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Menucha, a place to find peace, turns 100

Julius Meier started building his country estate in 1914


by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - A rock staircase surrounded by flowers and trees provides a peaceful atmosphere at Menucha.It wasn’t long ago that Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in Corbett celebrated its 60th anniversary.

But Menucha is much older, said the Rev. Spencer Parks, Menucha’s executive director.

This year Menucha turns 100.

In 1914, Julius Meier purchased the property, nestled among towering trees on a lofty bluff in the Columbia River Gorge, and began building his family’s country dream home, a summer escape 25-miles east of Portland.

He named the estate Menucha, which is the Hebrew word translated as “still” as in the phrase “still waters.”

One hundred years later, it remains a quiet place to retreat and refresh for the thousands of visitors who come to stay every year.

Staff will celebrate Menucha’s 100th anniversary on Friday, May 9.

“A lot of the landscaping here is just ancient,” said Parks, a Presbyterian pastor who grew up in the Southeast U.S. and was stunned by Oregon’s natural beauty when he took the job in the Gorge.

Walking down a lawn on Meier’s former estate, he points to a large clump of Japanese maple trees.

The trees were likely planted by one of the 30-plus full-time gardeners Meier had on staff to keep his family’s summer getaway, complete with a pool, tennis courts and menorah-shaped rose garden, in pristine condition.

Parks said back then, “It was truly magnificent.”

At the edge of the promontory, Parks said on a clear day you can look east up the Columbia River and see all way to the Bonneville Dam. To the west, the Coast Range.

Three full-time landscapers and several volunteers continue to restore and keep up the 102-acre grounds, which sat in disrepair for nearly a decade after Meier died in 1937.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF CLARENCE MERSHON AND GEORGE PERRY JR. - Julius Meyer inspects the grounds of his newly acquired property 720 feet above the Columbia River.Throughout the 1920s, as co-founder of Meier and Frank department store chain, Meier was known to throw summer pool parties for his employees and host three-legged races at the company picnic.

President Herbert Hoover came to Menucha to relax once his presidency ended in the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt also drove through the property and stopped to chat.

Meier served as Oregon’s governor from 1930 to 1934, and Menucha was the governor’s residency.

When Meier bought the property, he built a large log house for himself and his family, among other structures. The main house succumbed to an infestation of carpenter ants and was re-built in 1927 by architect Herman Brookman.

Meier had builders install a series of hidden doors and rooms in the cavernous main lodge, built during Prohibition and now called Wright Hall. Meier’s bedroom includes a secret window for spying on the main hall and a button under the downstairs mantel opens a wet bar, now a coffee bar for Menucha staff.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - A basement room in Wright Hall, or 'Grandaddy's funny room' to the Meier grandchildren, has a hidden vault and secret wet bar used during the Prohibition era.Menucha was originally homesteaded in 1873 by a family of Hawaiians who contracted leprosy and fled the island to avoid confinement at the leper colony on Molokai.

John Painter and his family settled on the land and made it a working farm for 41 years.

After Meier died, the estate was closed during the World War II and put on the market for $200,000 in 1948. However, the Meiers sold it to First Presbyterian Church of Portland in 1950 for $60,000, so it could be used as a retreat. The church has offered it to groups with an interest in personal growth ever since.

From its cabin-like dwellings (no Wi-fi or TVs) to its vast greenery, gardens and grandiose views, it is no wonder those who come to stay at Menucha walk away with a sense of rejuvenation.

That was the intention of the Rev. Paul Wright, who was minister of the Portland church when it decided to buy the Columbia Gorge property as a place for urban families to spend time together.

“This was going to be a place for the betterment of humanity,” Parks said.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Meier's menora-shaped rose garden was replaced with a rock labyrinth. Walking the circular path, the Rev. Spencer Parks, Menucha executive director, says it's a tool for prayer and meditation.Today, Menucha Retreat and Conference Center, which employes a staff of about 30, largely serves families, nonprofits, religious organizations and the creative arts and educational community.

During the summer, the busiest time of year at Menucha, groups use the space for a variety of workshops and programs from ukulele instruction to watercolor and scrapbooking to faith-based seminars.

Men and women in recovery also find the surroundings a serene place to meet.

Each year, more than 400 groups rent out the facilities, which can accommodate a single person and up to 140 people.

Guests eat family style in the main dining room and bus their own tables. The kitchen is known for having fresh baked bread daily and home cooked meals.

Menucha staff ensure guests are well cared for and provided “the gift of contentment,” Parks said.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Ernie Yoder, Donna Leamy and Becky Leamy have worked at Menucha since 1980. (Donna Leamy since 1979). Donna Leamy and her husband, John, moved onto the Menucha property in 1979. John was hired as the kitchen’s food service director, and the two lived in an apartment, now a “hideaway” for personal retreats. While Donna was pregnant with her first child, a baby boy, the couple moved into the estate’s Bowman House, a former greenhouse and now the staff office.

The Leamys raised both son and daughter, born two years later, at Menucha.

“They thought this was a great place to grow up,” Leamy said. “All these lawns and places to explore.”

Possibly the luckiest children next to Meier’s own three kids, their memories include exploring the many trails and playing in the cliff-side pool.

“It was a great big, safe place for them to grow up,” said Leamy, still a staff member at Menucha.

Now her grandchildren have the chance to explore the fairy-tale-like estate.

In the Celtic tradition, Parks said Menucha aims to be one of those “thin” places where heaven and earth seem to be a little closer.