Saturday, May 30, 2020

New Chinatown-Japantown Historic District: Who Cares?

Short answer to the question above: Not enough  people to make the Portland City Council change its mind about a 200 foot height ceiling it tried to impose in 2018. 

After getting its wrist slapped by the Land Use Board of Appeals and the Oregon Court of Appeals last year (see May 6 article below for the background) the council held a hearing on May 28 aimed at resolving the matter.  Although a final council vote will not happen until July, developers, architects, a lawyer and even some members of the Asian communities expressed support for the 200 foot height.

Before the council adopted the 200-foot maximum in 2018, the city Planning and Sustainability Commission had urged a 125 foot limit.   The Court of Appeals agreed that the council had not provided justification for the taller height limit “preserving and complimenting historic resources” as required by the city’s masterplan. 

Joe Zehnder, chief planner, contended that city policies on the pedestrian realm, building uses, infill and architectural detailing provided the necessary justification.

Although the City Council is not expected to change the 200 foot height when it takes a final vote, this fight is far from over.  Mayor Ted Wheeler said the Portland Historical Landmarks Commission would continue to rule on height and massing in an attempt to make new buildings fit the context of the rather tiny, ten square-block district.

“The Landmarks Commission will continue to do our job,” declared Kristen Minor, the commission’s chair, who objected to the 200 foot limit. But she added that when the council acknowledges the possibility of excessive heights and bulk, “You send a message that our work is just an obstacle to be overcome.” 

Rulings by the commission can be appealed to the City Council, but appeals have been rare historically.  Developers don’t like losing the additional time and money to undertake appeals.  When the difference might be between a five story building and 18 stories, that expense becomes less relevant. Minor's dedication to the Landmarks Commission's role suggests the strong possibility of new conflicts between the commission and the City Council when the economy revives. 

When it was approved in the late 1980s, the district spanning Third to Fifth Avenues between Burnside and Glisan Street contained buildings mostly one to four stories, Minor said.  The tallest was seven.  Since then, new buildings of eight and 16 stories have been added. Minor said 15 story  heights are not compatible with the district's historic context. Lynn Fuchigami Parks, executive director of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, said many Japanese recall seeing their businesses and possessions wiped out quickly by internment during World War II.  She said Japanese now envision “erasure” of the neighborhood where they once had established a foothold.  “This neighborhood means everything to the Chinese community as well,” she said.

Raymond Cheng, a director of the Lan Su Chinese Garden that lies just outside the historic district, said  garden officials originally feared that 200-foot buildings would cast shadows impairing plants and fish at the garden.  He said the board changed its position when it learned that shadow studies required by the city would prevent those problems.

Helen Ying, chair of the nearby Old Town Community Association, also supported the greater heights, as did James Wong, who described himself as a property owner and developer.

Peggy Moretti, executive of Restore Oregon, a statewide architectural preservation advocate, described the district as a “fragile historic place that could be swallowed up by out-of-scale buildings.”  She urged the city to find ways to help owners brace their buildings against earthquakes and to require owners to make improvements so buildings do not deteriorate from “benign neglect” to become eligible for demolition.  The prospect of taller buildings could be a disincentive for maintaining older buildings on valuable sites. 

The council will hold a work session on July 2 to discuss any possible changes.  The odds of the council accepting any lower heights likely are about the same as modern science proving the pandemic to be a hoax.


While the pandemic endures, the Architectural Heritage Center is adding some interesting videos about Portland's architectural history.  So far, Val Ballestrem, the AHC's education manger, has narrated these productions:

A.E. Doyle, one of Portland's most productive architects in the first half of the 20th Century

A history of Pioneer Courthouse Square and the buildings that preceded it on that block

These videos run six and seven minutes each. If our architectural history interest you, these will be enjoyable "views."

Monday, May 25, 2020

Hotel Chamberlain

The biggest and perhaps most complex restoration project in Portland for quite some time faced many challenges in meeting current building codes, replacing utilities, bolstering structural elements and reconfiguring rooms for modern needs.  Adding delays for a fast-breaking viral pandemic has made the task even tougher for the architecturally-interesting building at 509 S.E. Grand Ave.  

Problems notwithstanding, work on what is best known today as the former Schleifer Furniture store ranks as a major preservation victory and enhancement in the East Portland Grand Avenue National Historic District.  The building started life in 1907 as the Gayosa Hotel, coupled, ironically, with an earlier furniture retailer, Morgan-Atchley.  By 1917, the hotel was renamed Chamberlain, and housed residents in many of its 107 rooms until 1974.

The Schleifer firm managed the building from 1936 to 2016, and used some of the rooms after 1974 for  storage.  After Schleifer left, the new owners allowed the building to be used as a winter shelter for the homeless while planning proceeded for the renovation. 

Investors including Brad Malsin of Beam Development bought the building in 2015, and went to work on plans to remake the building.  As now envisioned, the Hotel Chamberlain will have 57 rooms above a restaurant and bar on the ground floor.  Malsin is an experienced redeveloper of old buildings on the East Side, including the Eastside Exchange,  Eastbank Commerce Center and the Olympic Mills Commerce Center.

After a prolonged period of planning and obtaining building permits, work was well underway in 2020, only to be shut down by the pandemic.  Though work undoubtedly will resume, what ultimately happens with the virus may affect the building’s future as a hotel.  There is no way to tell when the pandemic's scourge will release its grip on the hospitality industry. 

The Architectural Heritage Center defines the building’s style as French Second Empire.  In the late 18th century, that meant pieces of many earlier architectural styles jumbled together in exuberant fashion.  The Paris Opera House is perhaps the most notable example.  But what was exuberant to some, meant tastelessness  to others.  The French writer Emile Zola called Second Empire architecture “an opulent bastard child of all the styles.”

The Schleifer/Chamberlain building is a tame but charming example, one of few in Portland. The original architect is not known; the remodeling is being designed by Works Progress Architecture, a firm that has worked with Beam on other projects.  Notice the heavy lintels over the windows with exaggerated keystones, decorative frieze at cornice, and double columns of protruding bricks (called quoins) that add definition to the corners. As a contributing building in the historic district, the facades facing Stark and Grand cannot be substantially altered.  Ideally, the notable details 
Stark Street entrance 
should be highlighted by differing colors in the final paint scheme.

The foremost identifier of many Second Empire buildings, and present here, is the mansard roof with gables at the top.  The mansard roof became popular with developers in Paris, the story goes, because the city’s height limits were measured up to a building’s cornice, and did not include the roof.  Thus the mansard became a sneaky tool for adding an extra floor.

Historically, the original furniture dealer operated from a storefront facing on Grand Avenue.  It is easy to see today that a more elegant entrance was on the Stark side, with a bracketed chevron and a tall  three-panel window over the doorway.  This, no doubt, was the original entrance to the Gayosa, as it was first known.

The current plan, however, puts the hotel entry on Grand, no doubt for better visibility plus better access by automobile, bus and streetcar. 

When the renovation is finished, it will be an will make the block between Stark and Washington one of the most interesting in Portland.  The Chamberlain sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the masculine Logus Block of 1892, one of Portland’s best Richardsonian-Romanesque architectural examples.  Just across Grand Avenue is the Barber Block of 1889, which contains a veritable trove of popular Victorian era architectural details that make it a standout in the neighborhood -- or anywhere in Portland.  

Within a single block, people who take time to look at buildings will find much to delight their eyes .It will be a timeless – for now -- glimpse into the art of architecture at the turn of the 20th Century that cannot be replaced. 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Battle of the Park Blocks II*

It is quite amazing to think that 8.67 acres of the most iconic, historic and beloved land in downtown Portland has never been graced with a permanent building.  Yet it is the front yard for four churches, three major cultural institutions and one of the state’s biggest universities.

And a playground for toddlers, senior citizens and buyers of fresh vegetables.

The South Park Blocks comprise this historic turf, running 12 blocks from S.W. Salmon to Jackson Streets along S.W. Park Avenue.  When it was given to the city in 1852 – only one year after Portland’s incorporation – it seemed far from town.  The city's first dedicated park land lay fallow for 25 years before the first formal planting scheme was developed.  

Now, 168 years after pioneers in a small village magnanimously gave this land to the city, the question is how much “turf” will remain – and how much will be devoted to presumably more “active” public uses.  The Portland Bureau of Parks is working on a new masterplan for the park in a process that has received far too little public attention. 

First, let's glance at some history.  Rows of elms and poplars were planted in 1877 by Louis Gustav Pfunder, a pioneering horticulturist who earlier had worked on plantings for Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  Since then, the blocks have been most notable for deciduous trees and green grass.  

By the late 19th century mansions by some of the city’s important business and political figures abutted the park, followed in the early 20th century by several seemingly high-rise apartments that still exist in what became densely populated neighborhood. 

A detailed inventory prepared for the Parks Bureau outlines many changes in the park since its first days.  At differing times, statues were added, walkways changed, lighting and some flower beds added.  In the early 1970s, the southern area of the park became a formal part of the Portland State University campus, bringing the addition of a performance deck and rows of seats. 

Two citizen groups are busy studying the South Park Blocks today from differing perspectives.  The Portland Parks Bureau, funded by a grant from a major downtown developer, is working with a Citizens Advisory Committee on a new “master plan” for the park.  Details are not yet final, but the proposal is expected to suggest new gathering spaces, more flower beds, conifers instead of elm trees and new plans for human seating.

Meanwhile, a committee of the Downtown Neighborhood Association is preparing an application to place the park on the National Register of Historic Places.  Acceptance on the register would not mean that no changes could occur, but would protect the “historic” characteristics of the park.

Regardless of all changes made over the years, the overriding purpose of the park has been to provide quiet green space, a living retreat from the pressure of high-density urban living.  Breaking up that ambiance with “visual clutter” would destroy the park’s historic essence and significance, says Story Swett, an architect with an extensive history of working on preservation projects.  He chairs the neighborhood committee working on the National Register nomination.

 “Despite all the pressures of the surrounding density, the overall character of the park continues to have its historic integrity,” Swett says.  “By breaking it up into small bite-sized pieces, the overall sense of a place for quiet contemplation and unstructured rest is ultimately lost.”

Seeking status on the National Historic Register is not a new idea.  Work on applications was begun in 1995 and again in 2000, apparently under the auspices of the city government.  However, the processes were never completed.  Final approval of the registration would require assent from the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service.  City Council approval is not required for submitting an application. 

Meetings of the Park Bureau’s advisory committee have indicated little interest in historic elements of the park.  Trees are one of the contentious issues.  The Downtown Neighborhood Association likes the historic choice of elms because they provide shade in the summer and allow needed natural light in the winter after the leaves fall.  Proponents of conifers see evergreens as being a more indigenous choice, but the conifers by their circumferences would reduce open green space. 

You can view three preliminary design concepts from the Parks Bureau here:

The first, called Emerald Arrow, comes closest to retaining the historic sense of the park.  The other two, called Braided Districts and Mirrored Chain, add more intrusive elements.  When a final plan is proposed, this blog will provide an update with links to the plan and how to comment. 

The Parks Bureau, working with design consultants and the advisory committee, is expected to suggest a proposed master plan sometime in June.  The plan will have to be approved by the City Council at some point, since any final plan would require money for implementation.  Given the strong feelings shown by both citizen groups so far, the council hearing likely will not be a place for quiet contemplation.

*In 1970, Portland police in riot gear attacked protesters against the Vietnam War who had gathered near Portland State.  It quickly became known as the "battle of the Park Blocks." 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Small Miracle

This story is so good, it deserves being told again and again.

Never in Portland, I believe, has so much research, time, energy and thoughtful care been invested in restoring the façade of a historic building that is only 25 feet wide. 

It is historic because the Hallock & McMillan building at 237 SW Naito Parkway, is the oldest building surviving downtown.  Built in 1857, it was one of the first to use brick construction and cast-iron elements on its eastern façade.  Absalom Hallock was the city’s first professional architect.  The classical details of the columns and their applied ornaments provide the first public artwork appearing on Portland’s streets,” says architectural historian and local cast iron expert, William J. Hawkins III.

Earlier Hallock "remodel" 
Over the next 35 years, Portland developed one of the largest inventories of cast-iron buildings in the nation, though many of them subsequently were demolished.  Many grew larger and more ornate in decoration.  The neighboring Fechheimer & White building from from 1885 is an elegant example.

Fechheimer & White 
The historic façade of Hallock & McMillan was scraped off in the late 1940s to be replaced with something more “modern” and vapid.  Owner John W. Russell, who also owns two other historic buildings on the block, committed himself to restoring the original appearance.  Overall, the project took eight years to achieve completion last fall. 

The video here explains the process.  I  believe you will enjoy a few minutes looking at it.

Besides Russell, you will notice several key players in contemporary preservation work in the video.    They are Hawkins, architectural historian; Brian Emerick, an architect involved in many restoration/preservation projects; Bremik Construction Inc., a firm involved in many tasteful vintage building renovations; and Dave Talbot, who doesn't have speaking part in the video, is an expert at reproducing architectural details. If we care about our city and its history, we must appreciate the efforts to restore and preserve these early pieces of downtown. 

The video does not detail another vital phase of renovation.  Engineers found ways to brace together three historic buildings on the same block (including the Dielschneider building facing on Oak Street)  to achieve greater strength against earthquakes.  Pioneer that he was, Absalom Hallock never had to worry about earthquakes.  

There is another interesting historical detail about the neighboring Hallock and Fechheimer buildings.  When pioneers platted the first streets of downtown Portland, they established lots with 25-foot frontages.  Their goal assumed the small size would be helpful in marketing.   Given blocks of 200 feet by 200 feet, that meant 16, 25 by 100 foot lots in each bock.  There are few 25-foot lots left today  because over the decades owners succeeded in aggregating neighboring lots so larger buildings could be erected.   If you go to see these two buildings to admire their cast iron architecture, take a moment to appreciate the scale of Portland's earliest development. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Historic District Height Limits

There are no pretty pictures to display in this posting.  Instead, we look at a Portland planning policy about new building heights that poses serious risks to the city’s historic districts.

Some background:  City planners, developers the Planning & Sustainability Commission and the City Council have negotiated and argued for at least a decade about setting appropriate height limits for new buildings in the Chinatown-Japantown Historic district in inner Northwest Portland. 

Decades ago, height limits were set as high as 450 feet in a district where most historic structures are two and three stories.  After detailed hearings and study sessions, the Planning Commission later suggested 125 feet, enough for a 10 story building.  In 2018, the City Council finally adopted limits of 200 feet, which could amount to 17 or 18 stories.

Restore Oregon and other preservation organizations appealed over the 200 foot limit, contending that the City Council failed to comply with a  Portland Comprehensive Plan requirement of justifying development “while preserving and complementing historic resources.”  The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the city had failed to meet that standard.

The legal fix is easy enough, right?  Come back and ask the City Council to come up with some kind of verbiage about “preserving and complementing historic resources.”   In nice bureaucratic happy-talk, the hearing notice says the city’s action “will guide growth and development to make Portland’s urban core more vibrant, innovative sustainable and resilient, through new policies, regulations, investments and other actions.”  No mention of historic significance, of course. 

 The council plans to hold an electronic public hearing on May 28.  Citizens may submit written testimony in advance.  (See details at the end.)

The planning staff has offered a bundle of assorted reports dating back a couple decades from which it presumably will craft some sort of justification.  The chances of the council changing its mind and lowering the limits likely are nil.  In the view of Peggy Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon,  125 feet would be an acceptable maximum, but not in all locations depending on the neighborhood context.

At the May 28 hearing, “I still think it’s important for people to raise their voices,” even if the cause is futile, Moretti says.  “At the same time, we need to find ways to mitigate the impact of this.”

How to do that?  “It needs to be made clear in all historic districts that the maximum is not an entitlement,” she says.  “The city must clarify that zoned heights in historic districts are a maximum, not a guarantee.  Without this clarification, developers believe they have an absolute right to the zoned height, and the Landmark Commission’s ability to ensure that new construction in historic districts is compatible with its context is gutted.” 

Under this scheme, the Portland Landmarks Commission would rule on whether a proposed building preserves and complements historic resources.  A developer dissatisfied with a commission ruling could appeal to the City Council.  Historically, appeals from landmarks commission decisions have been rare.

Moretti sees another downside if the 200-foot heights are allowed by right:  Intentional deterioration by neglect.  Owners might envision greater revenue by letting old buildings decay so they become more eligible for removal and replacement by larger structures.  “We really need to go after that,” she said.  “Heights inspire demolition by neglect.”

To submit written testimony in advance of the hearing, you can use the U.S. Mail and send to City Council, CC035 Plan, Re-Adoption Testimony, 1221 SW Fourth Ave., Room 130, Portland, OR 97204.

To submit electronically, go to and click on Central City 2035 and click the “testify” button.

To testify in person at the May 28 hearing at 2 p.m. register at  Deadline for signing up is May 26.

If you are interested in the Oregon Court of Appeals decision (and finding out why you are glad you don’t practice law), click here: