Living the Suite Life
Privacy meets celebrity at the Benson Hotel
By Gary Corbin
Imagine yourself nestled comfortably in a plush chair by a crackling fire, sipping a fine Italian
wine, your feet resting on an elegant Axminster carpet. Austrian-made crystal chandeliers light
the New York Times provided to you by a polite, well-dressed woman in a dark suit. A young
man paces nearby, talking into his cell phone about a TV ad that just ran on behalf of his boss, a
prominent politician running for higher office. Live jazz music plays in the background, and the
female singer’s voice sounds familiar … and why are so many secret service agents filling the
Dignity and privacy
If you imagined yourself in one of the finest hotels in Manhattan or Georgetown, you’d be
forgiven. But you needn’t travel that far. Downtown Portland’s four-star Benson Hotel is the
place where premier politicians, Hollywood stars and pop divas stay when looking for luxury,
personal service and, most of all, privacy on a visit to Portland.
“Every president since Woodrow Wilson has stayed at the Benson,” says David Spacek, the
Benson’s director of sales and marketing. Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack
Obama have also been recent guests. “Although not at the same time,” Spacek adds with relief.
Other guests include Mikhail Baryshnikov, Charlton Heston, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dr. Laura
Schlessinger, David Bowie, and several Kennedys: JFK, RFK, Ted, and Rose. “Morgan
Freeman lived here for a few months while filming a movie,” Spacek notes.
Dignitaries come in groups, too. The entire Boston Pops stayed at the Benson, as well as the
entire Cirque du Soleil troupe. “The first thing they did,” Spacek says of the Cirque troupe, “was
open and hang out of the windows, talking across rooms to one another. It truly felt like the
circus was in town.”
A legacy of luxury
The Benson, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was the dream of founder and
century lumber baron Simon Benson. In 1912, inspired by the Lewis and Clark
Centennial, Benson commissioned architect A.E. Doyle to design an opulent hotel in French
Second Empire style, highly ornamented both inside and out. The hotel opened in March 1913
— dubbed the “New Oregon Hotel” — as an annex to the Oregon Hotel next door.
The luxury treatment begins even before guests step inside. After being greeted by a uniformed
doorman, a Benson guest might take note of the glazed terra cotta and brick exterior and arched
lobby windows, inset with leaded Savoy glass to enhance beauty and maintain privacy. As with
many hotels, valets tend to vehicles. At the Benson, though, this might mean buses for the
entourages of rock stars, such as Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney, or in the case of diva
Mariah Carey, a fleet of seven limousines — all procured on her behalf by the hotel.
Once inside, the lobby impresses with further elegance. Italian paranazzo marble paves the floors
and stairs, with an elaborate wrought iron railing created by the same craftsmen who decorated
Timberline Lodge. Not satisfied with marble pillars, Benson had them encased in Circassian
lumber imported from Siberia and milled in Oregon. “He made a deal with the czar,” explains
Spacek. “Extinct now, the wood was very rare even then.”
The Benson has 287 guest rooms, including 47 junior suites, seven penthouse suites, and two
grand suites. The two grand suites spread over 800 square feet, with two bathrooms, a king-sized
bed (guest’s choice of Tempur-Pedic or pillow-top), two entertainment centers, fully stocked
bars, and connecting rooms for the entourage. A bowl of Van Duyn chocolates rests atop the
dining table’s lace cloth, and a gas fireplace adds extra warmth. The Grand Suite also boasts a
grand piano and is often the choice of visiting musicians, such as Diana Ross, Elvis Presley and
the Grateful Dead.
Even with all of those amenities, some stars need more. For Mariah Carey, Benson engineers
built a customized lighted mirror to her specifications, complete with a dimmer. Hotel
procurement director Mike Rowland also provided her a name-brand director’s chair and some
very specialized candles at $50 a pop. “I can’t tell you how many exactly, but it was a large
number,” Spacek says.
Grande Suite guest Robert Goulet traveled with his cat, Zorba, who required designer kitty litter
for her pampered little paws. Fortunately for Goulet, the Benson is very pet-friendly. Rowland
located Zorba’s special litter and happily provides pet amenities to any guest. These include
food, water, feeding dishes, treats, and a Pet-O-Pedic bed — or for the animal-lover who has to
leave Fido at home, a populated fish tank.
The Presidential Suite, a mirror image of the Grand, has hosted several presidents, including
President George W. Bush, as well as former presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and
others. The suite also hosts hopefuls. In 1952, then-vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon
penned his famous “Checkers” speech there. Scraps of Nixon’s handwritten draft remain
protected in the Benson’s archives.
You don’t have to be President to rent the suite — Tom Brokaw, Henry Kissinger and Peter
Lawford have occupied the room — but it would help to have his travel budget. The Grand and
Presidential Suites start at more than $1,200 per night, and that’s before any extras like custom
mirrors or designer kitty litter.
Penthouse rooms, though slightly smaller, nevertheless offer some amenities not typically
required in the two elite suites. Visiting NBA teams like to stay at the Benson and often require
oversized beds. The Benson stocks 8-foot-long king-sized pillow-top beds for just that purpose.
Athletes can be a little rough on the furniture, though. Legend has it that Shaquille O’Neal took
one look at the king-sized bed at the end of the long hallway in Penthouse Number One and made a fast break for it. He leaped onto the bed and promptly rolled right off onto the floor. “He
was like a big kid,” Spacek says. There were no reported fouls or injuries.
The Penthouse suites are all in the newer wing, added in 1959, and as such have more modern,
albeit still opulent, decor. Many junior suites and studio queens in the south wing still sport the
original “OH” logo from the Oregon Hotel days.
Living it up
No matter which suite one occupies, every guest at the Benson enjoys personal service and is
invited to partake of the high-life activities offered. Need a drink? You could choose from among
the 46-page wine list, representing more than 6,000 bottles ranging up to $3,000 per bottle. Or
you might opt for the French “Perfection” cognac, running $650 per shot in the Palm Court
Lounge, completely remodeled in 2007. “It’s a good deal,” Spacek laughs. “It’s twice that at the
Hungry? There are three private dining rooms in addition to the 6,000-foot main dining hall, all
served by the four-star rated kitchen — one of only three in Oregon. The Wine Cellar is hidden
behind a wall panel complete with sconce lighting that doubles as the room’s door. The
uninitiated would never suspect that behind that wall lies a room in which Rudy Giuliani enjoyed
a fine cigar with his wine last October. He can’t anymore, though — the hotel is 100 percent
The Palm Court Lounge hosts live jazz Tuesday through Saturday, and it’s not uncommon for
visiting musicians to join in and jam with the band. Former guest Diana Ross has a special link
with the hotel: Her first-call pianist, George Mitchell, plays on Wednesdays.
Out in the lobby, one might see famous guests lounging about. “People’s levels of privacy needs
vary. Politicians in particular love the meet and greet,” to the chagrin of their handlers, Spacek
says. “[Houston Rockets star center] Yao Ming liked to sit around in the lobby, feet up, chatting
with his teammates.” Others like more privacy and tend to hole up in their rooms or are too busy
to hang out, Spacek notes.
Afternoon tea is followed by a 5-6 p.m. wine tasting, available to all guests. Morning wake-up
calls are still handled by a live person rather than a recording. In a nod to technological progress,
wireless Internet is provided throughout the building, and hard-wired connections are available
in many rooms, such as the Penthouse suites.
Committed to service
There’s a reason why the rich and famous stay at the Benson, Spacek says, and it’s not all about
the luxury. “The reason they stay here is because of how they are treated,” he insists. “The
Benson Hotel gives them personal service.” The “5-foot rule” is strictly enforced: Whenever a
hotel employee is within 5 feet of a non-employee, the employee must greet them. Small touches
like that make guests feel welcome and well-attended.
Employees must exercise a high degree of discretion. The identity of current guests must never
be revealed, and there is a strict no-solicitation policy. They are also expected “to anticipate what
the guest may need, be it meals, directions and so forth,” Spacek says.
Hypo-allergenic Pet-O-Pedic, anyone?
BrainstormNW - June 2008