Before & After: A Historic Apartment Building Is Transformed Into a Chic Social Hotel in Portland
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Before & After: A Historic Apartment Building Is Transformed Into a Chic Social Hotel in Portland

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By Jennifer Baum Lagdameo
The rooms at the stylish Pacific Northwest outpost of KEX, an Icelandic mini-chain, start at just $38.

Hostels have long been a perfect solution for travelers who would rather spend on experiences and dining, rather than blowing their budget on a hotel room that they don’t plan to spend much time in anyway. Recently, a rise in social hotels—the updated version of the hostel—poses a modern solution. In addition to the option to book shared, dorm-style rooms at a lower rate, social hotels also boast shared communal spaces and pride themselves in providing more opportunities for social interaction with fellow travelers. They also offer a sense of style that the hostels of yesteryear never possessed. 

A wall of horse nameplates from a Belgian racetrack and white Egyptian tiles from the 1950s greet guests at the check-in area. 

The Icelandic social hotel, KEX, recently opened their second outpost, KEX Portland in a fully-restored 1912 building not far from the banks of the Willamette River. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was formerly home to the Vivian apartments. 

KEX Reykjavik was founded by Kristinn (Kiddi) Vilbergsson in 2012 and the mini-chain is named after the abandoned biscuit factory in Reykjavik where it is located ("Kex" means "biscuit" in Icelandic). Vilbergsson arrived in the Pacific Northwest via Seattle, but fate led him to Portland and he was smitten. One thing led to another and the hotel has been in the works for the last seven years, finally opening in November 2019. 

Before: The Lobby 

Part of the ground floor space which would become the hotel's lobby as it looked before the remodel. It was a vacant shop when they bought the building.

After: The Lobby

Plants and antique shelving serve as a divide between the check-in area and the rest of the lobby, which includes the dining area of Dóttir, the hotel's restaurant.

Reclaimed Douglas fir beams from Fort Vancouver train station were milled by Salvage Works,  a local company, and laid in a herringbone pattern to make up the flooring. 

The stylish interiors of KEX Portland were designed by Hálfdan Pedersen, who is also responsible for the design of KEX Reykjavik. Pedersen sourced an eclectic and moody mix of furniture, artwork, building materials, and objets from the 1920s to the 1970s on buying trips to the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Egypt, and Iceland. He stored his finds in a Portland warehouse and later restored and assembled them on-site. And while Pedersen has created a definite European vibe, there are also plenty of perfectly Pacific Northwest touches: the lobby flooring is reclaimed Douglas fir beams from the Fort Vancouver train station, reassembled in a herringbone pattern by the Portland-based Salvage Works; custom wallpaper illustrated by Melanie Nead of Lonesome Pictopia, another Portland company, lines the hallways (and features adorable puffins—a bird found in both Oregon and Iceland); the basement sauna, lined with locally sourced Western red cedar, is from Finlandia Sauna, also a Portland-based business; and the shared rooms feature custom bunk beds by the Bainbridge Island-based Blackmouth Design, all with privacy curtains and personal hanging storage bags from Portland's own Revive Upholstery

A pair of midcentury chairs in the lobby.  The wainscoting is repurposed from the building's original apartment doors. 

Dóttir, the Icelandic-themed restaurant in the light-filled, ground-floor lobby, wraps around a large oval-shaped bar serving Nordic-meets-Northwest cuisine under the direction of Culinary Director Ólafur (Oli) Ágústsson​, a top chef in Iceland. Under his leadership, KEX Reykjavik's restaurant, Dill, was awarded the first Michelin star for an Icelandic restaurant. He is assisted by Executive Chef Alex Jackson​, formerly of the Michelin-starred Sons & Daughters in San Francisco. An L-shaped, soft leather banquette and a mix of refurbished chairs and tables create a cozy atmosphere, and help make the restaurant a welcome addition to Portland's burgeoning hotel lobby dining culture. 

The end results are nothing short of a total transformation. Scroll ahead for a glimpse of how this former apartment building became one of the next big things in the City of Roses. 

The light-filled lobby has a vintage vibe and centers around Dóttir, an Icelandic-themed restaurant that is open for three meals a day.

"We are a concept born in Iceland, but we are very much a local hotel. We've created a space and an experience in Portland where locals feel like travelers and travelers feel like locals," says Vilbergsson.

The columns are wrapped in wood and feature low-watt mood lighting. 

 Before: The Kitchen of Dóttir

This ground-floor space would be transformed into a kitchen for the hotel restaurant. 

After: The Kitchen of Dóttir

Narrow glass-and-wood doors from Egypt frame the kitchen of Dóttir, giving guests a window on the action. 

Communal tables opposite the kitchen are intentional and meant to encourage social interaction between fellow travelers picking up breakfast. 

Before: The Inner Courtyard 

Before, the inner courtyard was overgrown and overlooked. 

After: The Inner Courtyard

After, the outdoor courtyard (which can be booked for private events) shines and provides additional outdoor seating (it can seat up to 30), which is in high demand during Portland's rain-free summers. A large neon sign from Portland's now-defunct Music Box Theater hangs on the north wall. 

Before: The Original Lobby 

The original lobby was dark and narrow but served its purpose as an entrance for the former apartment building. 

After: The Original Lobby Becomes a Hotel Guest-Only Entrance

The building is on the National Historic Registry, which decreed that the two stairways, many doorways, and two hallways on the second and third floor remained as is. Now, the historic apartment lobby entrance was converted into a guest-only entrance. During construction, the KEX team discovered original tiling under some shag carpet from the 1970s, making the updated lobby more true to its original form. 

Before: The Bedrooms

A former apartment bedroom before the renovation. 

After: The Bedrooms

Custom beds were made with vintage fireplaced mantles sourced by architectural salvage shop Aurora Mills. 

Custom bunk beds were designed by KEX and made by Blackmouth Design.

All the bunk beds feature privacy curtains and personal hanging storage bags from Revive Upholstery. 

Before: The Bathrooms

One of the original bathrooms before the renovation work began. 

After: The Bathrooms

The bathrooms were replaced with new, geometric tiled bathrooms with vintage porcelain sinks. The hotel uses sustainable soaps from First Hand Supply. 

The Bespoke Wallpaper

Melanie Nead of Lonesome Pictopia, another Portland company, illustrated bespoke wallpaper which lines the upstairs hallways. Adorable puffins—a bird found in both Oregon and Iceland— are prominently pictured. 

Before: The Lower Level 

Previously, the building’s unfinished basement was used for storage and housed a cast iron boiler that was removed during construction. 

After: The Lower Level

An event space now occupies an 850-square-foot corner of the lower level. Borrowing its name from the first location in Iceland, Gym & Tonic is a flexible space for artist exhibits, special dinners, community gatherings, corporate events, and more.

A timber-lined changing room and cedar-paneled sauna were also carved out of the open space in the basement.

Rooms at KEX Portland start at $38-$60 for shared rooms and $90-$285 for private rooms, depending on the room type and the season, and can be booked here

Related Reading: Kex Hostel, Reykjavik

Project Credits: 

Architect of Record: Hennebery Eddy Architects
Builder/General Contractor: R&H Construction
Structural Engineer: DCI Engineers
Civil Engineer: Froelich Engineers
Landscape Design: Leather Storrs Landscaping
Lighting Design: Þórður "Orri" Pétursson
Interior Design: Baulhus / Hálfdan Pedersen
Sound Engineer: Ohm Systems
Cabinetry Design/Installation: Baulhus / Hálfdan Pedersen
Custom Bunk beds: Blackmouth Designs
Upholstery: Leland Duck at Revive
Additional Upholstry: Mario Reyes of In-Ex Upholstery

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