Friday, October 15, 2021

Preservation: Hard Times Ahead

 


A long political war of attrition against architectural preservation and historic districts by the Portland homebuilding lobby returns for what could be a developers’ triumph at a Portland City Council hearing that begins Nov. 3.

A major revision of Portland’s rules for designating and protecting city’s historic landmarks would dilute the membership and authority of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, and cede more responsibility for historic matters to the developer-driver Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission.

Assuming they are approved, the changes probably will make it harder to create new historic landmarks and allow the city to chip away at the city’s existing districts, either block by block, building by building or by elimination entirely.  Gossip also suggests that amendments may be offered to the City Council that are even more severe than the proposed code changes. 

The proposed rules, in concert with earlier changes by the Oregon Legislature, whittle away at protections in National Historic Districts to varying degrees, depending on when the districts were approved by the National Park Service. 

 In reviewing proposed reductions in historic districts, the Planning and Sustainability Commission could advise the Council that the goals and policies of the city’s Comprehensive Plan are “equally or better met” by reducing the level of historic protection.  For a commission incessantly oriented toward new development, that clause is a loophole big enough to make room for bulldozers.  

 The revisions include many goals sought by the developers for the past seven years or so at City Hall and at the state Legislature.  Economic, environmental and historic values as mean little to the developers, whose primary desire is to demolish old houses and built expensive new housing in Portland’s popular National Historic Districts, such as Ladd’s Addition, Irvington and Northwest Portland’s Alphabet District.

 Interestingly, the current Landmarks Commission member are not expected to oppose the new rules.  Kristen Minor, the landmarks chair, said some aspects were “a bit of a surprise,” but added, “There are some really great things in their as well as some we are concerned by.”  For whatever reason – perhaps reading the handwriting on the wall – the seven current commissioned are expected to stay silent. 

Some elements to the proposal that will win support from the preservation community.  These include better opportunities for placing solar panels on historic properties, and allowing demolition of stand-alone garages to make more space available for accessory dwelling units.

 It is disturbing, however, to see the quality of landmarks commission members and their jurisdiction diluted in the proposed new configuration. 

Current rules require five of the seven landmarks members to have professional experience or expertise in preservation–related areas.  The proposed rules suggest that all seven members have “an interest” in preservation, but all new members, appointed by the mayor, conceivably could know little about it.  Filling the commission with bankers, economists and contractors will make preservation even more of an uphill fight.

 In another step backwards for preservation, the Landmarks Commission would not make recommendations to the City Council on proposed new landmarks or revisions to old ones.  Instead, the Landmarks Commission would offer advice to the Planning and Sustainability Commission, which would make recommendations to the City Council.

 Given the scope of the bulky code revisions, this article cannot dwell on all of its aspects.  Those who want to read the proposal itself can find it here:

https://www.portland.gov/bps/hrcp/hrcp-recommended-draft-overview

 Meanwhile, preservation advocates have created a new website that outlines the benefits of preservation as well as commenting on the proposed city code changes.  The site provides easy access for sending comments to City Council members.  See it here:

http://Portlandtomorrow.org

 Despite the antipathy by the current council and the Planning and Sustainability Commission against preservation, there is something they cannot change: The actions of home owners, entrepreneurs and building owners who maintain our vintage buildings for the economic, social and environmental value they represent.  They deserve our continuing respect. 

--Fred Leeson

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Saturday, October 9, 2021

Rebuilding O'Bryant Square

 


Chain-link fencing encircling O’Bryant Square in downtown Portland signifies an old and unfortunate situation.  Don’t blame it on the pandemic, or on political protests, or on houseless campers.

Instead, the causes of the indefinite loss of this small public park date back to the early 1970s and to flaws in the parks design…or construction…or both.  It is a sad tale of an urban renewal project that was supposed to bring active urban life to a small and quiet corner of the downtown core.

 In the end, two dominant features in the half-acre plaza turned into disasters.  The brick building housing public restrooms attracted drug users, sexual activity and graffiti painters. The large bronze fountain, stylized to be a rose as viewed from above, eventually leaked water into the parking below and apparently damaged the reinforced concrete construction.

Parking was closed in 2017.  The park itself was fenced off in 2018 “due to structural issues in the parking garage beneath the downtown plaza,” according to a city announcement.

 Three years after the fences were installed, nothing has changed.  And no plans are yet in the works.

  "The park and the garage underneath the plaza remain in need of repairs,” said Mark Ross, a Parks Bureau spokesman.  He said the city is evaluating options and finds itself fighting against rising costs in the construction industry.  He added that the bureau “is looking into a way to have some type of activating feature/programming along the edges of the park, in a safe manner, in the interim. We will update the public when plans become more firm.”

Grand opening, 1973 (Portland Archives)

 The park, dedicated in 1973, was named for Hugh O’Bryant, a carpenter who was elected Portland’s first mayor in 1851.  He won the seat with 104 votes in the city's first year of incorporation.  

Ironically, the small park became better known by the nicknames of “Paranoia Park” and “Needle Park,” in regard to people who used it for illegal purposes.  Ironically, the park had become popular in its latest years with lunchtime eaters who frequented dozens of food carts located on a parking lot nearby.  Alas, the parking lot has given way to a high-rise tower now under construction since the park was closed.

 The city isn’t inclined to ask for my design guidelines for recreating O’Bryant Square but here they are, anyway:

  1) Demolish the current structure and forget about underground parking.  Downtown Portland doesn’t need more incentives for motorists, and the 90 or 100 spaces (depending on what article you read) aren’t enough to make much of a difference, anyway.

2) Design a park with a water feature of some sort –and if it leaks, let it leak into Mother Earth.  Add lots of hardscape and permanent seating.  This should be a pleasant place for downtown workers and visitors to enjoy outdoor lunches or nice weather.  Perhaps creative designers could incorporate a small, open-air shelter for rain protection.

3) Include public restrooms, but not in structures that are easily vandalized or used for illicit purposes.  The small Portland Loos used in several locations could be a model, perhaps with shells that look something more attractive than giant aspirin capsules. 

4) Oh yes, the chain link fences.  Out of here! 


 As a personal note, the plaque above lists the members of the 1973 City Council, the year that I began covering City Hall as a reporter for the Oregon Journal newspaper.  I heard or talked with those five members --  Anderson, Ivancie, McCready, Schwab, Goldschmidt  -- three or four times per week.  I often disagreed with them on one issue or another, but this I know:  They never would have left this park fenced off and in disrepair for anywhere NEAR this long.  

--Fred Leeson

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Saturday, October 2, 2021

Preserving the Thompson Elk and Fountain

 


(City of Portland image)

Of all the damage done to downtown Portland last year, the strangest episode was the attack by hooligans on the David P. Thompson elk statue and octagonal granite fountain that formerly sat in the middle of S.W. Main Street.

Since 1900 when they were installed as a gift from an early Portland mayor, David P. Thompson, the bronze elk and fountain had become perhaps Portland’s most beloved work of public art.  For commuters arriving over the Hawthorne Bridge they essentially heralded entrance to Downtown Portland.

 Over a year ago, the elk was rescued and repaired by the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and now sits in seclusion in an undisclosed warehouse.  The Portland Water Bureau removed and saved what remained of the granite fountain, which had eight spigots for watering horses and dogs.

Many questions now arise:  When – and where – will this beloved work of art be returned to public prominence? Should the fountain and elk be considered a single work of art, or separated so the elk could sit on a less intrusive plinth?  Is Main Street the best place, given the sizable obstacle the fountain presents for Tri-Met buses and bicyclists navigating around it? Is there another suitable location for it?

Because the combined statue and fountain is a designated city landmark, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission eventually will be making a recommendation to the City Council about its return.  Several city officials met with the commission to gauge their thoughts.

Oregonian newspaper, January, 1900

Although no votes were taken, the commission had a clear consensus that the fountain and elk are indeed a single work of art, and should be preserved as such.  There also was a consensus that Main Street is still the proper location for it, but that an alternative could be considered in addition to some other interesting possibilities:

 -- One possibility might be widening Main Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, so there would be easier access for buses and bicycles.  This would require removing small portions of Chapman and Lownsdale Squares allow for the widened street.

 --Another might be closing Main Street to buses and cars between Third and Fourth Avenues, and making the fountain into a public plaza between the Chapman and Lownsdale Squares.  This would require new routes for several Tri-Met lines.

 --Another possibility, suggested by Landmarks Chair Kristen Minor, would be to move the fountain and statue from the center of Main Street to one side of other.  This would have the fountain more accessible to pedestrians who might want to splash in the water, and allow bike and bus transit to progress more smoothly.

-- If a move is considered essential, an option might be putting the fountain and elk in new plaza proposed in the South Park Blocks in the Madison Street right-of-way that would closed to traffic.

 On balance, the landmark commission’s comments should be good news to those concerned that the fountain might not be restored, and that the elk might be moved or put on some sort of new plinth.

 As William J. Hawkins III, one of the city’s most notable preservation advocates put it, “You don’t cut landmarks into little pieces and distribute them around.”

What did the elk have to do with Thompson?  The early Portland mayor was a successful businessman and public servant.  He loved animals, domestic and wild, and was a founding member of the Oregon Humane Society.  At 19, he herded cheep across the Oregon Trail.  The elk statue represented wildlife that roamed the region before the Caucasian pioneer era.

 SOUTH PARK BLOCKS UPDATE:  On another matter, the Landmarks Commission voted unanimously to support a revised nomination seeking to add the South Park Blocks to the National Register of Historic Places.  The nomination now goes to the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation that meets Oct. 20 in Salem.

 The nomination will be opposed by the Portland Parks Bureau and by Portland State University, which apparently believes six blocks of public park are more important to the campus than to the general public.  Park users and park advocates supporting the nomination are expected number in the dozens.

---Fred Leeson

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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Honoring Abner H. Francis

 

Plaque dedication:  From Left, James Larpenteur, Lang Syne Socity; William J. Hawkins III, architectural historian; State Sen. Lew Fredricks; Kimberly Moreland, Oregon Black Pioneers; Kenneth Hawkins, historian; Dave Dahl, Lang Syne Society (Sarah Munro photo)

 We pause today from our customary respect for vintage buildings and public places to honor a small piece of Portland’s long-gone architectural history and a man who should not be forgotten, Abner H. Francis.

Francis was an early Black Portland pioneer, who, with his brother, I.B. Francis, operated a well-regarded clothing store in one of Portland’s earliest brick buildings, located on the corner of S.W. Stark Street and Front Ave.  This alone was a major feat in a territory that by law said a Black person could not reside, vote, or own property. 

Francis had been an active abolitionist for 20 years before arriving in Oregon, where he hoped that the Oregon Territory would allow freedom for Blacks to build businesses and enjoy equality guaranteed by the US. Constitution.  He had become a friend of Frederick Douglass long before his arrival in Oregon, and wrote nine mostly lengthy to Douglass discussing racial issues in Oregon and San Francisco, where he travelled often on business.

Douglass printed Francis's letters in his abolitionist newspapers. 

 “Francis’s letters. . . . show how systemic racism in the Oregon Territory reflected slavery politics in the United States, how White supremacists worked to thwart Black leaders such as Francis, and how a network of lesser-known abolitionists joined Francis and Douglass for years to resist White supremacy across the nation,” wrote historian Kenneth Hawkins. 

 Hawkins, who holds a doctorate in history, reprinted nine of the Francis letters to Douglass and added historical context in “A Proper Attitude of Resistance,” in the Winter, 2020, edition of the Oregon Historical Quarterly.  Hawkins’ research on Francis’s life in Portland is detailed and extensive.


 During his first year in Portland, a judge ruled that Francis had to leave, based on the Black exclusion law passed by the Territorial Legislature in 1849.  More than 200 Portlanders signed a petition urging that Francis be allowed to remain, and an exclusion order was never implemented.  Regardless of that attempt, Francis remained a devoted abolitionist and argued unsuccessfully for termination of the Black exclusion law.  A state constitutional provision approved by voters in 1857 declared that Oregon would not allow slavery – nor would it allow Blacks as residents. 

The Oregon Black Pioneers history organization is aware of other Black pioneers like Francis who remained in several Oregon locations despite the constitutional provision.  Many of them ran successful small businesses or were successful at trades.  However, they did not enjoy the greater rights and opportunities assured to White residents, and survived by keeping a low profile in their occupational and social lives. 

The deprivations suffered because of race apparently aren't worthy of discussing or teaching in modern schools, according to a popular view of many who apparently believe that American history is composed only of feel-good moments. 

In 1860, A.H. Francis had an opportunity to visit Victoria, B.C., where the parents of his wife had emigrated.  He liked the appearance of the city and the opportunity it represented.  In a letter to Douglass, he wrote, “In relation to colorphobia, I must close by saying that there is a grand future for the colored man in British possessions on the north Pacific.”  Certainly more grand than in Oregon. 

 Francis ultimately became a British citizen.  He died in 1872.

A plaque honoring Francis has been placed near the site of his long-gone store by the Lang Syne Society, which places historical markers around the city, and by Oregon Black Pioneers.

 ----Fred Leeson

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Sunday, September 19, 2021

African American Cultural Landmarks

 

Golden West Hotel

Thanks to recent interest in long-ignored ethnic history, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission has nominated three buildings for listing on the National Register of Historic Places that reflect African-American culture in Portland in the early and middle portions of the 20th Century.

Two – the Golden West Hotel and Mt. Olivet Baptist Church – are large buildings easily recognized in their Northwest and Northeast Portland neighborhoods, respectively.  Much less noticeable is the smaller and newer Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop located close to Mt. Olivet.

 All three buildings reflect the pains of social, economic, residential and employment discrimination from racial attitudes of the dominant white society well into the 20th Century.  Herewith are brief synopses of how these buildings played important roles in African American society:

 Golden West Hotel, at 707 NW Everett St., was built in 1892 and expanded in 1913, in a French Renaissance Revival architectural style with a Mansard roof on the 6th story.  Its vital role in African American history occurred from 1906 to 1930, when it was operated by William Duncan Allen. 

 Under Allen’s management, the Golden was Portland’s largest hotel catering to Black visitors and tenants.  Many tenants were waiters and porters employed by railroads at the nearby Union Station.   Most of the ground floor and basement were leased to African American entrepreneurs when those spaces were difficult to find in most of Portland.  The one exception in the Golden West was a Chinese restaurant.

 Despite Allen’s successful tenure as manager, the building was owned by Caucasians.  Allen departed in 1930 to run a hotel in Albina, a neighborhood where Blacks were being encouraged to live and work.

 

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church followed path.  Originally located adjacent to the Golden West, the church moved to Northeast Portland in 1921-23, with encouragement to some degree from the mostly-white Northwest neighborhood.  Mt. Olivet at 1734 NE 1st Ave. was built in a Romanesque Revival style based on plans from an Illinois architect who apparently designed many churches largely by mail order.  The building includes 13 stained glass windows by Portland’s notable Povey Glass Co.

 Mt. Olivet, the first African-American church in the area, became well-known for its choir and gospel singers.  The church also played a leading role in civil rights activism for many years and hosted meetings and speeches by civil rights organizations and national leaders.

 Mt. Olivet moved away from the building 1994, but continues to own it and rents it to another congregation.

Dean's Beauty Salon and Barber Shop

Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop, at 213-215 NE Hancock St., was built 1956 in a Mid-Century Commercial style by Benjamin and Mary Rose Dean, according to plans largely created by Benjamin Dean.  Mary Rose Dean had run a beauty shop in their nearby house before the pair succeeded in achieving funds to build their shop when banks commonly would not lend to African Americans.

The Deans migrated to Portland from the South during World War II.  Benjamin Dean worked in the shipyards and later as a federal janitor before deciding to take up barbering, one of the few professions available to Black men, while Mary Rose concentrated on female clientele.  For several decades, Black-run barbershops played vital roles where people could congregate, converse and enjoy camaraderie and grooming free from racial bias.

The shop has two entrances; originally it was segregated inside for women and men.  The center wall later was changed to create a single interior.  The shop continues today under ownership of the third generation of the founding couple.  Few other similar shops have survived the decades of urban renewal, freeway building and gentrification of the nearby Albina area.

 Funding for preparation of these three National Register nomination forms was proved by the Portland City Council, a body that currently shows little interest in historic preservation.  Approval of the nominations by the State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation next month is expected to be a slam dunk.  Then they will be forwarded to the National Park Service for final action.

-----Fred Leeson

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Friday, September 10, 2021

A Double 'Save' at the Woodlark House of Welcome

 

Political demonstrations in downtown Portland and the COVID-19 pandemic dealt harsh blows to the downtown hotel industry.  When your correspondent wanted to write about an exciting architectural preservation breakthrough last year, the Woodlark House of Welcome hotel was locked tight.

Thankfully, the doors have reopened and the lobby was busy during a recent visit.  The comparatively “new” hotel of 151 rooms was composed by joining into a single hotel the original Cornelius Hotel, completed in 1908, and the neighboring the 9-story Woodlark Building erected in 1912.

The conjuncture of the architectural neighbors was approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and tinkered into reality by the Portland firm, MCA Architects.  It is an excellent example of how a new use can provide new life for old buildings, in addition to being a creative “double whammy” to find enough rentable rooms to make the project economically viable.

The Woodlark House of Friends opened early in 2019, but then suffered in 2020 when pandemic-related closures smacked downtown hotel occupancy rates from 77 percent to less than 27.  Most downtown hotels including the Woodlark were closed for at least parts of 2020.

At first glance, the more interesting building is the old Cornelius, which was developed by Charles W. Cornelius, an early Multnomah County coroner.  The “House of  Welcome” on the big blade sign is a throw-back to the informal reputation gained by the hotel in its early era when it hosted an affluent clientele.

A historic picture postcard view 

The Cornelius was designed by a firm headed by John Virginius Bennes, who practice architecture in Portland for 37 years.  He designed many notable buildings on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis.  His firm – though Bennes might not have been the guiding force – also designed the big Hollywood Theater that still presides over the Hollywood District in Northeast Portland.

A notable feature of the Cornelius design is the steeply pitched Mansard roof that sits atop the sixth story.  The Mansard design with windows peeking through was a device invented in Paris in the 19th Century to squeeze one more story out of the Parisian height restrictions.  There are only a few of these French Renaissance examples in Portland.  Regrettably, it is difficult to see the roof with its gabled dormers from the street level.

Until the recent renovation, the past several decades were tough ones for the Cornelius Hotel.  It eventually devolved to low-income housing, and then a fire devastated three floors.  The building appeared headed for demolition in 2014, but was saved when a new development team advanced its plan to merge it as a hotel with the Woodlark Building.


Next door, the taller Woodlark Building with its gently arched main entrance was an early “skyscraper” from the firm headed by A.E. Doyle.  In fewer than 20 years, Doyle’s office designed 19 downtown buildings, making his team the still-reigning design champions for downtown Portland.

 Many of Doyle’s later buildings are taller, but the Woodlark showed his interest in terra cotta ornamentation and his fundamental “base, middle and top” strategy for arranging tall buildings. 

While the middle of the Woodlark and its heavy original cornice remain, the ground floor facades have been substantially modified over the years.  Regardless, the building is an interesting and peaceful example of an early 20th Century office tower.  Its creamy terra cotta fares well in Portland’s cloudiest months.

One hopes that  the demise of the pandemic (if ever) will allow for a successful future for this interesting amalgam of historic Portland buildings from the early 20th Century. 

----Fred Leeson

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Saturday, September 4, 2021

Stewart Hotel/Mary's Club

 


People who enjoy architecture often spend more time looking at the structure and details of a building while paying less attention to what occurs inside.  If you mention “Stewart Hotel” to most Portlanders, few could picture the building at 129 S.W. Broadway.

 But mention “Mary’s Club” and chances are they will know exactly where it is, thanks to its catchy blade sign and descriptive reader board.  All of which are indications that since the middle 1960s, Mary’s Club has been known as one of Portland’s earliest bars offering first topless and eventually all-nude dancing girls.

However, after 67 years the party is ending for Mary’s Club, at least at this location.  The three-story brick building with 57 now-vacant sleeping rooms above has been sold and will be demolished and replaced with something presumably bigger. 

Club owners say Mary's will move to a new downtown location -- as yet undisclosed -- and take the signs and interior artwork with them.  It remains a family business, operated by the heirs of Roy H. Keller, who bought it in 1955 and shifted to topless entertainment about a decade later.  His inspiration was a craze that was first ignited in San Francisco. 


Of course, many people objected to nude dancing as a form of entertainment.  A Portland newspaper columnist minimized it by writing, “When you’ve seen two, you’ve seen 'em all.”  However, an Oregon appellate court wiped away local attempts to regulate nude dancing by ruling that dancing was a form of communication protected by the state’s free-speech clause.

Keller died in 2006, at age 90.  Some 150 people showed for his funeral, including dancers, bartenders, other employees and friends.  Like an outpouring on Facebook when the club announced that it was forced to move, Keller’s funeral showed the lasting affections that can be formed by a family-run business that respects its workers and clientele.

 The three-story brick Stewart Hotel, meanwhile, apparently never had pretensions beyond being more than affordable habitation.  It was built when streetcars, including the Broadway Line, were a heavily-used means of transportation.  The building followed a common "streetcar architecture" pattern of ground-floor retail with housing above.  The simple cornice, lintels and sills were the same cream-colored brick as the walls.

Nobody famous (so far as we know) ever slept there.  The hotel was not an element in any important historical movement or involved in any significant ethnic involvement.  References to it in the newspapers over the decades mentioned it occasionally as the scene petty crimes and as the address of a a defendant being charged in court.  In its last years, it was home to low income tenants including the elderly and disabled.

 The Stewart may have reached a nadir in 2008 when its furnace boiler broke and tenants went 10 days without heat in December cold before a fix was accomplished.  The upper floors are now vacant, possibly as a condition of a sale.

 Demise of the Stewart is not likely to cause any public handwringing.  It can be dismissed as an old building, inadequately maintained, that outlived its usefulness and became an "opportunity site" for redevelopment.  It is regrettable, however, that we lose inventory of fixable affordable housing for low-income residents.   It is a sad reflection of our throw-away society that a building only 100 years old can be dismissed so easily.

----Fred Leeson

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Saturday, August 28, 2021

Finding a Home for Food Carts

 

Ankeny Block

After decades of planning babble and urban renewal projects, nothing has added as much vitality to downtown Portland as the dozens of food carts that popped up in recent years on surface parking lots.

 For less than the price of a restaurant meal, workers, residents and visitors could find an array of international aromas and food choices packed within easy walking distances. Entrepreneurs found entrances to the food business at less than brick-and-mortar prices.  Parking lot owners no doubt enjoyed the steady monthly rentals.

Two years ago, construction on a high-rise luxury hotel forced eviction of 55 food carts from a block at S.W. 10th and Alder.  The city government pledged to find a new home for at least some of them, and hit upon a half-block site at W. Burnside that happened to be the southern terminus of the North Park Blocks.

 Sometime in the 1920s, the block had been adorned with two public restrooms designed in the Georgian style, most likely by architect Jamieson Parker. The brick restrooms flanked an elegant water feature that included a lion’s head emptying water into a reflecting basin.


Historic image from Ankeny Street (Date unknown)

 Parker ranked as one of Portland’s highly-skilled architects at the time, having worked in the offices of A.E. Doyle and then Folger Johnson before opening his own practice in 1921.  He designed dozens of Portland houses and the carefully-crafted First Unitarian Church, in the Georgian style, completed in 1924.  Alas, his architectural career like many others was sadly derailed by the Great Depression.

 The Ankeny Block (as it came to be known) at the southern tip of the North Park Blocks fell into hard times.  The restrooms ultimately were locked shut and substantially abused by graffiti.  The water feature’s reflecting pool was covered over.

 The city approved $269,000 to prepare the site for about 20 food carts on three sides.  While the carts are now open for business, the rest of the park is a work in progress.  Fortunately, the graffiti has been cleaned up, and the restrooms might be returned to use someday. 

"We had to snake all the drains as they were backing up and we pulled all sorts of stuff out," said Keith M. Jones, director of Friends of Green Loop supervising the project.  "All of this work is very expensive and we are tackling it in stages. Our plans are to reopen the bathrooms to the public, but we will need to have a lot of work done first."

On a less appealing side, the remaining portion of the historic water feature was removed.  As seen below, big electrical boxes were added to one restroom, detracting from its architecture.



Pictures of the old water feature are rare. A request is pending with the city archives (now closed by the pandemic) to look for an image showing the "front" side of the demolished fountain.

A former member of the Portland Parks Foundation advises, “The original photo showed a partially brick (with cast stone elements) garden wall, with balustraded railings at both sides. The fountain's water supply appears to be a lion's head, which spilled into a decorative basin.  The basin was covered up when a partial stage was constructed over it some years ago. In all, (the demolition) demonstrates Portland Parks and Recreation’s current attitude toward history and architectural features within our Portland Parks.

The center of the block is now barren gravel.  Jones said, "We also want to bring back the stage that was in the center of the park and start programming the space." 

 Success of the city’s efforts to relocate food carts at Ankeny Block is not guaranteed.  The carts are farther away from the downtown employment core, and the employee population might continue to be reduced by the pandemic and long-range effects of more people working from home.  Indeed, the project is considered by the city to be a three-year experiment.

If successful, the block again could become an attractive element of the historic North Park Blocks. Who knows, maybe some day someone will be interested in restoring the historic water feature.   

 ------Fred Leeson

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Saturday, August 21, 2021

Courting the Old and New

 

Portland Railway Light & Power (1909)

Sometimes salvation for historic architecture occurs when successful new uses thrive within old walls.  Prime examples in the Portland area include renovations by the McMenamin brothers that turned a mortuary, erstwhile county poor farm and a vacant elementary school into vibrant venues for eating, drinking or lodging.

A new Portland example is equally unusual: a local government turning a former (dating to 1909) Portland Railway Light & Power substation into a courtroom that is backed on two sides by a new 17-story Multnomah County Courthouse.

The new tower is worthy of a visit itself.  Designed by the Portland firm SRG Partnership, the lobby is pleasantly filled with natural light.  Three-story pillars of reinforced concrete pull your eyes upward, all bearing natural images from the wood that helped form them.  One has to assume they are an interesting, even playful, reflection on the classic fluted columns commonly associated with Greek and Roman forms used in historic courthouses and public buildings.

For our purposes, the other must-see element is the Crane Room, (see below) located up the lobby stairs and then to the right down a hall.  The room is two-stories tall and shows the muscular reinforced concrete bones that once housed the heavy electrical equipment that served downtown buildings and part of the early Portland streetcar system.  The Crane room contains a courtroom for high-volume minor cases, and lots of spaces for people to wait and for attorneys to negotiate cases.

Crane Room 

The electrical station, believed to be the first example of reinforced concrete architecture in Downtown Portland, was converted to office and restaurant uses some 40 years ago.  Yet one historic element from its early days remains, and that is a large movable crane near the ceiling.  It is labelled “20 Ton Niles Crane,” likely a site gag based on the name of the character in an erstwhile popular television sitcom.

 In fact, the crane was manufactured by the Shepard Niles Crane & Hoist Corp., an Elmira, N.Y., firm that started producing heavy equipment in the 1880s.  The firm also made a similar crane capable of bearing 25 tons.

 The station was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.  The nomination form was written by the late George McMath, an architect who is considered the father of Portland’s efforts from the 1970s to recognize and attempt to preserve the city’s notable landmark buildings.  Oddly, the nomination form does not include any historic photographs of the building, which nowadays is a standard element in nomination applications.

McMath wrote, “The Jefferson Substation achieves architectural and engineering significance as a relatively rare extant example in Portland of an early electrical substation --it is the only remaining structure of its type in downtown Portland -- and as a very early local instance of a building with a reinforced concrete superstructure.” 

It was an industrial-style building erected for its practical use, not for architectural interest.  Yet its clearly-expressed structure and steel sash windows show a simplicity that a few decades later led to the “revolution” of modern architecture over historical styles.

Courthouse Tower

By 1980, the neighborhood had changed dramatically around the electrical station, with tall buildings and a seven-story parking garage.  “While partly surrounded by new high-rise construction, the simple unadorned structure of the Jefferson Substation fits well with its larger neighbors,” McMath concluded.

It now rests comfortably nestled on three sides by a 17-story courthouse, with a lifetime of many, many years to come.

------Fred Leeson

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Saturday, August 14, 2021

Gone...and Going?

 

Fire Station No. 2 recently 

It’s increasingly common these days for people to wonder whether Portland will ever return to “normal” as we remembered it before the pandemic and the surge of homeless camp that  dot many major streets.  Trash abounds and many stores downtown and in neighborhood commercial centers are vacant.

 Almost all of retail spaces on the ground floors of the city’s many new apartment buildings also sit vacant.

Regrettably, the short answer the question above is “no.” A couple notable examples in the past week:

1) Prosper Portland, the city government’s development agency, quickly demolished the historic clinker-brick former fire station erected in 1913 near the west end of the Steel Bridge, without bothering to provide advance public notice.

Yes, one could find the demolition permit issued June 7 if one had the inclination and savvy to scrounge on the Internet.    But the agency’s PR staff never bothered to mention it. Understandably so, since the agency no doubt wanted to avoid public hand-wringing in advance.

Fire Station No. 2 now (Scott Allen Tice photo)

 Ironically, the station sat across Glisan Street  from the historic Yamaguchi Hotel/Blanchet House building, which Prosper Portland could have bought for $1 and perhaps saved…but didn’t.  We have written recently about the likelihood of its demolition in coming months.

 The old fire station was one of several designs created by Lee Gray Holden, one of the Fire Bureau's greatest leaders, about whom we have written in the past.  The “good” news is that a very similar Holden station in Northwest Portland has been elegantly restored into a private residence, so some of Holden’s good work survives.

All done?

2) What has appeared for many months to be the long, slow death of the Lloyd Center shopping mall in Northeast Portland accelerated last week, when a significant fire evidently destroyed an electrical station somewhere in the basement, forcing closure of the entire mall.

A week later, the mall remained closed.  Five days after the fire, a representative of the Dallas, Texas, owners said the damage was being "assessed" and that the mall would reopen.  However, no prospective date was offered.  The owners contended earlier this year that they planned to reconstitute the mall as a shopping destination.

  However, vacancies have grown, and the fire-related shut-down, for however long it lasts, will not help.  Some of the remaining retail tenants were reassessing whether to stay at Lloyd Center even before the fire.  

Meanwhile, one potential option for the center’s big footprint has disappeared.  There was talk that the space might become a major league baseball park if Portland could attract the Oakland A’s franchise.  While the fate of the A’s in Oakland remains undetermined, Portland is no longer mentioned as a potential site.   The best gamble for a new home, so to speak, is Las Vegas.

The center covers 18 square blocks in Northeast Portland.  The site conceivably could become available for high-rise offices, condos or apartments if the mall were to be demolished.  In any event, it is difficult to see the mall returning to its few decades of glory after it opened in 1960. 

Cities are evolving, changing organisms.  Those of us who want to protect the best of the past often are viewed as enemies of progress.  But here is another question:  Will the “new” Portland be better than the old one?

-----Fred Leeson

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Saturday, August 7, 2021

New Life for Montgomery Park

 

Picture postcard, late 1930s (GBD Architects)

 Northwest Portland’s biggest and most unusual historic building is headed for a makeover intended to make it more lively and interesting to the industrial and residential neighborhoods it straddles.

 It is the huge former Montgomery Ward & Co. warehouse and retail store that years ago had railroad spurs allowing rail cars to be shunted from N.W. Wilson Ave. directly into its basement.  (See lower right corner of postcard.) For more than 50 years, the big building helped Ward compete against Sears for mail-order business long before anyone dreamed of Amazon.

 Ward shuttered the retail store in 1972 and departed the rest of the building in 1982.  It was bought by the entrepreneurial Naito family, who converted the building to offices and exhibition space.  Bill Naito took great pride in renaming the building Montgomery Park by merely changing two letters in the huge neon sign looming above the building.  The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in addition to being a Portland landmark.  

Unico Properties, a major Seattle-based property investment firm with large holdings in Seattle, Portland, Denver and a few other cities, bought Montgomery Park in 2019.  The firm’s goal is to develop mixed-use properties in and around it.  

 Under plans approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, Unico intends to open retail and food opportunities on all four ground-floor frontages of Montgomery Park.  The firm also wants to add a restaurant at the top of the east bay, including access by visitors to the roof and spectacular east-looking view below the huge Montgomery Park sign.

Pop-out vestibule to be removed (GBD Architects)

 The most noticeable change will be on the west side.  Unico plans to remove the pop-out vestibule added by the Naitos when they switched the main entrance to the building’s west side.  In its place, the design calls for a glassy, three-story tall curtainwall panel set just proud of the main walls.  The entry would feature two doors thirty feet tall and 10 feet wide that could pivot open in good weather to add fresh air to the central atrium.

Proposed west-side entrance (GBD Architects)

 Dark metal framing of the curtainwall struck one commission as “too dramatic” for the style of the historic building.  Others believed it reflected a boldness characteristic to the building’s overall size, and approved it as proposed.

 The building was erected in two L-shaped phases, the first in 1920 and the second in 1936.  The two Ls created an open plaza to the west, which was covered by a tilting glass ceiling by the Naitos to create a dramatic atrium. 

 The reinforced steel beams on all facades show a clear expression of the building’s structure, with little effort to dress them up with architectural ornament.  The hundreds of windows have industrial-style steel sashes that appear to have weathered well over the years.  Glass panes that were painted or covered over the years will be cleaned, according to the plans.

Kimberly Moreland, a landmarks commissioner, suggested that the building and grounds should have historical markers.  The site itself was part of the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition, and bygone neighbors included the Guilds Lake World War II housing project and the Vaughn Street baseball stadium.

(GBD Architects)

 Should anyone be wondering, yes, the big Montgomery Park sign will remain.

-----Fred Leeson

If you want to be added to Building on History's mailing list, write "add me" to fredleeson@hotmail.com