My grandparents spent their honeymoon at The Eastland Hotel.

Charles Edward “Bob” Hurley and Marjorie Vivian Demers were married in Lewiston on Nov. 11, 1929, two weeks after the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression. He was 21 and about to be laid off from a highway construction crew because winter was coming. She was 18 and a recent graduate of Lewiston High School. Money was tight and cameras were scarce, so there’s no photo of the happy event.

They took the train to Portland, and would soon move to Boston, where my grandfather planned to work in a factory until spring. But the first few nights of their married life were spent at The Eastland, which had just opened in 1927. Then known as the largest hotel in New England, it had 369 guest rooms and the Egyptian Court dining room, which served specialties such as Lobster Thermidor for $1.50.

I know little about their stay in Portland – whether they window-shopped along Congress Street or saw a movie at one of several theaters downtown – and it’s too late to ask them, unfortunately. Still, The Eastland occupies a special place in my family’s history and in my own life, as it does for many Mainers and others who stayed at the hotel or attended special events there through the years.

Now, the Westin Portland Harborview, as The Eastland is known today, is gathering memorabilia and stories from the hotel’s past as a way to attract and connect with guests, said Susan Barry, the hotel’s marketing director. Following a $50 million renovation in 2013, the hotel is showcasing its history as a way to differentiate from several other high-end hotels that have opened in Portland in the last few years.

“Many people have stories about important events in their lives that happened here,” Barry said. “This is more than just a hotel in Portland. It’s Portland’s hotel and we want to continue being a part of those moments in people’s lives.”

The hotel at 157 High St. will unveil its new “Eastland Meets Westin” memorabilia exhibit at a celebration from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday in its landmark Top of the East lounge. Barry hopes people with fond memories of The Eastland will bring memorabilia for the exhibit and stories to be recorded for a national archive of American folkways. Vintage food and beverages will be available and music from various eras will be performed.

‘THE PLACE TO BE’

Barry has been gathering memorabilia and historical information for the exhibit for months, pulling photos, menus and other ephemera from The Eastland’s files and elsewhere. The exhibit features a “Mad Men”-era photo of several female hotel greeters dressed like airline stewardesses, with snazzy caps, short skirts and white go-go boots.

Barry also has been trolling eBay, where she found postcards, a room key and other items, and chatting with past employees like Pat Ford, who was the food and beverage manager at The Eastland from 1964 to 1967.

She’s also been trolling eBay, where she found postcards, a room key and other items, and chatting with past employees like Pat Ford, who was the food and beverage manager at The Eastland from 1964 to 1967.

“The Eastland was the place to be,” said Ford, a hotel industry expert who lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

When Ford worked at The Eastland, it was attached to the former Congress Square Hotel, which once stood at Forest and Congress streets. Combined, the two buildings had six lunchrooms, several dining rooms and four cocktail lounges. One of them was the Top of the East, which opened in 1963 in what had been a solarium. On the 15th floor, it’s still the place to go for unrivaled views of Portland Harbor and Casco Bay.

The exhibit includes a tiki mug from the Hawaiian Hut, a Trader Vic’s-style restaurant and lounge that from 1963 to 1978 was located in the hotel’s basement, where a health club is now.

“It served Polynesian food and drinks and had an island atmosphere,” Ford said. “When you walked in, you thought you were in Honolulu. It had a house band and a dance floor. It was the major nightclub in Portland at the time.”

My memories of The Eastland include the hotel’s ballroom, which is still in use. For decades, it was the largest gathering space of its kind in Maine, so it hosted many political events, weddings and conventions, including the Maine Press Association’s 2003 fall conference and awards dinner, which I attended.

I stayed at The Eastland twice. The first time was in 1990, when I was living and working in Massachusetts and I visited Portland with a boyfriend for a weekend getaway. We had a blast dining out, dancing at various nightclubs and running around the Old Port in the rain. The second time was in 1998, when I had a three-day tryout for a staff writer’s position at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. The paper paid for my room, meals and travel expenses. I’m happy to say I got the job.

‘IMPORTANT THINGS HAPPENED’

For both of my stays, the rooms were in what Ford called The Tower, a mid-1960s concrete addition to the original brick hotel that included a rooftop swimming pool.

At that time, the hotel was part of the Sheraton chain. In later years it would become part of the Sonesta and Radisson chains, before being purchased by the current owner, New Castle Hotels & Resorts, which includes Marriott, Hilton and Starwood properties.

The Tower rooms were still spacious but a little rundown when I stayed at The Eastland, and the rooftop pool was closed. According to Barry, local authorities escorted rocker Ozzy Osbourne out of the city after he hosted a raucous party at The Eastland and threw pool furniture off the roof to the street below. The hotel closed the pool after guests repeatedly mimicked the furniture tossing.

Other prominent guests have included aviator Charles Lindbergh, presidents Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and both George Bushes, Robert F. Kennedy, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, actress Julia Roberts and rapper Snoop Dogg. Eleanor Roosevelt was famously denied a room in 1946 because she was traveling with her dog, Fala.

But it’s how The Eastland factored in the lives of everyday people that Barry finds most interesting. As a lover of antiques and history, she has enjoyed collecting mementos and stories from people who stayed and worked at the hotel. A crisp, striped shirt that a bartender wore. An embossed wooden coat hanger that guests used. A black-and-white photo of a wedding party, all smiles.

“I’ve worked in a lot of historic hotels,” Barry said. “In a city like Portland that’s so committed to its roots, it’s important for us to not lose sight of the fact that a lot of important things happened here for a lot of people.”

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CORRECTION: This story was updated on June 16 to reflect that the women in the “Mad Men”-era photo were hotel greeters.

 


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