Friday, June 24, 2022

Here's (Almost) Hollywood!


After years of planning, fundraising, careful demolition and unexpected COVID delays, the final touches on the Hollywood Theatre’s lower façade restoration are falling into place.

 For the first time since at least 1959, the 96-year-old landmark Northeast Portland theater will finally display a coherent exterior design that closely resembles its 1926 original façade.  A grand re-opening is set for July 17, to include displays of historic photographs, relics salvaged during the remodel and details of the multi-year restoration project.

When will the final touches be finished?  “July 16,” said Virginia Durost, an eternal optimist who is the theater’s facility manager.

 The theater was designed by the Portland firm of Bennes and Herzog.  Bennes is best noted for several buildings on the Oregon State University campus, while Herzog had a hand in designing some other Portland theaters.

 The Hollywood is said to be the last theater in Portland built both for vaudeville and movies.  Its playful tall, narrow, multi-colored terra cotta façade holds a plethora of funky byzantine details guaranteed to attract eyeballs from passersby.  The theater was an obvious expression of East Portland’s inferiority complex when compared with downtown’s upper crust.   While it may never have achieved parity with downtown, it was so notable that the surrounding business community adopted the name, “Hollywood District.”

Grand arch and bas-reliefs over the entry doors

 As frequently occurs when restoring old houses, careful demolition of the non-historic façade uncovered surprises.  One was three bas-reliefs that have been repaired and will glow under new lighting above the front doors.  Another key find was portions of the original terrazzo floor with checkered tile bands that once welcomed visitors as they entered under the marquee.

 The old floor allowed the theater to reproduce and original flooring and colors – while leaving two of the original floor fragments in place.  Demolition also uncovered three locked safes, which, after being hauled out and successfully opened – contained nothing.

A fragment of the original outdoor floor (top of photo) became a template for restoration

 A free-standing ticket booth that once stood near the entry could not be replaced because of modern access requirements.  However, it is remembered by a metallic octagon set into the terrazzo.  “We do not know its original exact dimensions,” Durost said.

 Lower façade details were designed by Paul Falsetto, a Portland architect known for his work on historic properties.  Durost also complimented the work of Architectural Castings Inc., a Portland firm that specializes in reproducing architectural details for historic buildings.

When the remaining architectural details are in place, "going" to the movies at the Hollywood Theatre will be an added pleasure in addition to whatever film awaits inside.  

 -----Fred Leeson

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Friday, June 17, 2022

Remembering Charles H. Carey


Charles Carey residence (National Register nomination form)

The next Portland-area structure likely to be accepted by the National Register of Historic Places is the Riverdale home of Charles H. Carey, who indisputably was one of the most important lawyers and political power brokers in Oregon in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

 Carey, who practiced law from 1883 to 1933, also played key roles in writing Oregon history, helping to establish the Oregon Historical Society and the Portland Art Association, as well as founding the Multnomah Law Library, an institution that still serves as a research venue for local lawyers.

 In addition, Carey was one of the key backroom figures in the Oregon Republic Party, whose two factions battled one another ruthlessly in the era when U.S. senators were selected by state legislators.  Carey’s battles with the rival Joseph Simon faction could likely rank among the dirtiest in state history, when Senate seats to a certain extent were obtained by the highest bidder.

Perhaps the worst blight in Carey’s career is that he helped succeed in placing John Hipple Mitchell in the U.S. Senate.  Mitchell’s career and Senate term suffered a key blow when he was convicted in the 1905 timber fraud trials.  He died while the Senate was considering expulsion.

 As a lawyer, Carey represented banks and railroads and helped build what became Oregon’s largest law firm.  He wrote a lengthy “General History of Oregon” and “The Oregon Constitution.”  His constitution book is still used by lawyers today as it is the best collection of news accounts and other documents about the constitutional convention, where official minutes were not kept.

 Carey’s career of legal and social activities is so extensive, “It’s really deserving of a book,” said Liz Carpenter, a Eugene historian who prepared the National Register nomination.  Carey served as a Portland Municipal Court judge from 1892 to 1894.  Though the municipal court was the lowest rung on the judicial ladder, Carey was often referred to as “Judge Carey” for the rest of his life.

Carey library (National Register form)

 The Carey house was erected in 1902 and slightly expanded in 1904.  Its architect is believed to be Edgar Lazarus, who is best known for designing the Vista House at Crown Point.  The Carey residence is described as being a Colonial Revival style, with horizontal siding and a large porch supported by Doric columns.

 The house remains in the sixth generation of family ownership, and most of the interior is still in original condition.  The Riverdale neighborhood sits south of Portland's city limits close to the west bank of the Willamette River., 

 The National Register nomination is based primarily on Carey’s legal and social history rather than on the architecture of the house.  Regardless, the house is an excellent example of prime residential work in its era.  Carey was born in 1857 and died in 1941.

Oregonian, 1902

 ----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, June 2, 2022

Is St. Johns City Hall in Jeopardy?


Buoyed by hopes of a prosperous future, residents of a village lying north of Portland voted in 1902 to incorporate themselves as the City of St. Johns.

 Though their dashed hopes led instead to a consolidation with Portland in 1915, the former city left behind a wonderful monument that still stands today as one of Portland’s most impressive  neighborhood landmarks: St. Johns City Hall, completed in 1907.

 The Georgian Revival architectural gem with its red bricks, heavy Ionic columns and large pediment, has served for decades as a police station and fire station, with the basement originally used as a jail.  Portland police used the building as North Precinct until 2009 and then used it for its training division until leaving in 2021, leading to some speculation that the historic building would be sold.

 Michael Q. Brown, president of the St. Johns Heritage Association, said the history group had displays on the top floor for nearly 40 years before being told by the mayor’s office to move out. "The threat from the mayor’s office was that we would be charged for transportation of our artifacts and charged for storage, if we did not remove our artifacts by August of 2021."

One of many displays formerly housed at St. Johns City Hall  (St. Johns Heritage Association)

 The heritage association has moved some of its historical displays to the Peninsula Odd Fellows Lodge.  When the St. Johns City Hall was renovated in 1978 with help from a $300,000 federal grant, Brown said one of the provisions was that the building had to contain some community use.  He believes the city has violated that agreement.

 Brown said he was told more than once that the building would be sold.  A speedy sale appears unlikely, however.  The latest tenant is the office of the Portland Park Rangers, an unarmed Parks Bureau staff that tries to resolve disputes and find answers for a variety of potential issues arising in city parks.  A Park Rangers representative said the agency has a five-year lease on the building.

 The building has an interesting pedigree.  Its architect was W.W. Goodrich, who came to Portland in 1903 in poor health when he was 62.  His earliest claim to fame was as a naval architect on the Monitor, an iron-sided vessel that fought the well-known battle with the iron-sided Merrimac in the Civil War in 1862.

 The Monitor had been built with private funds before the U.S. Navy bought it.  “The boat was launched in New York amid hisses and sneers,” Goodrich recalled in a 1905 newspaper article.  “Everyone believed it would sink when launched and were greatly surprised when it righted.”

 Goodrich said in 1905 that he was on the Monitor during the 3 1/2 hour battle with the Merrimac, won by the Monitor.  He claimed he suffered a burst ear drum and a broken hand.  However, obituaries after his death in 1907 stated that he was not present during the fight. 

 Regardless of the veracity of Goodrich's memory,  “This fight made navies of the world obsolete and useless,” he said.

 Goodrich also practiced architecture in New York, Denver, Berkeley and Atlanta before coming to Portland, as he tried to find a climate that would improve his health.  Goodrich died before the St. Johns City Hall was finished.  His son, Clenath L. Goodrich, supervised its completion.

 “To sell the building would be terrible,” Brown said.  “There is so much history there.  It is one of the few buildings we have left that absolutely says, ‘This is St.  Johns.’”

------Fred Leeson

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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Annual Preservation Report to the Portland City Council


The annual report by the Portland Landmarks Commission to the City Council generally is dispiriting for preservation advocates.  The reports are always well crafted, including ideas that would enhance the city’s physical environment and our understanding of its history.

The city commissioners always heartily thank the landmarks commission members for their work and their ideas and diligence.

And then:  Nothing happens.

It felt like deja vue all over again on May 25, when the landmarks commission reported on its work in 2021 and their thoughts for improvements they would like the see made in 2022.  Their suggestions included:

·        -- -Restarting an inventory of Portland’s historic buildings that has not been updated since 1984, even despite a major expansion of Portland’s eastern boundary;

·         ---Undertaking a cultural resources plan to find a preserve locations of cultural significance to Portland’s various minority communities, even if the buildings involved are not considered architecturally significant;

·       ---  Finding ways to help fund expensive seismic bracing for some 1,600 Portland buildings constructed of unreinforced masonry that are especially vulnerable to earthquake damage;

·        --- Establishing a legacy business program that would assist historic businesses in facing a variety of economic challenges from issues including the pandemic and gentrification.

Alas, the report did not identify funding sources or amounts of money needed to carry out these suggestions, noble though they may be.

As all the compliments from city commissioners rolled in about the quality of the report, Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty -- who has sat through three previous landmark commission annual reviews -- sounded the voice of reality.

“I hate to be the wet blanket in the room,” she said.  Given the city’s limited resources, she said, opportunities for funding are limited.   “We will have to be creative and thoughtful.” Hardesty added,  “We really need to have a plan if you want it to become reality. We don’t have that.”

Of course, it is the City Council that controls the municipal budget, not the landmarks commission.  Even if the landmarks commission could suggest funding sources, some member of the council would have to propose council action. 

What might be different this year is the stress on appreciating the history of Portland’s minority communities, and an understanding that those communities need to be able to take advantage of whatever incentives and benefits preservation programs can provide.

In a letter preceding the commission’s report, Landmarks Chair Kristin Minor wrote, “On the Landmarks Commission, we are aware that for many, historic preservation seems like a side topic; something that is an “extra”, not a need. Yet preservation directly strengthens community bonds and generational stability, which help people heal and rebound from stress.

“Historic preservation and adaptive reuse are far better for the planet than the typical redevelopment model, moving us from a “throw-away” society to one that repairs and adds to what we already have. Finally, if used intentionally to honor communities who have experienced loss, displacement, and erasure, historic preservation can begin to work towards justice.”

If you are interested, you can read the full report here:

----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Some Deeply-Felt Thanks


While there still could be obstacles to restoring the historic Thompson Elk Fountain at its original site, the May 11 decision by the Portland City Council was deeply gratifying to the preservation community.  Kit Abel Hawkins, a vibrant member of the ad hoc Save The Thompson Elk Fountain Committee, wrote eloquent thanks the council members.

Her thoughts were echoed by other committee members who signed below.

 Dear Mayor Wheeler and Commissioners Hardesty, Mapps, Rubio, and Ryan-- 

 I write with gratitude for your finding your way to making something right in this City last Wednesday -- your withdrawal of the Demolition Delay Permit that would have stripped the Thompson Elk Fountain of its City Historic Landmark protections and your unanimous commitment to its full restoration.  Your action will serve as a symbol not only of your further intentions but of your coming actions in bringing the city that is our home back from the combined destructive forces that have plagued us for the last many months.

 It took listening and courage, coordination and time, imagination and effort to make this happen.  I am grateful that Commissioner Ryan was willing to be the first to step forward to boldly assert his support of the return of this landmark. I am thankful for all your collective openness to an idea that was becoming lost in a sea of process and options that combined would have  put the City in league with the vandals. Thanks go to Commissioner Rubio and Commissioner Ryan for introducing the Resolution, and for the introduction of good humor into the proceedings with the declarations of intent signified by those green antlers on your monitors and then on your heads. Thanks go to Commissioner Mapps for a history of the artwork that has stood at the center of Portland's civic center for 120 years. Thanks go to Commissioner Hardesty, who might have preferred a straighter road, quite literally, as PBOT bureau chief, but who found the virtue in this resolution supporting restoration. And thanks go to Mayor Wheeler for his outspoken grasp of the simple fact that the City should return the landmark to its site as an example of the City's devotion to stewardship of its resources on behalf of its citizens. 

 As was testified to at the hearing, we are here to help. Bill and I and the other members of the  Board of Restore the Thompson Elk Fountain stand ready to raise funds from the thousands who lifted their voices on behalf of the rightness of this restoration. The People of Portland wrote to let you know their opinion on this matter, and we hope to encourage them to add to a fund to see to it that the missing and damaged parts of the Thompson Elk Fountain are refabricated and given to the City for the complete and beautifully crafted restoration of this landmark artwork.  Preliminary drawings and plans have already been created, stonemasons found who see the work as completely feasible using precisely the same granite from which the intact portions of the fountain are made. Bill is having a model made so that one and all can visualize just how this cleverly and artfully conceived structure can be reassembled.

 Perhaps even beyond the particulars of this symbolic and reassuring moment, we are most pleased to have been considered as advocates whose ideas are worthy of consideration and whose commitment to honorable engagement resulted in a sense of optimism about the possibility that we can confront our problems as a city with common purpose, resolve, and effort.

Gratefully yours,  

Kit Abel Hawkins

William J. Hawkins, III

Stephen Kafoury

Mike Lindberg

Fred Leeson

Jim Heuer

Brooke Best

Rod Merrick

Henry Kunowski

Wendy Rahm

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Thursday, May 12, 2022

Victory for the Thompson Elk Fountain


Wearing temporary antlers, Commissioner Dan Ryan saved the Thompson Elk Fountain

Preservation advocates savored a rare and joyous occasion this week, walking into a Portland City Council meeting KNOWING they had enough votes to preserve the historic David Thompson Elk Fountain.

 The council’s 5-0 vote to restore the landmark at its original location was a far cry from so many council hearings, where preservationists wait anxiously for their 120 seconds of impassioned testimony to fall on deaf ears because the decisions are already “cooked” in advance.

The May 11 council vote ranks as one of Portland's greatest preservation victories in recent years.

 The 120-year old elk statue and the fountain over which it presided were damaged by vandals in political protests in 2020.  Though the council had promised to return the elk, the city had initiated paperwork to remove the historic designation of the fountain, which had been removed by city staff from its site on SW Main Street. . 

 Mayor Ted Wheeler said restoring the fountain was “more than a statement about aesthetics.  People who break things don’t have the final word.  We do.”  The council hopes -- along with preservationists -- that the fountain's restoration will mark a comeback for Portland's civic spaces, economy and reputation as an attractive city. 

 The hero hat in this case goes to Commissioner Dan Ryan, who was the first (and only) commissioner to advocate for the fountain’s restoration before the May 11 vote.  After weeks of encouragement that included thousands of emails sent to the city and private negotiations with an ad hoc fountain restoration committee, Ryan convinced Commissioner Carmen Rubio to file the council’s resolution with him.

 Nobody was happier about the council decision than William J. Hawkins III, a Portland architect and historian who had spent a year and a half talking and pleading with city officials about saving the fountain.  Hawkins has created a foundation to accept tax-deductible donations to help pay for fountain repairs.

 Checks may be sent to: 

             RESTORE THE THOMPSON ELK FOUNTAIN                          25 NW 23rd PL. STE. 6 #226                               Portland, OR 97210

The fountain in earlier years 

Hawkins had made little progress saving the fountain on his own until he connected with the ad hoc committee that included Portland political veterans Mike Lindberg and Stephen Kafoury.  Those two diligent people took charge of communicating with City Council members and their staffs, and found excellent help through Ryan’s chief of staff, Kellie Torres.

 The non-profit Portland Parks Foundation will undertake a study of how to return the fountain and also meet pedestrian and transportation needs on Main Street.   Now that the fountain’s landmark status is no longer at risk, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission also will have an important role in deciding how the various street needs are achieved.

 While celebrating their once-seemingly-impossible victory, Portland’s preservation community needs to study the tools that led to their success and try to determine how they can be used in future preservation battles. 

 The message to remember is that our city is not improved by destroying its best landmark buildings, municipal art and public parks.  If Portland wants to be a great city again, it needs to build on its history, not erase it.

 -----Fred Leeson

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Friday, May 6, 2022

Two Important Preservation Updates

Victory for the Thompson Elk Fountain 

In an apparent huge victory for citizen participation and preservation, the Portland City Council on May 11 is expected to approve a resolution calling for restoration of the Thompson Elk Fountain at its original location on SW Main Street. 

 The council’s action follows months of lobbying and apparently thousands of emails to council members supporting restoration of the historic fountain that was partly damaged in political demonstrations and then removed by the city in 2020.

 Next week we will discuss in more detail how this welcome decision came to pass.  The outcome clearly is one of the few times in recent history when public expressions of concern made a difference.


(HPA Architecture)

New Future for First Church of Christ, Scientist

Perhaps the only surprise about the vote to sell the Northwest Neighborhood Community Center (originally the First Church of Christ, Scientist) was the margin in favor: Community “owners” voted 53 to 3 to sell the building for $4.75 million to a Nevada development firm.

 Founders Developments plans to convert the former church two become part of a two-building “high-end hospitality product” with 98 rooms, a bar restaurant and other amenities.  The exterior facades and roof of the Beaux-Arts style would be retained, but the interior fully transformed 18 guest rooms.  The other rooms would be in an adjacent new building.

 The sale, expected to close in the fall, ends a long, tortuous process about what to do with the historic but ailing building.  Its vulnerability to earthquakes made its restoration as a community center largely impossible.

 The community owners essentially no choice but to accept the sale since no other reasonable purchase offers were received.  The sale proceeds will be held in trust to fund civic-oriented projects in six nearby neighborhoods.

“This building needs to be saved and by somebody with the assets to do it,” Dan Anderson, president of the NNCC board, told the Goose Hollow Foothills League a few days before the vote.

 The building’s current tenant, a children’s theater, has a lease that expires in September.  Some neighborhood residents will miss the building as a venue for theater, music and community events.

 Regardless, finding successful new uses for old buildings is a vital element in modern architectural preservation.  The leading example in Portland may be the McMenamin brothers, who have adapted a vacant school, county poor farm, movie theater, mortuary and other old buildings into successful venues for beer, wine, food, movies and concerts.  A more recent example is Steeplejack Brewing, which “saved” a Northeast Portland church by turning it into an attractive brew pub, restaurant and meeting venue.

 Designing and building the new hotel likely will be a slow process.  Plans for the new building and any changes to the exterior of the 1909 former church will have to be analyzed and approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.

-----Fred Leeson 

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Thursday, April 28, 2022

Another Monument Needing Help


Don Porth, a retired, 28-year veteran of the Portland Fire Bureau, is on a mission.  He wants to restore the David Campbell Memorial at SW 18th Ave. and Alder Street and erect a wall honoring 34 other Portland firefighters who lost their lives on active duty.

 Simple though it sounds, Porth’s vision calls for a complex restructuring of the little triangle that bears the name Portland Firefighters Park.  He would relocate a restored Campbell Memorial to the southern tip of the triangle, which would require relocation of a gazebo that holds a 4,200 pound antique fire alarm bell. 

The large bell, used for nearly 40 years until 1913, reportedly could be heard as far away as Oregon City when it was used to alert fire crews.

According to Porth’s hand-drawn sketch, the memorial wall would be placed on western side of the triangle adjacent to SW 19th Ave.  The names of those firefighters are currently located on the floor of the memorial below the now-unused fountain.

 Porth wants an accurate and professional restoration of the Campbell Memorial, which dates to 1928.  The fountain and pool were designed by Paul Cret, an architect who was a professor for 34 years at the University of Pennsylvania, and a major figure in American Beaux-Arts designs of the era.  Campbell, who was killed fighting a fire in 1911, is memorialized in a five-foot tall bronze bas-relief by sculptor Avard Fairbanks.

 The wacky nature of Portland city government makes it difficult to know who’s in charge of the monument and small park.  Though bears the name of “Firefighters Park,” is doesn’t belong to the Parks Bureau.  Though the monument is about Portland Fire Bureau history, the Fire Bureau has no administrative responsibility.  For many years, maintenance of the memorial was provided by the volunteer David Campbell Memorial Association.  Porth is its current president.    

 The agency with ostensible control over the little triangle, Porth says, is the Portland Bureau of Transportation since it is considered part of the right-of-way between SW 18th and 19th Avenues.  Of course, PBOT isn’t in the business of attending to public parks OR to commemorative monuments.


Porth also believes the revamped memorial should add additional interpretive elements.  Indeed, given Campbell’s immense influence in Portland before his death, his history deserves fuller description.

 Campbell started his career as a firefighter at age 14 in 1878.  He was too young to be hired when the city switched to a paid staff in 1883, but was hired in 1885.  He served as fire chief from 1893 to 1896, and gain from 1898 until his death.  As an athlete, Campbell was a highly skilled boxer and taught boxing for 5 years at the Multnomah Athletic Club.  As fire chief, he began the transition from h9orse-drawn to motorized fire engines.  

 The day Campbell died, fire had broken out at a Union Oil distribution plant near the Willamette River in Southeast Portland.  As the fire raged, Campbell concluded that the best way to fight it was from inside the building.  He took two other firefighters in with him, but an explosion knocked two of them out of the building to safety.  Campbell never came out.

 His death led to a momentous outpouring of grief and respect.  Newspapers estimated that 150,000 people jammed the streets for a memorial.

 It doesn’t take an expert to see that the elegant memorial needs help.  Porth is gradually building constituencies of supporters before taking his plan to the City Council.  He knows the project would be expensive, but he said private funds could be added to the city government's share.  

In an era when Portlanders often seem not to care about history, one thinks of C.E.S. Wood’s words on the Skidmore Fountain late in the 19th Century:  “Good citizens are the riches of the city.”  True then; true now. 

 -----Fred Leeson

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Friday, April 22, 2022

The Phoenix Flies Again on Foster

Matt Froman with a historic photograph

Think of Matt Froman as the man with a million-dollar smile.  Or perhaps really $1.1 million.

 Froman is a self-taught preservation expert who threw open the doors of the 100-year old Phoenix Pharmacy building last week to celebrate both its centenary and the near completion of a four-year restoration effort.

 There is likely no better-recognized structure along the angling SE Foster Road than the two-story brick building erected with a façade that curves gently along the most acute angle of its trapezoidal lot.  From its opening in 1922 until 1946 it was the home of the Phoenix Pharmacy, operated by the much-admired pharmacist, John Leach. 

 For the past years, two Froman has worked full-time on the project, returning the landmark back to its original appearance and to full occupancy with a retail store, Foster Outdoor, soon to arrive on the ground floor and five offices above.  Along the way, he tackled the duties of general contractor, manual laborer and leasing agent.


Early on, Froman was fortunate in partnering with two longstanding preservation experts, Rick Michaelson and Karen Karlsson, of Inner City Properties.  After acquiring the building from his father, Froman granted 51 percent ownership to his partners; now the plan is for Froman to refinance the building based on its ongoing revenue and retake full control.

 Until renovations began, the building has been largely vacant for about 20 years.  The roof leaked so badly, water had to be contained and then drained from the second floor.  Critical elements of the restoration included a new roof, seismic bracing, new electric and plumbing systems, restoration of the original storefront system and tall transom windows.  Original doors from SE 67th Avenue to the offices above and the stairway were stripped and refinished; many walls had to be replaced, as well as the water-damaged flooring on the upper floor. 

The project began with no knowledge as to the identity of the original architect.  It remains a mystery, despite research by Jessica Engeman, a historic preservation consultant.  The nomination she wrote for the National Register of Historic Places suggests that it was Richard Martin Jr., or Morris Whitehouse.  Whitehouse designed a house in then-rural Southeast Portland for Leach and his wife, Lilla, who was a prominent botanist.   

Ground floor, looking toward front door

After the demise of the Leaches, their home and extensive gardens on 16 acres near 122nd Ave. and Foster Road were accepted for public use by the City of Portland.  The site today is called the Leach Botanical Garden.

The Phoenix Pharmacy building was the largest along SE Foster when it was built.  The street, once a Native American path that runs at an angle from SE 48th and Powell Boulevard, was newly paved from a dirt road when Leach built it. 

 Given Froman’s restoration work and his desire to retain a longstanding ownership, one hopes the interesting flagship of Foster Road will become an inspiration for restoring other interesting old buildings along the street.

------Fred Leeson

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Thursday, April 14, 2022

Coming to Northwest Portland?


(Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture)

One of the oddest chapters in Portland architectural landmark history may start unfolding soon to  transform the 1909 former First Church of Christ Scientist into a contemporary two-building hotel complex.

 There are questions galore about the proposed development, but perhaps the most solid “fact” is that the owners of what is now called the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center may have no option other than to sell the building and an adjoining lot for $4.5 million to a Nevada development company. 

 Regrettably, no other entity has stepped forward to save the former church that was converted to a neighborhood center housing non-profit entities back in 1977.  Under the proposed deal, a new five-story hotel with 80 rooms would be built facing on NW 19th Avenue and the old church would be converted to house an additional 18 hotel rooms and unspecified hotel amenities.

Proceeds from the sale would be placed in a trust fund that would provide annual payouts for civic-minded projects in Northwest Portland’s Alphabet National Historic District.  The 500-plus “owners” of the historic building are to be presented details of the sale for potential approval on April 26.  Whether they will want more details or ask for more time is not known.

Given the complexity of the proposal, be assured that it contains elements of “good news” as well as elements of “not so good news.”  Here are some that come to mind so far:

As it stands today 

Good: The roof, dome, portico and three public facades of the historic building would be saved, and ostensibly restored under guidelines approved the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.  Believed to have been designed by a prominent Chicago architect, Solon Spencer Beman, the historic shape of the Beaux-Arts design would continue as a prominent city landmark.

Not so good: Louis Sullivan’s famous architectural dictum from 1896, “form follows function,” suggests that the shape and design of a building should indicate its function.  Given its style, this building screams “church,” or, without its art-glass windows, perhaps even “government building.”  Nothing about it suggests “hotel.”  A modest means of atonement might be a plaque somewhere near its front that explains its history.

Good: The firm that produced the preliminary views, Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture of Chicago, has a track record of working on historic buildings.  It is currently working on another Portland project revamping the old Troy Laundry building and adding an adjacent residential building.  

Not so good: Founders Developments, the Las Vegas builder and proposed buyer, appears to have no track record of working on old buildings.  The firm’s website talks about it being in the business of high-end housing, which makes one wonder why it is venturing into a highly challenging project as a hotel.  

 Good: A primary difficulty in preserving the old church is its vulnerability to earthquakes.  The interior no doubt will be gutted to create a new steel frame tied to the roof and remaining walls.  This complicated engineering feat should assure survival in a major quake. 

Not so good: That means little, if anything, if anything will remain from the historic interior.  It will be a disappointment to old building lovers who often value interior design as much as the exterior.  Preliminary images suggest that the art-glass windows will be retained, which is a plus.  Otherwise, we can think of it as a Cracker Jack box with no treats inside.  (The Landmarks Commission has no jurisdiction over the building's interior.)

 Good: The shape of the new hotel to be built adjacent looks like a pleasing addition to the historic context of the Alphabet District;

 Not so good: The light color and undisclosed exterior materials as seen in the preliminary drawings soon would become water-streaked in Portland’s climate.  If the exterior is stucco, drip flashings can interrupt the pleasing smooth look.  The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission no doubt will pay close attention to these details.

 Since a sale is likely to be approved at some point, the best a preservationist can say is hang on and hope for an interesting ride, bumpy though it may prove to be.

-----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, April 7, 2022


Trying to encourage historic preservation in Portland can be a lonely and depressing task.  Yet when something positive happens, all the effort is worth it.

 Within just a couple days in the last week of March, two encouraging results emerged.  First, the Portland Parks Foundation expressed support for restoring the David Thompson Fountain, and authorized a study of how best to do it. The fountain and the elk statue that stood above it dated to 1900. 

 Soon thereafter, the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office announced that the South Park Blocks had been approved for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.  This was a victory for the Downtown Neighborhood Association, which spent 2 1/2 years working on the nomination.  The roots of the 12-block linear park date to 1877. 

If you wonder why the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation did not announce this pleasing result it is because the bureau opposed the nomination from the start and tried its best to derail it in a series of public meetings.  Some park bureau critics think the bureau wanted to turn over six of the blocks to Portland State University as part of a strategy to cut maintenance costs.

 Building on History takes pride in momentum to restore the Thompson Fountain because the substantial number of page views from our report dated March 10 helped City Commissioner Dan Ryan and many other people realize that there was strong support for restoration.  While many of these blog posts received fewer than 1,000 “hits,” the fountain article attracted more than 18,400.

 Commissioner Ryan deserves praise for being the first city commissioner to announce political support for the fountain.  Journalist and architecture critic Brian Libby also has been strongly supportive. The public should thank former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg and dedicated citizens Stephen Kafoury and Henry Kunowski for their work in approaching the levers of  city power.

The ad hoc Friends of the Thompson Elk Fountain want the city government to take four actions:

---Withdraw the pending application to withdraw the fountain as a historic landmark;

---Restore the entire artwork, including the fountain, troughs, pedestal and the elk and recreate any missing pieces consistent with National Park Service preservation standards;

---Restore the landmark artwork to its original location on SW Main Street;

---Address roadway improvements after the restoration. 

Concern about the fountain’s future remains.  The PPF board took notable action in trying to reach a conclusion about the fountain's fate.  However, preservation is far from assured.  The study committee is expected to look at other options in addition to historic restoration; one "preservation" member on the committee could easily be out-voted.  We hope the PPF board will be both diligent and  vigilant as this process moves forward.   

 As a personal note, this month marks the end of the second year of weekly posts by Building on History.  The blog’s goal was to attempt to increase public support for preservation of important historic buildings and places.  It would be imprudent to claim wild success on behalf of preservation.  Your author is heartened, however, by consequences from the Thompson Fountain article.   Building on History shall continue to blunder ahead with hope in its heart.

We all lose if we give up on what made us what we are. 

 ----Fred Leeson

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