Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Whither Goest Cast Iron?

Portland architect William J. Hawkins III knows more about early Portland architecture than anyone.

Starting with research for his impressive book, “The Grand Era of Cast-Iron Architecture in Portland,” he has spent more than 50 years studying and chronicling the cast-iron buildings erected roughly from 1860 to 1890 that once lined downtown streets from Front to Third Avenue largely between Couch and Madison streets.

The repetitive cast iron arches, columns and decorations reflected classical Italianate styles.  Some were forged locally and many were imported from distant foundries, adding elegance and style to those streets not seen since.  Hawkins said developers in the era were pleased to add beauty and sophistication to the young city.

Alas, most of those buildings were torn down in the post-World War II era when demand for automobile parking outstripped the economic value of distinctive old buildings, many of which had suffered deferred maintenance.

But Hawkins kept track of the cast iron remains, many of which were salvaged by Eric Ladd, Jerry Bosco and Ben Milligan who saved what they could rather than see the old pieces melted down.  Today some 110 hefty cast iron elements are in the custody of Prosper Portland (nee Portland Development Commission) supposedly awaiting reintroduction into the Skidmore-Old Town Historic District, which in 1976 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. .

At least that’s what city design regulations for the historic district say. Guidelines adopted by the City Council say the cast iron should be integrated into the historic character of the district.  

Yet little progress has occurred.  Some arches were added in 1986 to the Ankeny Square near Skidmore Fountain and to brick walls next of the nearby Fire Station.  Several columns were added as street art in 2016 to the Lindquist College of Business at 109 NW Naito Parkway, shown at left. .

Hawkins said no one seems to be paying attention to maintenance of the Ankeny arches.  A few years ago he paid to have them repainted himself.  “Does anyone care about the district at all?” he asks.  “Nobody seems to be the caretaker.”

Construction will begin soon at 151 S.W. First Ave. on a five-story office building in the historic district.  Hawkins talked with the architects about incorporating a cast iron arch in various ways, but ZGF Architects decided not to.  Hawkins says there was no encouragement from the Landmarks Commission in favor of reusing any cast iron.  

Conventional wisdom in the preservation world says new buildings in a historic district should not be designed to look entirely like an old one.  If historic elements are used, viewers need to be able to recognize what is old and what isn't. That is why is is usually easy to tell, upon visual inspection, where a new addition has been made to a historic structure.       

As for the cast iron guidelines, the commission's final report on the ZGF-designed building stated two rather puzzling sentences: “The Skidmore/Old Town Historic District is notable for its cast iron collection as well as the detail (sic) masonry work of its brick buildings.  The proposed building design builds on that character with proportions and detailing that are designed to take on similar proportions of the district’s cast iron facades.” 

Questions arise:

Artifacts waiting in storage. 

·         Has the Landmarks Commission, which has a long history of vigilance concerning Portland’s historic architectural resources, lost interest in cast iron?

·         Are the classically-styled fluted columns and Italianate decorations now considered no longer worthy of display?

·         Is the Historic District itself, including its owners and residents, no longer interested in what remains of its architectural origins?

 Looking at the district today, Hawkins says, "This inheritance, though it has been greatly diminished from its original number of buildings and ambience, should be cared for as much as any civic amenity. It deserves every effort of care and stewardship to assure, in these ever-changing times, its survival as a special attraction of the City." 

Regardless of one’s opinion on the merits of the cast iron artifacts as art, “I can’t understand blocking out history,” Hawkins says.  “It’s an issue for everyone involved in preservation.”

Readers are welcome to express their thoughts and suggestions below. 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Here's Hollywood!

Motoring through Northeast Portland recently, a newcomer from Massachusetts asked me why it was called the Hollywood District.

Imagine if life’s big questions could be answered in just two words!

The roaring 20s were still at full throat in 1926 when the Hollywood Theatre opened at N.E. 41st Ave. and Sandy Boulevard.  Its bold, glitzy, daring, Spanish baroque multi-colored terra cotta front façade may well have been the flashiest anywhere in town.  In an era when East Portland was feeling inferior to the wealthier downtown across the river, it amounted to a big boost for the neighborhood.  Thus the commercial and residential area nearby quickly adopted Hollywood District as an identifier.

Now, in an era pocked by numerous demolitions throughout Portland, the 94-year-old the Hollywood Theatre exemplifies how a vintage buildings creates a distinctive sense of place not easily, if ever, recaptured.

If buildings could talk, this one was shouting “Hey!  Look at me!  Come on in!  Let’s have some fun!”  Photographs from the era show attendees dressed up in their finest for a night on the town. 

The balconied theater with 1500 seats was designed in the office of John Virginius Bennes and Harry Herzog.  Herzog may have been the primary figure because he had worked on the Majestic and Liberty theaters downtown, neither of which survives, before partnering with Bennes.  Bennes is best known for some imposing Portland houses and several buildings at the heart of the Oregon State University campus which are now included in a national historic district.

The Hollywood was designed for vaudeville and live music in addition to movies.  But as happens with many vintage buildings, times, conditions and uses change.  Vaudeville and movies with live music were the first to go.  The post-World-War II era brought television’s intrusion.  The rise of multi-screen theaters meant more screens for smaller audiences as the industry shifted its business strategy. 

In 1975, the Hollywood balcony was walled off from the main auditorium and split into two smaller theaters.  Sometime before that, the fancy terra cotta decorations at the ground level and the octagonal free-standing ticket booth disappeared.  Hard times and deferred maintenance continued at the landmark building.  By the late 1980s and building was a white elephant in the movie world.

In 1997, a nonprofit entity called Film Action Oregon bought the Hollywood Theater for $135,000 --  a sum that would have sufficed for a medium-sized house --  along with a major concession by the seller.  With eyes toward architectural restoration and innovative film programming, the entity (now known simply as Hollywood Theatre) has worked steadily to attract viewers and donors as building improvements unfold.

Revamped lower facade will make the entry more attractive. 
Restoring old buildings is an expensive, time-consuming process.  Some costly projects like roof, plumbing and painting are largely unseen by visitors.  The theater made a big neighborhood splash in 2013 when it turned on its big red new “Hollywood” sign surrounded by small blinking bulbs and a new marquee, both aimed at recreating the original feel of 1926.  More than 1100 contributors helped meet the $124,500 cost.

 The theatre made a less-noticeable upgrade in 2016.  It replaced the aesthetically-inappropriate aluminum-framed entry doors with an attractive mahogany-framed set similar to what existed in 1926.  Now, planning is afoot for a lower-façade renovation that will replace the blank brown wall we see today. 

Paul Falsetto, an architect with an extensive background in in historic restoration, is working on a design that will return original materials to the entrance.  The design will not be a duplicate of the original, but should give the entire façade a coherent feeling it has lacked for decades.  The free-standing ticket booth will not be replaced in order to meet current standards for ingress and egress, but an outline of its original placement will be included on the floor.

While the lower-facade work will complete most of the visible exterior renovation, "There is still plenty more to go," says Virginia Durost, the theatre's operations director.  "Plumbing, electric, interior details, seismic..." 

The theatre is currently engaged in fundraising to pay for the lower-façade work.  If you are interested in helping, you can reach the theatre through its website,, or by mail at 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland, 97212.  Plans called for the work to be finished this year, but the pandemic quarantine may slow the timeline.

Regardless, the day should come once again when this irreplaceable building says:  Come on in.  Let’s have some fun!

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Multnomah County Courthouse

New life for the elderly Multnomah County Courthouse is emerging into focus as the courts prepare to move to a new tower in Portland later this year.  The old building, one of the last remnants of neo-classical revival architecture downtown with its massive Ionic columns, will remain substantially as it looks today.  However, the internal program will be much different from what was envisioned when a private developer bought it two years ago.

Early reports suggested that the courthouse would become a boutique hotel.  However, detailed plans being prepared by GBD Architects show ground-floor retail with offices on seven floors above.  The plans would retain four of the original double-story courtrooms and add a ballroom, restaurant and bar on the ground floor.  (Rowdy drunks would be disbarred?)

“Visitors to this building will get to experience its significant characteristics, rare materials and details,” a GBD report states.  Other original elements to be retained include the vestibule, first-floor lobby and the grand staircase leading from the main S.W. Fourth Avenue entrance.  Another charming nod to history is the proposed reopening of a long bricked-over pedestrian entrance on S.W Fifth Avenue, which still retains its decorative chevron and sconces. It is a credit to the owner, NBP Capitol, for saving the historic  internal fabric.  

Agustin Enriquez, a GBD, architect, told the Portland Landmarks Commission that the renovation plan “has been a super fun project to work on.”  But creating new uses for major historic buildings is never easy, and the Landmarks Commission, which is charged with approving exterior changes, has concerns about some proposed alterations. 

One as a request to take out some first-floor windows on the Salmon Street side to create vehicular access for bringing supplies and taking out garbage.  However, Salmon is identified as a pedestrian street, not to be interfered with by vehicles.  Approval is unlikely, but a portal for human use is still on the table.   

Another pedestrian entrance is proposed by GBD on the Main Street side near Fourth Avenue.  This ground-floor entrance would allow access by people with disabilities who couldn’t maneuver stairs in the historic vestibule.  Unbeknownst to many of us, the original building had an entrance to the sheriff’s office at that location; that historical provenance likely will be helpful in figuring out final details.

Then there is the matter of the building’s unusual two-story “penthouse,” that is slightly set back from the four facades of the first six stories.  These stucco-clad floors held cubby-hole offices and a holding jail.  The penthouse, which never was adorned with historical architectural detailing, originally was  shielded largely from view by a parapet that was removed decades ago. The first GBD plan called for installing wide, curtain-wall windows in some portions of the penthouse to increase available light.  Landmarks commissioners expressed more support for the original window scheme “punched”  through the stucco.

Historically, the courthouse was one of the last major buildings designed by the firm of William Whidden and Ion Lewis, who were Portland’s powerhouse firm for more than 20 years.  Their works include City Hall, several office buildings, the Arlington Club and many major residences.  The courthouse was built in two phases over five years, as one L-shaped wing rose while the pioneer-era courthouse it replaced as still in use.  Then the last of the pioneer building was dismantled so the second L-shape could be connected to the first in 1914.

As designed by Whidden & Lewis, the courthouse had an open central courtyard.  Three floors of the courtyard were filled in decades later.  Interestingly, the courtyard played a vital role in the plan to strengthen the building against earthquakes.  Supporting elevator cores are to be built on two sides of the opening, with bracing added below the floors to the cores.  While by no means a simple task, it can be done “without really having to gut the insides,” Enriquez said. 

Further review of the courthouse plan by the landmarks commission is expected soon after the pandemic quarantine end.