Monday, October 19, 2020

Updates: Concordia Campus, Molalla Log House


The Sept. 27 article about the vacant Concordia University campus attracted one of the highest volumes of readers in the modest history of this blog.  Many people said they’d like to see the campus used for emergency housing, low-income housing or a combination of low-income and market-rate housing.

Given land-use zoning issues, the quickest path for the 24-acre campus would be to remain as an institutional campus.  Wayfinding Academy, alternative two-year college in North Portland, has expressed interest in acquiring some but not all of the Concordia buildings.  That option appears tenuous, at best, given the hardships of carving up the resource.

Nick Bertram, a friend of mine who graduated from Concordia High School before the institution advanced to the collegiate level, offered another interesting idea.  He believes Portland State University should acquire it to add housing and classroom space for PSU students.

Taking over the whole campus also would give PSU a genuine home field for its women’s soccer and softball programs and men’s and women’s tennis teams.  A PSU graduate, Bertram thinks the university could simply move an academic program of an appropriate size to the Concordia academic buildings. 

Public acquisition of a former private college is not unprecedented in Portland.  Cascade College closed its North Portland campus in 1969, unable to pay mortgages it owed on new buildings.  The campus, with the help of tax funding over many years, has morphed into the attractive Portland Community College Cascade campus.

Since this blog concentrates on the value of historic buildings, the comments of Paul Falsetto, an architect who frequently visited the Concordia campus, are relevant:

“Years ago I was researching university alumni centers, and one factoid stayed with me. After conducting scores of interviews with college graduates, it was determined that three elements have the most important influences on graduates’ memories: the people they met, the buildings they inhabited, and the open space that defined the campus.

“Seems to me that with the movement towards online education, both as a business model and as a pandemic response, today’s students will miss out on all three. I’m hoping that our region’s higher education institutions are able to tread wisely during this time of challenge, and retain what they do and where they do it. An active campus grows roots that run deep in the experiences and memories of alumni and neighbors alike.”

Those of us who attended attractive campuses where we lived and went to school would agree. 


                                                               (Pamela Hayden photo)

 Fortunately, recent major forest fires in Clackamas County did not threaten the Molalla Log House, the venerable building that may be among the oldest in Oregon, undergoing restoration in the Hopkins Experimental Forest north of Mulino.

The history of this interesting structure was related in an Aug. 12 article on this blog.  Hand-hewn timbers that were rescued years ago from another location are believe to be from 140 to more than 200 years old, depending on which analysis one chooses to accept.

While all the timbers fit together tightly without need for metal fasteners, modern building codes would not allow reconstruction of the roof without steel support.  Pamela Hayden, who has dedicated many years to saving and reconstructing the log building, said there was no choice other than adding steel supports so the building eventually can be used for tours and meetings.

“We will have a seismically safe building,” Hayden says.  “The irony is that in the recent fires the only thing that remains in severely burned wooden buildings are their steel components - sadly stark in the embers.”

Research suggests that the building has had several roofs during its lengthy life.  The exact nature of the original one is not known.  Gregg Olson, a craftsman and scholar of historic woodworking, is fabricating a roof that he believes to be close to what the original may have been.

“Preservationists must stay steadfast,” Hayden says.  “Our first priority was to do everything possible to keep the original integrity of the log building as close to the original builders’ intent as possible - trying to adhere closely to the Secretary of Interior Standards for Historic Rehabilitation.  This took a lot of study, research, time and last but not least - new Douglas fir wood and lots of money to hire the labor of qualified and knowledgeable craftsmen.

“We definitely had to be open to making some modifications since another priority was to make the building accessible to the pubic inside and out.   The good news is we will have a building that will last at least another 100 years (hopefully) with ongoing maintenance - that can be enjoyed by generations of new learners and architectural history buffs.”

                                                               (Pamela Hayden photo)

Monday, October 12, 2020

Watering-down Portland Preservation Regulations


For the past several years, planning agencies at the state and city of Portland have issued a steady drip, drip of regulations aimed at diluting state and local historic preservation laws.

 The latest proposed swipe at history comes in the proposed city’s Historic Resources Code Project.  Under the worst analysis, the proposed changes would virtually eliminate the possibility of adding new historic resources while hacking away on the boundaries of existing historic districts.

 The Code Project is a comprehensive reworking of the city’s preservation laws, prompted in part by the state Land Conservation and Development Commission’s decision in 2016 to reduce design review of changes for historic buildings included in National Register Districts.

 The proposed changes are the result of three years of examination by the City of Portland to reorganize its rules about historic resources.  Brandon Spencer-Hartle, the city’s historic resources manager, told heritage advocates that public comments during the study were split: Many people thought the city wasn’t aggressive enough in protecting historic, while many others felt the preservation rules were too restrictive on new development.  Spencer-Hartle said the proposal aimed at “balancing” those competing views.

 The “balance” limits the power of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, and would have the Planning and Sustainability Commission make recommendations to the City Council on any new historic districts.

 As it stands, the Planning Commission is weighted with representatives of the development community, and at present has nobody with any historical interest or knowledge. 

 “The PSC is largely opposed to any sort of preservation,” said Rod Merrick, an Eastmoreland architect who has been deeply involved in preservation.  “This is very, very troubling.”

 Jim Heuer, an Irvington resident and historian of Portland’s neighborhoods, is concerned that the PSC also would be enabled to ask the City Council to reduce or modify current historic districts.  He said the proposal “sees historic designation as a ‘zero sum game’ between the historically dominant culture and underserved and under-represented communities, so that we need to de-designate historic resources associated with ‘over-represented’ communities, rather than simply broadening our concept of what is ‘historic.’’

He added, “The proposal allows districts to be resized and protections removed if the goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan are better served in the opinion of City Council and the PSC.”

Indeed, one of the rationale's for the putting the PSC in the driver's seat for any new historic districts is that the PSC, not the Landmarks Commission, is charged with reviewing zoning code rules that determine what kinds of activities and buildings can occur in any of the city's dozens of land-use zones.

At a work session on Oct. 12, Kristen Minor, chair of the Landmarks Commission, said, "There are some really great things in the (proposed) code, as well as some we are concerned by."  The commission she chairs will discuss the code further before preparing testimony for the Planning Commission later this month.

One important amendment to the proposed new rules would be requiring at least some of the PSC members to be knowledgeable about architectural history and Portland's neighborhood history.  For the past several years, the PSC has been largely dismissive of any public testimony speaking to the value of Portland history. 

 Spencer-Hartle said the Landmarks Commission would play an advisory role to the Planning Commission in recommending new districts or amendments or down-sizing of existing districts.  Heuer said the proposal would take the Landmarks Commission “out of the process of adding potentially historic resources to the ‘significant historic resources’ list, which is the first important step in designating new historic resources and districts.”

 There is no desire here to criticize Spencer-Hartle for this unfortunate proposal.  He is trained in preservation and worked for Restore Oregon, a state-wide preservation advocacy non-profit before going to work for the city.  Heuer believes Spencer-Hartle has added a few elements that could benefit preservation despite pressure from his bosses at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and from Eli Spivak, the chair of the PSC, a developer/builder. who has firmly opposed preservationists’ concerns over several years.  

If approved, the changes would make it easier to add solar panels to buildings in historic districts.  It also would be easier to remove “secondary” buildings from a historic site, such as small or non-functional garages.

 The changes also would put the Landmarks Commission in charge of hearings, not currently available, when an owner wants to demolish a building that has been identified as a historic resource but has not been designated as a landmark or located in a historic district.  The proposal also suggests greater flexibility in finding new uses for historic buildings that otherwise would not comply with current zoning rules.  That latter element could help valued historic properties find successful new lives. 

 Before going to the City Council, the proposed new rules will be heard by the Planning Commission on Oct. 27.  As Spencer-Hartle noted -- which some take as a warning --  the commission can amend the proposal as it wishes.  That being the case, some of the "positives" for historic preservation could be removed. 

 The hearing will be held via the internet.  More information about the proposal and details on how to testify can be found at

For the dedicated among you, you can find more than 200 pages of specific code changes if you filter far enough through the website.  Trying to absorb it all is a daunting task. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Fairmount Apartments


How many times do we hear that an old building is too decrepit to save?

 Frankly, no building is beyond saving if there is enough willpower or a sharpened financial pencil or some combination of both.

Take the Fairmount Apartments on Northwest 26th Avenue, for example.  It was built in 1904-05 as an upscale hotel abutting the Vaughn Street entrance of the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition.  The fair, created by Portland’s early civic and economic boosters, drew more than 2 million visitors during its four-month fun and fueled the young city’s rapid population growth.

The two-story hotel, built in the shape of an E with the spine on 26th and legs extending along Upshur and Vaughn Streets, had 150 rooms and a dining room that served more than a thousand meals a day.  Rooms rented for $1 per night; dinner was 35 cents.

Alas, the fair site had already been sold for industrial development, making it a difficult location for a hotel.  Located far from the heart of town, the hotel soon lapsed into inexpensive single-room housing.  Its physical condition deteriorated as the years passed.  Today, it is believed to be the last building built for the fair still in its original location. 

The nadir for the Hotel Fairmount, later known as the Evergreen Apartments, likely occurred in 1982, when city fire officials declared it to be possibly the city’s worst firetrap.  By then, fire safety equipment was either inoperable or nonexistent.  The roof leaked.  Units on the second floor had no functioning heat, and were warmed by kitchen stoves.  A fire marshal predicted that it would take less than an hour for the wooden, two-story building to burn to the ground, threatening the safety of 150 low-income residents.

A judge ordered the building to be vacated if repairs were not made quickly.  “If they think this place is so bad, they should check out living under the Burnside Bridge,” said one tenant who felt he could not find housing elsewhere.

The city government came through with a $65,000 emergency loan that year, but progress was tedious.  The building had many years ahead in a declining state.

In 2000, the building was owned by Brad Malsin who has a history of renovating historic buildings.  He funded an application that listed the Fairmount on the National Register of Historic Places, largely because of its connection with the fair and the urban growth it promoted.

The architect and builder of the Fairmount are not known.  Surprisingly, the registration form does not speak highly of the building’s architecture.  “Although the Fairmount is not of great merit stylistically, it is significant as a unique vernacular example of an early 20th century wood-frame hotel,” it says.  “Few wood-frame commercial buildings of this vintage remain in Portland today.”

Regardless, the building is still attractive to the eye with details common at the time, including paired brackets at the eaves and a simple cornice.  Porticos project from the west and south sides, set off with wooden quoins to define the corners.  A recessed, one-story porch covers all three sides, with simple square columns supporting the upper story.  The first floor is finished with rough stucco, and the second with horizontal wooden siding.

“Although it has been neglected and requires significant restoration, the mere fact that the Fairmount remains, essentially in original form, is astounding,” the registration form noted in 2000. “The current owner of this still rather notorious building is aware of its historical significance and intends to completely restore the Fairmount.”

It was no simple task. Funding ultimately was finalized by Urban Development+Partners, a firm that recruits investors for buildings both new and historic.  Finally completed in 2018, the $6 million Fairmount project completely revamped the interior into 80 apartments, including studio, one and two bedroom units.  The exterior was restored to close to its original appearance with historically-accurate materials.

While the Fairmount has seen a lot of change in its life, so has the Northwest Portland neighborhood near it.  Some heavy industry and trucking enterprises have disappeared, and more apartments have sprouted immediately to the south and west.  These developments over the years no doubt made the Fairmount more attractive as a restoration project.    

Now 115 years old, the revamped Fairmount should have a long life.  It gives the neighborhood a welcome taste of early 20th Century architecture and a hint of the big fair that helped place Portland as a major Pacific Northwest city.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

What happens to the Concordia University campus?


For the first time in 115 years, there are no students this fall on the Northeast Portland campus of Concordia University.

The lawns are brown.  Doors locked.  Windows closed and dark.  Parking lots empty.  Athletic field vacant.

A pedestrian walking though these 24 acres absent of humanity can’t help thinking:   “Something is wrong here.”  Indeed.  Was it some kind of high-tech bomb that saved the buildings but wiped out the people?  Nope.  The local board of trustees pulled the plug quickly without notice earlier this year, ending CU’s history at the end of the spring 2020 semester.

 Those looking for answers got nowhere.  Nobody in the official realm was willing to talk; calls were not returned.  There may be layers of reasons for the closure, and we’ll touch on them in a bit.

 Concordia never ranked with Portland’s fanciest colleges such as Reed or Lewis and Clark.  It began in 1905 as a Lutheran Church-related private high school.  It expanded to a junior college in 1950 and to an accredited four-year university in 1977, dropping the high school along the way.

Its strongest programs were educating teachers and nurses.  It competed athletically with small, mostly church-related Pacific Northwest colleges in several sports and toward the end of its life ranked as a national power among small-college women’s soccer programs.

 Unlike many colleges, Concordia worked closely with the surrounding neighborhood.  Student teachers gained experience at Faubion School, just across the street.  Neighborhood residents were welcome to use the library and buy meals at the cafeteria.  Neighborhood teams used the sports fields.

 Your correspondent taught journalism on a part-time basis at Concordia from 2007 to 12.  During that time, the administration decided to make a major push into on-line instruction for teachers.  Graduates of the on-line program would set foot on campus only once – graduation day. 

Many of the 1200 or so undergraduates who lived on campus at the time were leery of the internet-education plans.  They felt that s significant part of the Concordia was participating in campus life.  They feared that a blizzard of on-line degrees might denigrate their on-campus degrees. Closure of the entire institution was never even perceived as a possibility.

The first decade of the century brought impressive changes to the campus, including a grand three-story library, new housing and a mini-stadium with an all-weather surface for soccer and baseball.  The campus definitely was "moving up" in spirit and physical quality.

George H. White Library 

 Admissions jumped dramatically with the on-line education program.  Nevertheless, Concordia apparently fell far behind in payments to a California firm, Hotchalk Inc., which curried and processed applications and “serviced” the on-line students.

 Meanwhile, the university evidently got cross-ways with its parent, the conservative Missouri Lutheran Synod that objected to creation of a resource center for gay, lesbian and transgender students.  (Methinks these devout Christians forgot to have a discussion with Jesus on that one.)

 To whatever extent all these issues merged, there appeared to be no answer locally.  So, boom, plug pulled. University gone.  Litigation with Hotchalk is already pending.

What becomes of the 24-acre campus?  It is for sale by the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, a financial services arm of the Missouri Synod in St. Louis.  It could be a turn-key purchase for a small college, but in this era, small colleges are facing tough times.  The internet as a high-education savior  is a bumpier road than expected.  

Athletic field 

 Could the campus be parted out?  Certainly the dorm rooms and apartments could be sold for housing and could be used immediately.  The gymnasium and athletic field could be a plum for the Portland Parks Bureau.  The new library and the much older administration building and faculty offices could easily resurface as offices. 

The short answer is that nothing will happen quickly.  Changed uses could require slow and costly city land-use zone changes from the current “campus institution” zone.  What happens to the debt on recent campus additions is anybody’s guess.

 Vacancies and delays are never good for any building, old or new.  The longer that time passes, the dimmer the future looks for what’s left of Concordia University.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Saving the Postmaster's House

One of the grand beauties of architectural preservation is that a dedicated single individual can save a historic building and assure its continued cultural benefit to the community.

Take Mike Lyons, for instance.  Twenty years ago he stepped up to buy a large but deteriorating Queen Anne Victorian-era house and move it four miles from its original lot in Irvington to the Woodlawn neighborhood.

True, he was able to buy the house for $1 because a developer planned to demolish it to make way for row houses as a result of a city of Portland zone change.  The development value of the 10,000-square foot lot made the future impossible at that location impossible for the house, no matter how attractive it was architecturally.  Several people had been interested in acquiring the house, but Lyons was the only one to step forward with a proposal to move it.

 It was not an easy move, however.  The top story had to be removed in order to fit under power lines and not damage trees during the four-mile trek up Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.  For a fee of $80,000 in 2000, the bottom portion was placed on dollies for towing.  Giant forklifts carted the upper story and eventually hoisted it back into place. 

 “The hardest part was placing no-parking signs along the route,” Lyons said.  “There had to be three or four signs per block.  That is a lot of blocks.”

 The house, often referred to as the Postmaster’s House for reasons we shall discuss in a bit, was built in 1895, during the peak of the Queen Anne architectural style of Victorian era.  The building displays several prominent elements of Queen Anne residences, including the unbalanced or asymmetrical front façade composed of a large gable and the smaller gabled dormer; a fancy wooden decoration at the gable’s peak; fish-scale shingles in addition to horizontal siding; and numerous turned spindles in spandrels decorating the front porch.

We can think of these decorations as celebrations of the industrial revolution, when machines were perfected to crank out the decorative pieces.  The intellectual and artistic rebellion that followed brought us the Arts and Crafts movement, when designs reverted to much simpler creations created by human hands rather than machines.


It took about a year’s worth of work replacing the stripped interior and all utilities before Lyons could begin living in the 1895-era residence.  “I still love the house,” he said.  But like any old house, the restoration is still not finished.  “I keep telling myself one more year,” he said.

The house has historical interest in addition to its architectural values.  It was the home of Portland postmaster Frank S. Myers, who was appointed to that job in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson and reappointed by Wilson in 1917.  Wilson subsequently had second thoughts about Myers and fired him in 1920.

 The source of Wilson’s discontent is not firmly established.  It may have been because Myers was slow to rehire soldiers return from World War I, or because of conflicts Myers had with Portland Mayor George Baker.  Regardless, Myers challenged his termination in court, contending that since his job was filled with “advice and consent” from the Senate, he could not be fired without the Senate’s approval.  Myers asked for the pay that he believed should be coming to him.

 Alas, the case wasn’t decided by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1926.  By then Myers had died, but his wife stood in line in case he won his back pay.  In a split decision, the court said the president had authority to fire anyone in his administration.  The case firmly established the separation of the president’s executive power from the legislative authority of Congress.

 Over the following decades, the Postmaster’s House fell into decline, like many large houses of the Victorian era.  It had been used as a boarding house for many years before Lyons acquired it.  Though its exterior looked forlorn, Lyons said the building was still structurally sound and that much of its original interior woodwork remained.

Twenty years after the move, we can still thank Lyons for his dedication and hard work in the spirit of preservation.  Lyons, who runs a paint-removal and architectural woodworking business, hasn't given up on preservation.  He's currently working on a long-vacant rural farmhouse nearly overrun by blackberries.  

Original site of Postmaster's House 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Coming soon to S.E. Grand Avenue


Flatworks Building (TVA Architects)

Robert Thompson is one of the lions in Portland’s contemporary architecture world.  As a founding partner and principal of TVA Architects, he leads a large firm with a long history of designing sleek, modern buildings with lots of glass and metal finishes.

In Portland, his firm did the Fox Tower (27n stories), Park Avenue West (30 stories)  and the John Ross condominium (32 stories).  In Beaverton, TVA designed the Nike World Headquarters.  In Eugene, the Matthew Knight Arena.  You get the idea. Big, new, fancy stuff.  

 An outsider never knows who all contributes to a large firm’s designs, but when it comes to dealing with public agencies, Thompson is the firm's speaker.  His presentations are direct, focused, professional, polite and delivered with consistent modulated enthusiasm.

A bystander was curious to see how Thompson and TVA would react to an unusual project for the firm as it went about preparing plans for an eight-story, half-block building that will replace a parking lot in the East Portland-Grand Avenue National Historic District.  It is a little-known, narrow district running along the Grand Avenue spine where contributing buildings date from 1883 to 1930.

TVA’s assignment was to design a building that would fit into the context of its historic neighbors without giving the impression of mimicking something "old."  The developer-client is a firm headed by Vanessa Sturgeon, who was involved in the Fox Tower and Park Avenue West projects designed by TVA. Sturgeon's presence suggests new investment interest in what has been a sleepy neighborhood for many years.

 We may begin seeing the results soon.  Sturgeon told the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission that the project is “fully funded and ready to break ground.”  The Flatworks Building will sit on the east side of Grand Avenue between S.E. Ash and Pine Streets at the northern edge of the district.

 The simplest part of the building’s design is its structure.  Structural elements and floors will be composed of cross-laminated timber, a relatively recent engineered wood product fabricated by laminating wood layers at 90-degree angles.  At eight stories, Flatworks would rank among the tallest to use the new structural technique in Portland.

 Developing the building’s exterior envelope was not so simple.  To their credit, Thompson and his team studied almost all of the nearby historic buildings to look for design cues.  In a series of meetings with the Landmarks Commission, Thompson showed seven or eight potential versions for the new building.  “We are not trying to design a building that leaps out at you,” he said.  “We want it to blend into the district.”

 The biggest design choice was to take the full-block façade facing Grand Avenue and make it look like two buildings rather than one.  A recessed main entry to the office building separates the two “sections.”  The distinction is important because only one other historic building in the district had a  a 200-foot frontage.

Dotted line shows district boundaries.  Contributing buildings in red. (TVA Architects)

 The norther portion of Flatworks at eight stories will be faced in a dark grey brick while bricks on the six story side will be cream-colored.   Two recessed stories on the six-story side will give the appearances of being a penthouse.  Recessed bays at the ground level will be available for retail uses. 

 Thompson said the cross-laminated timbers will be visible at night when the building is lit.  Recessed spandrels accentuate windows in the darker portion of the building, while metallic shrouds around the windows of the lighter building portion will extend several inches beyond the brick columns. The shrouds “will create a lot of texture and shadows when you come up Grand Avenue,” Thompson said.


Flatworks at night.  (TVA Architects)

Thompson’s presentations were professional and direct, as usual.  Perhaps the only glitches occurred when he referred to the district’s high-rise Weatherly Building a couple times as the Waverly (as in Waverly County Club). A minor slip, if you will.

 Members of the landmarks commission thanked him for his flexibility.  "We asked for some real changes and we've seen some real changes," said Kristen Minor, commission chair.  Anne Mahoney, an architect who sits on the commission, said the result “strikes the right balance between respecting the historic district and a restrained contemporary attitude.”

 If Thompson was fatigued by the sequence of commission meetings, he didn’t show it.  “Thank you so much for the process,” he told the commission and the city staff.  “It has been a delight. I'm looking forward to construction."


Monday, September 7, 2020

Good News for the Multnomah County Courthouse


The verdict is in for the soon-to-be “old” Multnomah County Courthouse.  It looks like an excellent victory for preservation and for finding a successful new use for an important piece of Portland history.

If the proposed renovation is successful, the scene of countless civil and criminal legal cases and public hearings over the past 106 years will become an office building holding approximately 1,000 employees.  New elevator and service cores erected in what originally was a central courtyard (long since filled in by three stories) will allow seismic bracing to occur without doing serious damage to the rest of the eight-story building.

 From the outside, viewers will see virtually no changes to the limestone façade with its heavy Ionic columns facing S.W. Fourth Ave. between Main and Salmon Streets.  The historic vestibule, main lobby and grand staircase that traverses the first six floors will remain intact. 

 Four, two-story courtooms, two each on the third and fifth floors, will be retained for potential uses as board rooms or meeting venues.  They will be reminders of when court proceedings were intended to occur in locations of grandeur and dignity. 

  Most of the rest of the eight stories will be parceled into offices, although as yet no tenants have signed on.  An “event space” will be placed towards the rear of the ground floor, with an elegant restored entrance from the center of the S.W. Fifth Avenue side.


Old blocked entry on Fifth Avenue

There are a couple other lesser changes proposed for the north and south sides of the building, but let’s talk first about the more historic entrance on Fifth Avenue.  This entrance originally led to a short stairway taking pedestrians to the second floor.  However, this entrance was filled in with stone many decades ago in order to provide additional office and courtroom space on the second floor.  However, the large light fixtures and bracketed lintel and chevron were left in place on the façade. .


Agustin Enriquez, an architect with GBD Architects who outlined the building’s changes, said spherical globes that originally graced the doorway will be recreated, as will globes placed at the Front Avenue side.  He said stairs and ramps from the new Fifth Avenue entry will take pedestrians to a first-floor event space that is yet to be designed.


Restored entrance (GBD Architects)

Here are the other two less-dramatic exterior changes.  In the middle of the block on the Salmon Street side, a central bay at the sidewalk level will become a service entry with a roll-down door for dumpsters and other service.  This entry will not be accessible by motor vehicles.

 On the Main Street side near Fourth Avenue, a double door will be cut into the wall to create a double doorway for access to the main lobby for people with disabilities.  The historic vestibule on the Fourth Avenue side includes a tier of stairs that will not be modified.

As a surprise to many, the location of the “new” Main Street doorway actually echoes an original entrance to the county sheriff’s office at that location.  The sheriff’s entrance disappeared many decades ago, and the outer wall was patched seamlessly to match.

All exterior changes to the building have been approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.  The commission had jurisdiction over the plans because of the building’s status as a historic landmark.

 The construction of the building in two stages between 1911 and 1914 ranked as a technological feat.  It was built as two separate L-shaped buildings while the earlier courthouse on the same site, dating to 1864, was dismantled.  When finished, the two L-shaped sides of the new building fit together perfectly. At the grand opening, citizens flooded in to ride the elevators which were still a new and rare mechanical contraption for Portland at the time. 

 Architects of the courthouse we see today were William Whidden and Ion Lewis who headed Portland’s most prominent design firm in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The courthouse was their last major endeavor.  Many of their notable works survive, including Portland City Hall, the Arlington Club, Wilcox Building, Postal Building and others.

 If plans for remodeling the courthouse succeed as planned, the historic structure will stand as an excellent example of preservation and adaptive re-use uses for historic building that reflects architectural value and the remembrance of human history that occurred inside.



Monday, August 31, 2020

Done...and Undone in Northwest Portland


Coming next (Emerick Architects)

In the history of Portland's architectural preservation battles, the story of the Nathan Simon house at 2124 N.W. Flanders St. rates as no more than a mere skirmish, lasting just a few weeks.

 The residence, built in 1895 as the home of Nathan Simon, a lawyer and brother of long-time Republican Party warhorse Joseph Simon, will be replaced by a five-story, 19-unit apartment building.  The Portland Landmarks Commission approved plans for the new building on Aug. 24.

The Simon house lost much of its architectural detailing over several modifications dating to World War II or earlier, and currently contains 12 rental units.  Although it sits in the Alphabet National Historic District, the house was overlooked as a “contributing resource” when the district was created.  Thus the Landmarks Commission had no legal jurisdiction to delay or deny its demolition.

 Approximately 20 people opposed the demolition in written or oral testimony.  Their arguments largely amounted to “greedy-developers-destorying-low-income-housing-for-profit-and-evicting-tenants-during-a-pandemic.”

 Elliott Gansner, a co-owner of the house and the apartment developer, said he met for 1 and 1/2 hours with opponents of the plan after a public hearing last month.  Gansner said it was not financially feasible to renovate the old building given the rents that it could support.

“I sympathize with their anger and confusion about the status of housing,” he said.  He pledged to work with public and non-profit agencies to help tenants find new housing and to contribute to the moving costs. 

 Commission members understood concern about the loss of low-cost housing.  Kristen Minor, commission chair, said she appreciated the “time and energy” of the protesters to participate.  “We are sympathetic to much of what you are saying, but we just can’t go there.  The fact is, we don’t get to intervene.  We don’t have the authority.”

 Going soon 

In theory, the commission’s decision can be appealed to the Portland City Council.  But the appeal would be limited to design of the new building.  As Brian Emerick, the apartment’s architect noted after the public testimony, “I didn’t hear anything related to the approval criteria.”

New buildings designed for historic districts are not intended to look old or historic, but should reflect architectural design elements common to the district's "period of significance" when contributing structures were built.  In this case, that period is between 1880 and 1940.

Brick-faced apartments built flush to the sidewalk were common in the early decades of the 20th Century.  Like others in the neighborhood, this design has the bricks wrapping around a portion of the side walls, but most of the sides are a blank hard stucco.  In this case, the fifth level, faced in stucco, would be set back several feet and would be visible to pedestrians across the street.  Units at the rear of the building and on the west side would have outdoor decks. 

 The block between N.W. 21st and 22nd on Flanders contains both Victorian-era houses and small apartment buildings.  The boom years of the 1920s saw demolition of many wood-framed houses in the Northwest neighborhood, to be replaced by brick-faced, walk-up apartment buildings.  The new apartment at 2124 N.W. Flanders will include an elevator, of course.  As a firm, Emerick Architects concentrates heavily on restorations and new buildings in historic districts, including Northwest Portland.

Nathan Simon’s house sat back-to-back against Joseph Simon’s house facing Everett Street.  For more than 30 years Joseph Simon was a leading powerbroker when Oregon’s controlling Republican Party was split into the Joseph Simon faction and the John H. Mitchell faction.  Joseph Simon served at varying times in the Oregon Legislature, as Portland mayor and as U.S. Senator. 

The corruption of the era ultimately led to creation of the initiative and referendum system in Oregon that was intended to clean up the state's politics.  Given the ways that money is used to manipulate the system can lead to an interesting discussion about whether politics CAN be clean. 


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Soon to be memories....


135 NW Park Ave. 

The handwriting is on the wall – er, in the windows – for two old brick buildings at 105 and 135 NW Park Ave. on the western edge of the North Park Blocks.  The bureaucratic wording on the public notices posted in the windows can be translated thusly:  “Adios.”

 It doesn’t take an expert to look at gentrification of nearby blocks to see what’s coming next even though there has been no public disclosure yet:  More stories, more housing, and ground-floor retail on a full block frontage along Park between Couch and Davis Streets.

 Separate owners of 105 N.W. Park, erected in 1921, and the taller 135 N.W. Park, built in 1911, have asked the city to remove those buildings from the city’s historic resource inventory.  The inventory, made by the city in 1984 and never since updated, suggested that these two buildings would be eligible for some category of landmark status that would encourage preservation.  No such designations were ever achieved.


                                                                    105 NW Park Ave

Removal from the inventory at the owners’ requests are essentially automatic.  After 120 days of public notice, a decision is made without any public comment by the director of the city’s Bureau of Development Services.   The 120 days expire in mid-October. 

 Neither building amounts to great historic architecture.  However, both represent solid, carefully-constructed commercial buildings of the early 20th Century.  Architects might call them “fabric” buildings --  structures that reflected the early North Park Blocks neighborhood with its mixed commercial and light industrial uses. 

The taller building was designed by the firm of Bennes and Herzog in what the historical inventory describes as "brick utiltarian" style.  John Virginius Bennes was a prolific architect best remembered today for several buildings he designed at Oregon State University.  OSU has been doing an excellent job restoring several of them, which are included in a National Historic District on campus.  Bennes'  firm also did the ornate Hollywood Theater in Northeast Portland and some Art-Deco themed apartment buildings.  

No demolition applications for these two buildings have been submitted yet.  But the strategy is obvious.  All tenants have departed. Had the buildings remained on the historic inventory, a demolition application would have required a 120-day delay to consider renovation, relocation or salvage of materials.  No such consideration is needed once the historic inventory status is removed.  Voila!

 It is highly probable that removal from the historic inventory is a condition of sale of these two properties to a third party with development in mind.  Identity of the prospective new owner is not yet known, but likely will be after the 120 days expire. 

 What one could call gentrification of the North Park Blocks is in some ways a “tale of two cities” in Portland.  All the blocks ostensibly were donated to the city by early-day pioneers as a single, continuous stretch.  However, disputes over land deeds allowed several intervening blocks in downtown to be sold for buildings, rather than used as parks, thus creating the separate South Park Blocks and North Park Blocks. 

 The South Park Blocks early on attracted a few elegant mansions and several churches as immediate neighbors, followed later by cultural institutions and what became Portland State University.  Some high-rise apartments dating from the 1920s and later also chose the South Park Blocks as “home.”

 The development pattern was much different in the North Park Blocks.  The area was populated with small, working-class residences toward the end of the 19th Century, followed by commercial and light industrial buildings in the 20th Century.  For decades, the park found itself sandwiched between rail yards to the west and the “north end” drug and vice realm north of Burnside Street into the 1950s. 

New buildings to the south

New Hampton Inn at NW Everett 

But now the rail yards have been transformed into the Pearl.  You find an eight-story new hotel at Everett Streetthat regrettably puts its back door facing the park.  The old "north end" isn't the vice haven it once was.  Walking the North Park Blocks today and seeing new buildings erected in the designated central commercial zone makes it clear that the 21st Century will be different in the North Park Blocks. 

 Will the overall result be better?  That will an interesting conversation.  Not in dispute: It will be different.



Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Oregon's Oldest Building?


We venture out of our customary urban jungle today to celebrate reconstruction of what might be Oregon’s oldest building.  It is known as the Molalla Log House, but perhaps a more fitting moniker might be Oregon’s House of Mystery.

 What’s mysterious?  Try these:  Who built it?  When? Where?  “I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure,” says Pamela Hayden, a former Clackamas County preservation officer who first learned about the hand-hewn structure located south of Molalla in 1984.

 What distinguishes this log structure is the careful execution of dovetail joints at each corner that allowed the structure to be erected without any need for bolts or nails.  The intricate interlocking joints allowed the hewn logs to lie flat without any need for chinking of clay or daub and wottle so common to most early American log buildings.

 Whoever built it wanted it to last.  The angles on the dovetails at the base of the building are more acute than on the timbers above, perhaps as a means to making the base even more secure.

 “It’s a very 'un-pioneerish' building,” says Gregg Olson, a preservation scholar and master woodworker who has been involved in numerous restoration projects since 1972.  He said most log buildings in Oregon’s pioneer era never were meant to last more than a few years.  Along with Hayden, he has been studying and working on the Molalla house for many years.


Gregg Olson checks the installation of a new timber

The house was in poor condition when it was carefully removed from its second site in 2007. While in storage at differing locations out of the weather, Olson determined which logs needed to be replaced and carefully cut new Douglas fir timbers to fit.  Meanwhile, Hayden continued her research and lobbied to find an appropriate new home where the building could be reconstructed.

It took many years to find a site that was appropriate for this unusual building, and where the building made some intellectual sense with its setting.  The solution finally arrived when the Hopkins Demonstration Forest, a 140-acre privately-owned site northeast of Mulino, agreed to accept log house.  The forest is run by the non-profit Forests Forever,  Inc.

Hayden likes the new site because it may closely represent the kind of environment where the house was first built.  The house was moved to its second site in 1892, but no one knows where it was first erected.  The demonstration forest liked the idea of showing how wood was used historically as a vital building resource -- just as it remains as a vital resource for housing today. 

 Which brings us to the controversies of when and why.  Under the best conditions, dendrochronology, a technique analyzing comparative growth rings of trees, can establish dates to a specific year.  But the task is complicated by not knowing precisely where the old logs were harvested.  Olson said one analysis puts the date of the Molalla logs at 1883, while another interpretation makes that date as early as 1795.  Looking at the slow pace of log-end erosion, Olson believes the fraction of an inch deterioration in the Molalla logs suggest the earlier date. 

 If the building is in fact older than the Lewis & Clark Expedition, who built it?  The dovetail construction method has roots both in Scandinavian and Eastern European vernacular building traditions.  Possible builders likely were trappers and hunters who could have had French-Canadian or Russian connections.  Russia had established a presence in Northern California early in the 1800s.


Pamela Hayden helps position the next timber. The lighter-colored wood is new.  

However, historians also believe that if  the Molalla house had been built before the Lewis & Clark era, SOMEONE would have known about it and somehow made a lasting note of it.  So far, no such evidence has been found. While the questions about who and when remain unanswered, volunteers hope to complete reconstruction of the house by this fall.  After a gable roof is installed, the structure will be used for special events and history lessons at the demonstration forest.

During reconstruction, Olson and Hayden decided to reinstall timbers the old-fashioned way.  A backhoe set the timbers on racks near ground level, and volunteers using straps carefully hoisted them into place.  "Of course they would have used ropes in the old days," Hayden said.  

The third site for the home will be more stable than the first two.  While it appears to be sitting on several boulders, there are tons of concrete hidden below the surface and the house has been firmly attached.  “It all has been engineered,” Olson said. 

 The same goes for steel rods placed in holes drilled down through the walls.  “We really didn’t want to do that, but if people were going to be inside, we had to,” Hayden said.  Regardless of its venerable age, this is how the Molalla Log House is welcomed into the 21st Century.

Preservation and restoration of the Molalla Log House has been supported by grants from the Kinsman Foundation, a Milwaukie, Oregon foundation that supports architectural preservation projects in Oregon and Southern Washington state.  

Given what appears to be a secure and lasting location for the Molalla Log House, one wonders if technology and historic serendipity will eventually provide some answers to the building's mysteries. 


Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Troy Laundry Building

Household washing machines were far in the future when James F. Tait, a Scottish immigrant, opened his Portland laundry service in 1889.  In the following decades, Tait pioneered technological and managerial innovations to make Troy Laundry the biggest residential and commercial laundry company in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1913 Tait moved into his big new building at 1025 SE Pine, a half-block, two-story colonial revival building designed by Ellis F. Lawrence. Lawrence played an important role in Oregon architecture for decades, serving as dean of the University of Oregon's architecture school in addition to running a busy practice.  It is said that Troy Laundry served as many 10,000 customers on a regular basis.  In the following decade, Tait also built a major laundry building in Seattle.

Laundry operations ceased in the building roughly 40 years ago, and the sophisticated industrial building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1989.  The best hope for many old buildings that have out-lived their original uses is to find successful new ones.  This building is now likely headed for a use as a private athletic club, where, one might say, the affluent will go up on the roof to get soaked.  (Details below.) 

A Chicago-based developer has bought the laundry as well as the other half of the block, where a six-story, 132-unit residential building with ground-floor retail and two floors of undergound parking  has been approved. Facades of the building will be detailed with brick and ground floor space will be intended for retail use.

"The proposed building features high quality materials and fine detailing and will be a welcome introduction to the neighborhood," the final report of the Portland Historical Landmarks Commission says of the Ash Street plan. 

 Renovation plans approved by the landmarks commission for Troy Laundry show detailed restoration of the bricks and windows in addition to seismic bracing new mechanical equipment. The remodel would eliminate that aluminum awnings on the second floor and the metal canopy over the front door.  Those elements are not original fixtures.

The trickiest part of the proposed remodel is the addition of a penthouse on the roof with a swimming pool and rooftop terrace.  The penthouse would back up against the proposed  new building on the north, and would be set back from the eastern and western parapets, making it largely invisible to pedestrians across the streets. 

"The views from up there will be spectacular," said Andrew Becker, a Chicago architect. 

1010 S.E. Ash St. (Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture)

Some commissioners were concerned about how the back of the penthouse would look if the new building  at 1010 S.E. Ash St. is never erected to hide it.  "We are fully committed to that building," said Alex Stanford, a representative of the Chicago developer.  "That building is definitely moving forward."

The landmarks commission had jurisdiction over the new building on Ash Street because it will sit in part on land that once was associated the the landmark Troy Laundry business.     

Landmarks commissioners had no major objections to adding a penthouse on the laundry building, but one commissioner opposed it in a 4 to 1 vote, saying he thought it was too bulky.  In general, the commissioners spoke approvingly of detailed steps for restoring  the brick facades,  windows and doors of the historic building.  "This renovation is restoring the building for another 100 years," Becker said.
As for the penthouse, "I think the roof deck is an amazing amenity," said Commissioner Matthew Roman.

Troy Laundry with penthouse (Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture)

The company most notable in the Portland area for repurposing historic buildings is McMenamins, the family-owned business that has transformed numerous old buildings for use as restaurants, bars, lodgings and film and music venues.  The Troy Laundry project is a bold similar step in finding a creative new use for a worthy historic building.  

These two buildings sit just a few blocks outside of East Portland Grand Avenue National Historic District.  The near east-side neighborhood is undergoing a rare boom in proposed new buildings and renovations of old ones.  We will examine some of these changes in future articles.