McMenamins artists chronicle Edgefield's past through their work

by: OUTLOOK PHOTOS: JIM CLARK - The Frankie Baker painting by Myrna Yoder can be found on the second floor of the main lodge.When the old Multnomah County Poor Farm was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, an employee at the state registry service instructed historian Sharon Nesbit during the renovation to not “let them tart it up with paint.” But, excluding the original surfaces, that’s exactly what Mike and Brian McMenamin did.

In their quest to rehabilitate the former rest center, hospital and prison into a thriving pub, hotel and concert venue, the brothers invested in the beautification of the 74-acre site by hiring dozens of artists to cover what is now McMenamins Edgefield with artwork representing the history of the building, area and local community.

“The Edgefield offered the McMenamins the amazing opportunity of a blank canvas,” said Tim Hills, historian at McMenamins. “Edgefield was the first place that had such rich history and traditions and heritage — not only on the site as a county poor farm and the characters and activities that happened there, but right in the area with the gorge and Native Americans and Troutdale history.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - This mult-fauceted sculpture draped with vines decorates the patio outside the powerhouse.When the McMenamins found the old farm in the 1980s, the once active community center was in bad condition. Buildings were trashed with broken windows, graffiti and cigarettes left by local teenagers; the roof was caving in; and the room that is now a theater had been burnt to the ground. The outlook was dismal, and the old farm was thought to be unfit for a pub because of its “industrial look,” according to Nesbit, local author and the Troutdale Historical Society’s photo historian.

But the Troutdale Historical Society and McMenamin brothers were determined to revive the site. In 1990, they began a slow remodel starting with the conversion of the basement into a winery. By 1998, the morgue was turned into a pottery studio, the poor farm employee apartments into a spa, the dining room where inmates were once segregated into the Black Rabbit Restaurant and the surrounding land into a pear orchard, herb garden and concert hall.

The main lodge also was transformed into a hotel with 100 rooms dedicated to past residents, including the nephew of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and Frankie Baker of “Frankie and Johnny” fame. Throughout the building’s history, inhabitants also have included slaves, slave owners, mental patients, Mexican laborers, convicts, Chinese, Buddhists, Native Americans and many other groups. More recently, rooms have been painted in honor of musicians such as Ringo Starr and Etta James who have stayed at Edgefield while on tour.

“You can learn the stories of this place just by walking through it,” Hills said. “It depicts these people’s lives, it depicts life at the poor farm, and it depicts the ancient history of the native people who were here centuries ago and in a very creative way.”

To learn about the history of the poor farm, artists were paired with locals who recounted stories of the past as they toured the buildings together in the 1990s. The artists then were given the task of capturing nearly 100 years of history in their paintings, sculptures and murals.

“When we started, there was not an awareness of how big it was going to be or how popular it was going to be,” said Myrna Yoder, an artist at McMenamins. “It just kept expanding and growing, and we kept adding to it.”

Yoder began painting at Edgefield in 1992 alongside 14 other artists, and was instructed by Mike McMenamin to paint the general history of the building and area.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - The four-wall mural in the dining room by Joe Cotter is the only art series in which the McMenamin brothers are portrayed.“At the beginning Mike asked to paint non-specific history,” Yoder said. “Just a few years later, it became more about specific characters. He prefers that people are actual people who are connected to the place and the company.”

Among her many pieces of work, Yoder enjoyed painting portraits, particularly the one of Frankie Baker.

“You start to feel a connection to the person you’ve been painting, which does make it special,” Yoder said.

In addition to artistic duties, the first artists also served as security guards. Because there was no one to patrol the grounds, artists ended up shooing away troublemakers such as the “mad pooper,” who left his droppings in the corner of the ballroom.

Despite the initial disorder, Edgefield eventually came together to become one of the McMenamins’ most important and well-decorated properties.

The buildings now contain hundreds of pieces of artwork; one of the largest is a mural painted by Joe Cotter on all four walls of the dining room. The piece depicts the history of the farm and is the only painting at any of the McMenamin properties to picture the brothers.

Aside from the mural, artwork can be found across the grounds in the form of historic photos, faces painted onto pipes, statues, glass orbs and a fixture made from old pipes and faucets.

But not all of the artwork is beautiful in the traditional sense.

“People may be uncomfortable about some scenes being depicted (of) people who were mentally or physical challenged,” Hills said. “But they had their own stories and their own experiences that add so much to what Edgefield as a whole means.”

Each artifact at Edgefield has its own tale, whether it’s about the nursing home residents or the black rabbit that used to inhabit the grounds, but many go untold.

“No one bothered to explain the artwork. They just rely on old myths,” Nesbit said.

Some myths include stories about paranormal activity inspired by the pentagram and bird bones found on the second floor of the lodge at Edgefield’s inception. A ceremony with bagpipes was conducted to exorcise the spirits in 1990, but guests continue to claim encounters with the supernatural.

A ghost log kept at the front desk is filled with stories such as the one a 6-year-old named Bryce wrote in June about the sprinkler head he saw twist and turn on its own. Other entries detail mysterious green lights, nurses walking down the hall and strange sounds.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - The door to Room 215, painted by Myrna Yoder, depicts the Amazing Grace exorcism ceremony conducted in 1990.To honor the haunted-side of Edgefield’s history, the pentagram is painted on the door of Room 215, where it originally was found.

More than a century’s worth of history has led Edgefield to be an artistic example for other McMenamins venues. The pantheon of artwork attracts thousands of visitors each year and celebrates the rich history of the site, making its once immanent destruction a mere fable of the past and its future all the more colorful.

“Just the experience of taking the history of all those different things — the area and property — and mixing them together and painting on every kind of surface on the property really opened McMenamins’ eyes to the possibilities of what could be done to interpret the history and to make it a more interesting experience for people coming to visit,” Hills said.

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