinese restaurant, candy store, ice cream parlor, saloon, cigar store, theater and Waldo Bogle’s barbershop on the ground floor and George Moore’s Golden West Athletic Club in the basement.  The athletic club included a Turkish bath, gymnasium, boxing ring and card room.  Located just a block from both the original Mt. Olivet Baptist Church and the Bethel AME Church, the Golden West became a Sunday gathering place for African American families.  Before 1919 housing was not formally segregated in Portland, so most African American families lived in various neighborhoods on the east side, but they worked in or near Union Station and went to church in the neighborhood.  As the largest black-owned business in town, the Golden West was a natural gathering spot for black Portlanders, but it didn’t start that way.
            Contrary to popular belief, proprietor William D. Allen, who came to Portland from Tennessee in 1901, never owned the building that housed the Golden West.  The building was erected in 1893, as a three-story, eighty room hotel and was originally called the Tremont House.  Just blocks from Union Station in NW Portland, the Tremont House dominated a neighborhood that was in swift decline.  By 1905, when the new owner, J.H. McClung of Eugene, leased the building to Thomas McNamee, who renamed the hotel the Golden West, it was a rundown building in the heart of what was becoming known as “coon town,” a district dominated by African-American businesses and residents.  After decades of holding on against opposition, segregation and racial discrimination, Portland’s African American community had finally established a foothold.  Many black Portlanders worked for the Southern Pacific railroad, or one of the large downtown hotels, and worked their own businesses in their off hours.  The stability of jobs for a small group of African Americans, allowed a prosperous, but small, black community to thrive.
            McNamee probably didn’t allow black people to stay at the Golden West, and that was one of the main reasons that his business struggled.  For more than a year the building was tied up in a lawsuit between the new owner, McClung, and W. McPherson, who operated the Tremont House and the nearby Gilman House.  The lawsuit, and publicity surrounding it, probably suppressed business as well.  McNamee opened the Golden West Hotel on Christmas Day, 1905, advertising a full turkey dinner for 25 cents, but the business never took off.  Within days McNamee was in debt and some his creditors had brought lawsuits against him for payment.  By spring 1906, McNamee had had enough and the Golden West changed hands again.
            It was probably at this time that William Allen first became involved with the hotel, although his identity was kept secret at the time, probably because of the color of his skin.  Instead Al Wohlers, an ex-policeman who had become one of the North End’s most notorious saloon owners and brothel operators, was the public face of the Golden West.  Wohlers ran a saloon at NW Fourth and Davis and rumor said that the vice payoff went from the illegal businesses in the North End to Wohlers, who cut it up and distributed the graft to the Police Bureau and city officials.  In the decade after he became involved with the Golden West, Wohler’s became one of the city’s most powerful “fixers.”
Waldo Bogle ran the Golden West Barbershop, just one of the many black-owned businesses that operated in the Golden West Hotel.
            When Allen took over as proprietor of the Golden West the hotel began to be the focal point of Portland’s black community, because it was the only hotel in town that would accept black guests.  It soon filled up with lodgers, many of them railroad workers and Pullman porters who worked on the Southern Pacific out of Union Station.  Although Allen was able to find a good base of clients, the business continued to struggle.  Leon V. Jenkins, who was a patrol officer in the neighborhood starting in 1909 and became chief of police in 1919, said that the neighborhood of the Golden West was “one of the toughest districts in the city.”  The neighborhood was filled with crumbling old buildings and crowded with poor people.  It soon became a focus of street crime and many people, black and white, refused to walk through the district without being armed.
            W.D. Allen struggled to make the business prosper and early in 1907 an opportunity allowed him to get the hotel on a paying basis.  Late in 1906 the famous variety theater Paris Inn, located at NW Third and Davis, lost its license and was forcibly closed down by the city.  The Paris Inn was a theater that presented racy burlesque shows.  Upstairs the theater had a series of booths, where patrons could enjoy the favors of the Inn’s attractive cast.  Mayor Harry Lane had promised to close down prostitution in the North End and the Paris Inn became the focus of one of his campaigns.  Al Wohlers negotiated a solution with the owners of the Paris Inn and a compromise with the police.  Fifteen prostitutes from the Paris Inn relocated to the Golden West Hotel and with the connivance of members of the Police Bureau began to operate from the upstairs rooms.  Allen was probably happy to have the extra income, because from that point until the Great Depression, the hotel was a profitable business and Allen began to get his share.  It wasn’t until Prohibition in 1916 that the hotel began to be a real money-maker, though.
            W.D. Allen was very active in his community, a member of both the Colored Masons and the Improved (Colored) Benevolent Order of Elks.  Like many of Portland’s most successful businessmen, Allen made his money from illegal activity while making himself a vital and respected member of the community.  Allen had a complicated relationship with the police, as well.  Like many Portland hotel and saloon owners he cooperated with the police whenever it furthered his interests and occasionally suffered a raid.  Allen managed to keep his reputation clean, only being convicted one time – in 1919 he was fined $150 for possession of liquor.  Allen was accused of many crimes, but never convicted of most of them.  There were at least three attempts by the city to pull the license of the Golden West Hotel, but Allen managed to keep the business going until 1931.
            In 1911 Col. M.W. Hunt, a surgeon in the Oregon militia for more than twenty years, retired from his Salem law practice and invested in real estate in Portland.  In June of that year Hunt bought the building that housed the Golden West Hotel for $85,000.  It was a time when the Uptown neighborhood was improving.  The name of Seventh Ave. was officially changed to Broadway and the street was widened from 60 feet to 80 feet.  A large fire in 1908 cleared many of the crumbling old buildings and opened up construction opportunities in the neighborhood.  In 1912 the new Post Office at Broadway and Hoyt began construction and several other major projects began.  Hunt invested more than $40,000 in his new building, temporarily removing the fa├žade and adding two stories and more than twenty guest rooms.  After 1913 the Golden West Hotel became very prosperous.  The new fifth floor became one of the most prestigious addresses in town for a black Portlander.  Late in 1913, Hunt sold the building to a Canadian investor at a tidy profit and it remained in the hands of Canadians for several decades.
            When Prohibition went into effect in January 1916, the prosperity of the Golden West Hotel accelerated.  One of the most important, and stable sources of high quality liquor in Portland was the Southern Pacific Railroad, that made regular runs between Portland and Oakland, CA.  Liquor was still legal in California, until 1920, and the Pullman porters, cooks and waiters of the Southern Pacific aided the smuggling and distribution of bonded whiskey all over Oregon.  The Golden West Hotel became the Portland headquarters of the “Pullman Porter Bootlegging Ring” and the fifth floor became the home of some of Portland’s richest black bootleggers.  Men like Tom Johnson, Sam “Yam” Wallace, John Lowe and Harry Duvall made their headquarters at the Golden West and lived in high style in suites on the fifth floor.  After 1916 residents of the Golden West Hotel became regular entries in the “New Car Owners in the County” column of the Oregonian.
In 1916, when Prohibition went into effect, the saloon at the Golden West closed and Al Green converted it to a candy shop/soda fountain.  Green continued to sell bonded whiskey provided by the Pullman Porter Bootlegging Ring that operated from the building.
            That same year, Al Green converted the Golden West’s saloon into a candy store – in 1922 it became an ice cream parlor.  George Moore, W.D. Allen’s brother-in-law, opened the Golden West Athletic Club in the basement and began to train boxers there.  The Athletic Club also featured a large, hidden card room and the telephone number “Broadway 77” became one of the city’s most reliable connections for cocaine and heroin.  An elaborate system of electrical buzzers was installed to warn card players in the basement, lottery players in the restaurant and brothel and drinking customers upstairs when a raid was about to occur.  The days of financial hardship were over for the Golden West and it was during this period that it saw its most important use as a community center, as black women’s groups held meetings there and the restaurant filled up with black families on Sundays after church.  African American Portlanders who grew up in the 1920s remembered the Golden West very fondly, and knew nothing of the illegal activities that were carried on there.  Some of them remembered getting their first drink at the Golden West, where whiskey sours cost 25 cents.
            Many of the people involved with the Golden West Hotel, including W.D. Allen and barber Waldo Bogle, were interested in music and the Golden West’s house band became legendary.  The theater in the Golden West was the site of Portland’s first jazz concert in 1914 and the hotel was immortalized by a jazz improvisation called The Golden West Hotel Blues, which was broadcast over Oregonian Radio in 1922.  Many young black Portlanders were introduced to music at the Golden West Hotel, including Allen’s son, William Duncan Allen Jr., who became one of Portland’s most famous musicians in the 1930s.  As the only hotel available to black visitors to Portland, the Golden West hosted many important African Americans, including labor organizer A. Phillip Randolph and Illinois congressman Oscar DePriest.
            In 1931 Portland’s African American community was under intense pressure to relocate to the eastside, to the new “negro district” around Williams Avenue.  The Great Depression had started and the Golden West had fallen on hard economic times.  Allen closed the Golden West Hotel that year and opened a new hotel on the eastside – The Melody.  A couple of years later the New Golden West Hotel opened in the old location, but it soon took on the character of Portland’s transient hotels, full of poverty, misery and crime.  In its second incarnation the Golden West was an integrated hotel that took both white and black guests, but it didn’t last long.  In 1943 with housing at a premium the hotel reopened as the Broadmoor Hotel, providing temporary housing for transient workers.  The Broadmoor closed in 1984, and interest in black history inspired a movement to restore the building.  Central City Concern, a low income housing organization, acquired the building in the 1980s, restoring the hotel and providing low income housing.  The history of the Golden West has been partially preserved at the building and it is the centerpiece of any serious tour of African American historical sites in Portland.
            The Golden West Hotel is probably Portland’s most important African American historical site. The underground activities that occurred there are largely forgotten, but live strongly in rumor.  This article is an attempt to correct that problem and give factual evidence to the rumors that persist.  Portland history is full of respectable businessmen and community leaders who made most of their money from illegal activities.  In this respect William D. Allen can be recognized as a true Portland businessman.