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 lobby?

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 early 20th 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.”

Sweet suites
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 posh
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 Venetian.”

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 non-smoking now.

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

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