Welcome to Hortland—a column by WW’s most storied freelancer, Jay Horton. Each installment of Hortland will be wholeheartedly devoted to unearthing one of olden Portland’s most obscure or beautiful or non-trivially interesting historical remnants, and then leaving it out to rust in the sun.
The 92-year-old Lotus cardroom, once a home of bootleggers and gamblers, closed with a slideshow August 20, to make room for offices and a hotel. Jay Horton talked to its owner, John Plew—who also owns the Thirsty Lion and the Grand Central Bowl—about who bought the nearly century-old cherrywood bar, and the Lotus’ status as Portland’s first hipster bar.
WW: How did you end up owning the Lotus?
John Plew: Well, in 1990, it was a working class dive bar, really. I mean, that's why I bought it. I told my partners we should open up a dive bar, and they said "What's a dive bar?" So, I informed them real quick. That was the height of, y'know, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and all the grunge rock coming out of the Northwest.
People didn't want fancy, glitzy stuff. They wanted the alternative. So, the Lotus was a notorious bar that was nostalgic from a dive standpoint and we ended up, first, converting the card room into more of a nightclub.
Then, after the nightclub got moving, we started on the front—making it more of an American bar and grill. Over time, we transitioned from the working man's bar into what it became: an institution for the judges and the lawyers, because we're sitting right there in the government quadrant with the federal courthouse and the jail and the city hall. [It was also frequented by the mayoral staffs of Tom Potter and Charlie Hales.]
The card room we've had as our dance space and then banquet room. When we bought it, there were still guys back there playing cards. More gentleman types. But for years and years, it was Lotus Card Room and Cafe.
Some have called the Lotus the first hipster bar in Portland, dating back to the '90s.
Yeah, Sundays were sort of notorious service industry nights. Y'know what's kinda coincidental and funny? Oregon Live did a deal [last week] on what we miss from the 90s in Portland—a little slide-show that's got a lot of memorable things from Satyricon and La Luna … stuff like Gus Van Sant, the Dandy Warhols, and I was, like, God, I can't believe they didn't put the Lotus in there!
Were there celebrities who came?
There were a lot of famous people there. Madonna dressed up incognito and went to the disco night—that was kinda iconic. Daryl Hall and John Oates came in after a concert. We had a good time with them. George Clinton came one Sunday night. That was kind of cool, except he was so smashed that he came back the next day and apologized for throwing up in the bathroom.
So why did the Lotus have to close?
We didn't own the property. It's being redeveloped to a 20-story hotel, We had a clause in our lease where they could give us notice within a reasonable time period if they ever sold the property, and they finally got the number they wanted.
They own 7/8 of the block. They're tearing down the Lotus, they're tearing down the building around the corner and two other buildings. They're putting up a 10 story office building on 3rd and Taylor to 2nd and Taylor. They're building a 20-story hotel on 2nd and Salmon, and a four story part of the hotel on 3rd & Salmon.
What happened to the century-old cherrywood bar top? We heard it sold to the McMenamins?
They're actually gonna refurbish it, so I'm pretty happy about that. They don't know where they're gonna put it yet. They're just gonna dismantle it, restore it, and put it back into one of their facilities —either in the future or an existing one.
It was a great spot, a lot of great memories, but its time had come. I'm just excited that Brian and Mike McMenamin can be the stewards. They got a great piece of history, and, if I wanna show my grandkids a bit of the Lotus, they'll at least keep the bar within a certain distance of Portland.
It's worth quite a bit, let's just say that. A hundred years old, thirty feet long, cherry wood, all original.
The original bar opened around 1924 so that's 92 years! The back bar was even older. That was from 1880—shipped from Chicago around the Horn and ended up in Yakima, Washington. One of the prior owners of the Lotus bought the main bar piece and brought it to Portland in the '60s.