Oregon’s Treasures: A walk through Santaland at Meier and Frank

Human Interest

Meier and Frank's Santaland lives on in the OHS vault

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon Historical Society’s vault preserves Oregon’s history by storing thousands of items, each of which tells the story of our lives.

The secret warehouse filled with treasures from Oregon’s past sounds like something from an Indiana Jones movie — but it’s a real vault full of hidden artifacts.

Jeff Gianola and Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk took a tour of the warehouse where many of these treasures are kept.

Carved from cedar, this cow was hung atop the old Perkins Hotel in downtown Portland. Richard Perkins moved from England and made a fortune in cattle here in the west. (KOIN)

“A fellow named Richard Perkins who was a native of England made a fortune in the west in cattle,” said Tymchuk. He came to Portland in the early 1890s and he built a hotel and he wanted it to be a special hotel for cattlemen and stockyard people — so he installed this cedar cow on top of his hotel.”

Carved from cedar, this cow was hung atop the old Perkins Hotel in downtown Portland. Richard Perkins moved from England and made a fortune in cattle here in the west. (KOIN)

That bull became a Portland landmark before being removed in 1957. The Perkins Hotel was demolished in 1962.

Many of the items in the vault have a more personal story.

The desk used by Oregon Governor Tom McCall at home. McCall was one of Oregon’s most iconic and colorful Governors. (KOIN)

This desk, for example, was used by one of Oregon’s most iconic governors: Tom McCall. The classic roll-top desk was kept in his home office.

The desk used by Oregon Governor Tom McCall at home. McCall was one of Oregon’s most iconic and colorful Governors. (KOIN)
Gracie Hansen in an undated photo, courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.

There are also strange, quirky items in the warehouse.

“One of the most colorful Portlanders I think of the 60s and 70s — longtime Portlanders might remember Gracie Hansen,” Tymchuk said. “She was, for lack of a better term, Portland’s Sophie Tucker. She performed at a club at the Hoyt Hotel. She was a chanteuse, sort of a Mae West type-personality.”

Darcelle now has one of the dresses of Gracie Hansen,” Tymchuk told KOIN 6. “She was a little over 5-feet tall and Darcelle’s a bit bigger and much taller but has one of Gracie’s dresses.”

The vault contains colorful lamps from Gracie’s stage show.

Colorful lamps from Gracie Hansen’s stage show in Portland. (KOIN)

Every shelf of every aisle is stacked with history. Things like a roll of barbed wire next to a 1920s T.V. set, an old radio, one of Portland’s first drive-up bank teller windows and even an early example of high-tech phone communication can be found deep in the vault.

“We have many things from Meier and Frank in our collection,” said Tymchuk, motioning to a vintage switchboard.

The old telephone switchboard from the Downtown Meier & Frank Department Store. (KOIN)

“This was their switchboard — their old-time phone operating system. Someone would call Meier and Frank and be connected with the men’s haberdashery department or the lady’s attire department.”

An Egyptian statue that was part of the décor at the Aladin Restaurant, inside Lloyd Center Meier & Frank Department store. (KOIN)

This Egyptian statue did not come from King Tut’s tomb — it came from Meier and Frank’s Aladdin-themed restaurant inside the Lloyd Center.

“Folks were just intrigued by this in the restaurant,” Tymchuk said.

An original horse-drawn Meier & Frank delivery wagon. It would pull up to customers’ homes and drop off their purchases. (KOIN)

“Right behind you, you see the green wagon there that was one of the original Meier and Frank delivery wagons when they would deliver things by horse-drawn carriage,” said Tymchuk. “The great Meier and Frank service.”

The Meier and Frank department store in Downtown Portland. (Oregon Historical Society)

Portland’s Meier and Frank department store was a big part of our local history dating all the way back to 1857. But for generations of Oregonians, Meier and Frank is etched in their memories for a different reason — this department store came alive at Christmas like no other.

“Generations of Oregon families — every Christmas — you could find them at the downtown Portland Meier and Frank, where kids would ride in this tram in Santaland, where Santa was animatronic, [along with] elves and reindeer and the tram would run around the ceiling of the tenth floor and kids would get to look at Santaland.”

One of the original Monorail cars from Meier & Frank Santaland set up on the 10th floor of the Department store each Christmas. Children would ride along the ceiling, gazing down at Santaland. (KOIN)

“These decorations are animatronic, you plug them in and they move,” explained Tymchuck. “Rudolph, his nose lights up, elves who are busy doing various elf things — that would be surrounding the Santaland scene.”

Meier and Frank might be gone but here in the vault Santaland lives on, carefully stowed away — including the most important piece in the collection.

This is the original Santa Chair from Meier & Frank’s Downtown Portland Store. Generations of Oregonians sat in this chair as children. Each year at Christmas, The Oregon Historical Society, sets it up at their Downtown Museum, inviting parents and kids to come back once again and visit with Santa. (KOIN)

Thousands of kids sat on Santa’s lap in this chair over the years. Now, it sits in the Oregon Historical Society’s vault just waiting to be rediscovered.

“I think this should be the anchor chair at KOIN,” Tymchuk laughed.

Visit the Oregon Historical Society
Where We Live: Experience Oregon at OHS

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