Four years ago, the minimalist Society Hotel opened in Portland, Oregon’s Old Town Chinatown, offering guests a mix of stylish, budget-friendly private suites, custom-built bunk beds, and shared bathrooms. Instead of building something new, the hotel's proprietor, Matt Siegel (one of five co-owners of the Society franchise), nestled the hospitality project into a late 19th-century cast-iron building that once provided sanctuary to sailors.
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For the Society brand's second venture in neighboring Washington State, Portland-based architect Ben Waechter, founder of Waechter Architecture, was tapped to bring the project, named the Society Hotel Bingen, to life. Only about an hour's drive east from Portland, the new Society project is a recreational retreat set amid the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area's iconic canyon and unforgettable vistas.
Waechter’s first hospitality project, Society Hotel Bingen is a 20,000-square-foot compound encompassing a hotel, café and bar, spa, a subterranean event zone, and a cluster of communal gathering spots that marries a sensitive restoration project with contemporary architecture. Its distinctive layout was guided by a design concept that Waechter dubbed "Edited Panorama."
"Bingen is at the heart of the Gorge, across from Hood River," Waechter explains. "The site is beautiful and dramatic."
Remarkable in its own right is the wooden 1930s schoolhouse on the grounds, an original piece of architecture that Waechter wanted to preserve as best he could. "It had a lot of character and the challenge was how to keep that character while transforming it into a hotel," he adds.
Portland design firm Blossom helped make that possible by re-interpreting the notion of school as a haven for adults. Tufted green leather sofas, for example, were combined with long, locally-made tables lit with library lamps in the book-lined lounge that calls to mind hushed study sessions. Further nostalgic touches from Blossom include reclaimed natural slate chalkboards and schoolhouse radiators used as wall cladding beneath the bar and lounge counter.
Complementing the schoolhouse’s guest rooms (there are two hostel-style 24-bunk units and 10 private accommodations) are 20 detached cabins complete with small kitchen and living areas that were built on the playing fields adjacent to the school.
Arranged in the shape of a ring, the cabins are united through a shared roof that cantilevers out and serves as both a covered walkway and porch, establishing a courtyard that fosters socializing in the process. Surrounded by residences, the ring also successfully creates a perimeter, a fluid demarcation between the neighborhood and the hotel.
"We wanted to embrace the largeness of the Gorge, but we also needed a buffer from the houses, so there was an idea of turning inwards, too," Waechter explains. Organized this way, the roof allows the ring to act as an aperture, maximizing views upward to the sky and hills.
Inside the center of the ring is the spa and bathhouse building, which opens onto all sides and features a sauna, hot tub, and saltwater soaking and cold-plunge pools. Like the cabins, it’s clad with cedar board and batten. "The spa building essentially has four legs, and then the pools are set between those legs and the ceiling is carved out to a skylight," says Waechter.
To thread the old and new halves of the complex together, Blossom used custom Radiata pine casework, upholstered furnishings from Portland's Perch, and Benjamin Moore Midnight Blue throughout.
"We try to respond to challenges and opportunities, and for this it was how to place these cabins in an open space where they can simultaneously connect to the broader Gorge and connect to the quiet of the schoolhouse," says Waechter. "They have a good feeling, sitting like sculptures in the landscape."
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