By Sue Stringer
If the walls could speak, the historic Rinehart Building, which sits at the corner of Williams and Monroe, would have so many stories to tell. Its history includes tenants from a variety of different businesses and has been frequented by people from many different walks of life. There are even tales of tunnels under the building connecting to nearby churches to allow people to outrun the law during raids in the prohibition era.
One of the current commercial tenants is Game Knight Lounge. The board game pub is carrying on the tradition of bringing the community together in our Eliot neighborhood. Before we get to the story of the Game Knight Lounge, let’s review a little history of this historic building.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Buildings, this two-story brick building was constructed in 1910 beside an important streetcar line and originally housed a grocery store focusing on fresh produce run by T. H Crowley who also lived upstairs in a large apartment.
Around 1920 Elijah Rogers Confectionery and Fruit Company took over the space making candy in the rear of the building. Later, in 1934, the building was purchased by Robert and John Menefee, owners of real estate and insurance companies who set up shop in the Rinehart Building.
In the 1940s, Rudy’s Tavern & Billiards occupied the corner space which was operated by African-Americans and was a popular gathering place. Carrying on the tradition of community building, in 1952 Cleo Hampton and her sister opened the Cleo Social Club when the Williams area was home to most of the city’s African-American families. In 1956 they moved the club to the Rinehart building. The club was then known as Cleo-Lillian’s Social Club and the club owners brought African-American musicians such as B.B. King to play there. It also doubled as a space for community activism, and the Hamptons used it to raise money for African-American social causes. Unfortunately, by the late 1990s, new homeowners nearby complained that the club was noisy and a nuisance. After a long, hard-fought battle with the city, it was ultimately closed in 2001.
Portland Trailblazer Damon Stoudamire owned the building for a brief period hoping, as the Portland Business Journal reported, “to restore the social club (which was) historically an anchor of North Portland’s African American community. He switched gears and contemplated selling office space to medical firms, which led to it being added to the Oregon register of historic places to help with a needed rezoning. That project never came to fruition.”
Tim and Brandon Brown bought the building from Stoudamire in 2011. The historic listing presented the Browns with a major obstacle to remaking the building into commercial office space and apartments. During the application to list the building in the National Historic Register, the building had been boarded up so long that preservation officials speculated that the plywood boards covering windows were included as part of the historic fabric of the building. That meant the boards could not be removed. The developers had to trace the boards back to their original manufacturers which prompted a cross-country search that involved identifying the mill’s stamp on the boards before removing them. The building gained its listing in the National Historic Register and the Browns reopened the building in 2013. Urban Nest Realty and Wine Up, a wine club and jazz venue, leased spaces on the ground floor and the top floor was leased apartments. Wine Up closed down in 2015.
Now onto the story of Game Knight Lounge. Christian Wright and Andrew Pitt were introduced by a mutual friend over 12 years ago. They have been friends, roommates and now business partners.
Before opening the pub, Wright and Pitt knew they wanted to open up a business to bring the community together where drinking was not the sole or main focus. Both had grown up with families that played a lot of board games. Pitt’s family even played some games so often they kept wearing out the game boards. Pitt’s grandfather took matters into his own hands and crafted a two-sided wooden game board with Sorry and Monopoly etched into the wood.
After exploring several options for businesses they settled on the idea of a game board focused business. They tested out the idea by leading meetups twice a week at the Lucky Labrador pub. The meetups continued to gain popularity so the two decided to find a permanent space. Luckily for Eliot residents, the space in the Rinehart Building was available to lease.
Having never started a business before, the biggest challenge was figuring out what to do between the writing of the business plan and opening the doors. Wright and Pitt found lots of literature on how to write a business plan and what to do after you opened the doors, but nothing on the process of ramping up and setting up the physical business, payroll, and staffing. However, they persevered and in March 2016 Game Knight Lounge opened for business.
They had been gathering dozens and dozens of games, and with their initial 400 games, the doors to Game Knight Lounge opened. Upon entering the pub, guests are greeted with shelf upon shelf of almost floor to ceiling bookcases full of games. They now offer over 700 games to choose from! Many of the games most people have heard of but there are so many more to explore. Wright and Pitt are happy to help guests find a game to play, explain the rules of the game and then also find similar games to try with increasing levels of skill or difficulty. On their website, you can find the rules for many of the games if you want to have an idea of what to play when you arrive.
There is a $5 cover charge per person to play the games but you can stay as long as you want. Guests can enjoy drinks from a full bar, food from their small but mighty kitchen and a place to focus on community and getting to know your friends better or making new ones. Minors can visit the pub from open until 8:00 pm.
Game Knight Lounge offers unique events like Orcs, Orcs, Orcs (dungeons and dragon type game) which is a ticketed event complete with themed food. LBGTQ night, Introduction to Board Games and Meetup Knight are some of the other regular events. Also, every Wednesday is Neighborhood Knight. If you show your ID or a piece of mail with your Eliot neighborhood address your cover charge is waived. Private events can also be held at the pub.
Game Knight Lounge has seen such success that they are in the process of expanding to include a new area in the basement. There will be twice as many tables for twice as much fun.
Looking back, even though setting up the business was tough, the biggest surprise has been the people coming from near and far (some even doing research so they can set up their own game lounge in other states) and the variety of patrons – regulars and new patrons. They also have enjoyed watching all age levels learn to play new games and introducing some to board games for the first time.
And that Pitt family heirloom, the wooden game board? Stop by and you can see it for yourself as it is part of the décor on the wall above the game tables. So even though many businesses and social establishments have come and gone at the Rinehart Building, at least there is now Game Knight Lounge to continue to bring our community together, and even learn a new game or two or 700!
Game Knight Lounge
3037 N Williams Ave