Friday, June 26, 2020

"God is in the details"

The quotation above, surely one of the greatest in architectural lore, came from a mid-20th Century master of the glass and steel skyscraper, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  Of course, its meaning is not limited to the modern era.

Nobody in Portland has a better sense of late 19th-Century classical details than architect William J. Hawkins III, who has devoted a long career to architectural research, writing and design.  When the 1888 Morris Marks house, above, was moved to its new location after a prolonged struggle over siting and transportation, Hawkins knew that the classic Italianate house was missing some elegant details in its elaborate wooden facade.

Before the move, this long-neglected stick-built house was close to becoming a pile of kindling.  The time-lapse video below illustrates how the building was sliced into two pieces in order to be  removed from the original site on S.W. 12th Ave.  The move was complicated by the presence of MAX and streetcar wires that limited route options, and by a pedestrian overpass that thwarted a move down S.W. Broadway.

Here's a still image of the house early on the morning it was moved:

The new owners, Karen Karlsson and Rick Michaelson, engaged in heroic efforts to move the building and plan its restoration.  The move and most of the renovation work was undertaken by Arciform, a Portland design-build firm willing to tackle the most difficult preservation/restoration projects.

However, the restoration budget didn't allow for replacement and Corinthian capitals missing from the front porch, and for a new balustrades for the front porch.   

"I just couldn't bear to have those columns unrestored," Hawkins said.  How to pay for it?  He and Dave Talbot, a specialist in replicating historical architectural details decided to call on their lists of preservation advocates to make contributions.  The request netted $17,300, enough to get the work done.

Meanwhile Hawkins needed to figure out what the long-gone capitals looked like.  "They were a stock item in the 1880s," he said.  "You could buy decorated capitals and attach them to columns if you could afford it."  Hawkins also studied the capitals adorning pilasters near the front door, and figured how to take those "flat" details into round capitals.  The new capitals are made from cast aluminum.

The capitals and balustrade are Hawkins' only contribution to the renovation.  "They allowed me to be totally independent," he said of the owners.  "I didn't want to be intrusive.  They were very nice about it."

Given its siting on a triangular piece of ground at 2177 S.W. Broadway, the original front entrance is closed off and porch becomes perhaps Portland's most elegant deck.  Entry to the building will be from the side.  The building will be leased for offices.

The Italianate house was one of many designed by Warren H. Williams, one of Portland's most notable architects in the late 19th Century.  This was the first of two houses he designed for a successful shoe merchant, Morris Marks.  "Williams probably did hundreds of handsome houses," Hawkins said, "but now we are down to just a handful."

This is the second Williams building that has found life after what appeared to be likely death.  Back in the 1960s, early in Bill Hawkins' career, preservation enthusiasts rallied to save Williams' pioneer gothic Calvary Presbyterian Church, which we know today at the Old Church. "Fortunately, we didn't have to move the Old Church," Hawkins said.

Sadly, perhaps, most people will see this new restoration  only as they drive past, since parking is not easy on the triangle of land where it sits.  But as Dave Talbot suggested, once traffic returns to normal, people will have time to admire it while stuck in traffic jams. 

Hawkins laughed when he was reminded of the Miesian quotation in the headline of this article.  He then suggested a minor alteration: "God is in the elegant details."

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

History Repeats!

Nothing better can happen to a well-maintained, gracious historic building than returning to its original use.

We should stage a huge celebration, then, for reopening of the Albina Branch of the Multnomah County Library, scheduled to occur on July 1.  This magnificent Spanish-Renaissance style building with stucco walls and red tile roof at 216 N.E. Knott St. served as the Albina branch from its completion in 1912 until 1960, when library officials felt it necessary to move to a more densely-populated neighborhood.

Most recently, the 1912 building has served as the Title Wave Bookstore where the library sells unneeded or donated books.  Unlike many public buildings, this one has been nicely maintained, right down to its original interior oak woodwork and decorative plaster ceiling ornaments. Perhaps the hiatus from “active service” saved it from the egregious attempts at remodeling that afflict so many public buildings.
"Timely"  interior design

(We must take exception to the boringly pedestrian fluorescent lighting tubes that replaced the original fixtures  That is a relatively cheap “fix” should someone be so inspired.)

The history of the building is just as interesting as its timeless architecture.  The branch was the second of seven in Multnomah County funded by grants from Andrew Carnegie between 1911 and 1922.  Carnegie’s deal was that he would pay for construction of free public libraries if the recipients provided the land, books and staffing.

Carnegie declined to help pay for the Main Library downtown.  He wanted his libraries in neighborhoods, where young people could improve their lives by free access to information, and where immigrants could learn English and how to manage life in America. (Carnegie's family had come from Scotland when he was a teenager.)  In all, he built some 1400 libraries in the United States.  Some communities rejected his offer, based largely on a 1892 Homestead strike-breaking effort that led to 10 fatalities near the Pittsburgh steel mill. 
The original reading room (Multnomah County Library photo)

The unschooled Carnegie had built his fortune in the steel industry, where his profits were generated by cutting costs to be a price leader and by ruthless employment practices.  By the late 1800s, he had amassed an estate hundreds of millions of dollars.  In 1889 he published “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he said super-wealthy people should distribute their assets while they were alive to improve the public good.

Carnegie kept his word.

He knew he and his staff could not supervise all the building projects, so local architects were given the jobs.  However, Carnegie did provide suggested floor plans and two key requirements: The buildings had to have stairways to the main entrances, so visitors would feel they were being “elevated,” and there had to be prominent exterior light fixtures so visitors would feel “enlightened.”

Carnegie's donations had a major impact on the nation's library systems.  Many libraries, including Portland in the early years, were funded by subscriptions paid by library users.  Carnegie insisted that his libraries be open to the public without cost.  His libraries also pioneered the "self service" concept in which library users could make their own selections from shelves and check them out at a central desk.  This system reduced employee costs and let readers choose their own books without having to ask a librarian to select them from behind counters. 

"Elevated and enlightened" 

A young Portland architect on his way to greater prominence, Ellis F. Lawrence, designed the Albina branch.  It was one of some 500 projects he helped design during a busy career that included almost 42 years as the founder and dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts.  Lawrence lived in Portland and commuted to Eugene by train a few days per week until his death in 1946.

Two significant changes have occurred at the Albina branch over the years.  The library system built an addition at the rear of the building to create space for book-binding.  Carnegie's insistence on the entry stairway decades later led to the addition of an entry ramp for people with disabilities.  Neither the rear addition nor the ramp impair the original elegant architectural presence. 

Restoration of the Albina building to library use means that three of the seven Carnegie-funded buildings are still functioning as libraries.  The others are North Portland and St. Johns, both nicely restored in recent years.  Two others, East Portland and Arleta, were sold by the county and still exist but have been converted to other purposes. The Gresham library is now operated as a museum by the Gresham Historical Society and last one, South Portland, erected in 1922 well after Carnegie's death, is a neighborhood office staffed by Portland Parks and Recreation.

The county based its decision to  return to the Knott Street building in part on cost savings.  It no longer will be paying for leased space for a small branch in a shopping mall at N.E. 15th Ave. and Fremont St.  The real value, however, is returning a beautiful and historic building to a higher and better public use.


Time is slowly running out to comment on the Park Bureau's tentative master plan for the South Park Blocks.  If you prefer to see the blocks left uncluttered, please review this website and click on the survey box.  This is our only chance to speak out before a final plan goes tot he City 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Darcelle XV Showplace

Images from National Register of Historic Places nomination 

When Walter Cole gave his first drag performance in a small tavern in Old Town in 1969, the stage consisted of two tables bolted to the floor.  The “stage lighting” came from a slide projector.

Now, more than 50 years later, the Darcelle XV Showplace has expanded into a second storefront and  erected a permanent stage with spotlights.  The glitzy-cheap-wacky decorations have grown in scope, as has Cole’s assemblage of self-sewn exotic gowns stored in the basement.

 Along the way, Cole, now 89, has become a Portland icon for developing a nightclub that attracts and charms people of all sexual persuasions.  He also has been a tireless fundraiser for many charities both related and unrelated to sexual interests and difficulties.

 Through it all, Cole “advanced gay acceptance through humor rather than violence or protest,” said Brandon Spencer-Hartle, historic resources program manager for the City of Portland.  Spencer-Hartle  introduced a National Register of Historic Places nomination for Darcelle’s before the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.

 The National Register nomination relates the importance of Cole’s social  history more than the historic value of the building at 208 N.W. Third Avenue.  It details the long history of and persecution of gay nightclubs in Portland and other cities during the 20th Century.

“As a nightclub and drag venue, the aesthetic of Darcelle XV Showplace reflects the improvised, low-budget, and self-reliant illusion of glamour that resulted from its development during this era when drag was celebrated mostly behind closed doors due to gay discrimination and the threat of harassment…

Walter Cole, 1970

 “Walter Cole, as the proprietor and star drag performer of his club starting in 1969, staked his livelihood on his ability to gain straight allies. He did more than that -- he grew into his role as a community leader even as he stood up for people many disavowed at the time, including transsexuals, performers of color, lesbians, and always, drag performers. Darcelle XV is one of only two drag clubs open prior to 1970 in the United States with an owner who also performed (and is still performing!) as part of the company, and the only one still in the same location today.”

 Cole bought what was then the Demas Tavern in 1967, after urban renewal forced him to move a jazz club from downtown Portland.  It was a tough start.  “All of our gay friends wouldn’t go across Burnside because it was in Skid Road,” Cole said.  Given that it was a neighborhood best known for single men and heavy alcohol consumption, there was little reason for gay people to feel accepted.  That started to change, Cole said, when he hired a tough lesbian bartender who didn’t tolerate guff from anyone. 

" In the end, the club’s location may have enabled it more freedom in an already relatively permissive City," the historians suggest, because there were few families in the area and businesses in the vicinity didn't object to a successful entertainment venue.

According to the nomination’s historical account, “Unlike many gay bars which had a more ‘niche’ clientele, Darcelle XV Showplace was an entertainment venue, creating a place in which a wide variety of people felt comfortable together that was not exclusively a gay bar.  Many publications and other media, including mainstream radio and TV, have touted the club as ‘one of Portland’s must see establishments,’ but perhaps more importantly Darcelle XV Showplace has made a deep impact on many patrons over the years.

“Walter Cole/Darcelle is truly a cultural ambassador, offering not only an opportunity for an evening’s lighthearted fun, but underpinning that entertainment value to become known as a tireless supporter, ‘therapist,’ drag promoter, and philanthropist for the LGBTQ community in Oregon and the west coast.  Darcelle XV illustrates an era when drag helped the gay community make gay discrimination bearable. 

"Darcelle XV Showplace helped convince people that homosexuality was not to be feared or shunned. No similar venue on the west coast or even in the United States has been able to pull in both a ‘straight’ and gay clientele to a gay-owned club so successfully for so long.”

 Cole’s club is believed to the longest-running drag venue in the United States, and Cole is recognized as the nation’s oldest drag queen who still performs.

 The club has been closed during the pandemic.  Don Horn, executive director of Triangle Productions who helped prepare the National Register nomination with Kristen Minor, said the club hopes to reopen “whenever we can, to keep it going as long as possible.”

 Cole chimed in, “Forever.”

 If a state advisory committee approves of the nomination, it will be forwarded to the National Park Service for possible inclusion on the National Register.


 Special update:

Last week's report on the draft South Park Blocks Master Plan drew far more reader interest than any other post so far in this blog.  It shows the affection people hold for the park.

The city will accept comments on the plan only until June 29.  Please review the plan at this site, and then scroll down to the box that says "Take the Survey."  Please enter your comments after checking the various boxes.   This planning process deserves public attention.

Historic elements that are in jeopardy to some degree in the draft plan: 

1. Open Space adaptable to a variety of uses for the enjoyment of all.

2. Well-defined Boundaries

3. Deciduous Trees in Ordered Ranks

4. Simple Means

5. Arched-canopies encouraging long vistas

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

South Park Blocks Draft Plan

A draft master plan compiled by the Portland Parks Bureau proposes significant changes that would alter the appearance and use of  the city’s historic South Park Blocks.  After several months of under-the-radar planning by consultants and a citizen advisory committee, the public finally gets a chance to weigh in – but only online at this time.

Citizen comments offered by June 29 conceivably could affect the final plan.  A current schedule calls for a final version to be presented to the City Council for possible approval in August or September.

Details of the draft are available at the following link, which includes a link to a Surveymonkey questionnaire afterward:

Planners working on the project are fond of saying the draft maintains historic characteristics of the much-loved 12-block park, but they do not describe what they believe to be historic elements in any detail.  The result of the draft plan suggests a much more cluttered landscape and potential conflicts with bicyclists. 

As it stands, the draft plan would seriously impair what some park lovers believe to be the park’s historic fabric.  These proposed changes include removing of several dozen deciduous trees, adding a removable tensile canopy over much of one block on the Portland State University campus, and planting conifers  at the park’s southern border.

More puzzling yet would be slicing off 5 percent of the parks square footage along several blocks to create bike lanes for the Green Loop bicycle route, despite the city’s well-known difficulty of blending bikes in a pedestrian space at Waterfront Park.

The “good” news is that the plan calls for keeping the park’s historic canopy of deciduous trees that have shaded the park in summer and allowed natural light in the winter. However, the plan calls for removing the center row of the five straight rows that have existed at the park since it was first planted in 1877.

Laurie Matthews, a horticulturalist working for the MIG consulting firm, said removing the center row  would allow more room for the remaining trees to reach maturity.   “We really heard strong support for maintaining the tree canopy,” she said.

Matthews also recommended blending more species into the mix with the numerous American elms, but she did not specify what those could be.    “American elms are very special.  Not many species have that special characteristic.”  She said 6 to 10 other kinds of trees might be suggested later. 

An inventory made by committee of the Downtown Neighborhood Association that wants to save the park’s historic qualities concluded that the new landscape plan would take out 68 existing trees. That amounts to just over 20 percent of the existing stock. 

The tensile canopy held up by poles at PSU essentially would be more permanent than a tent but less permanent than a building.  “Permanent structures are definitely something we were told to stay away from,” said Rachel Edmonds, an MIG project manager.  The canopy would provide protection for the farmers’ markets during rainy seasons, but such a “roof” has no precedence in the park’s history.

Although the draft plan maps are not easy to interpret, it appears that 5 feet would be removed from the west side of the blocks from Montgomery to Salmon Street to provide room for bike lanes that also would extend slightly into the current 9th Avenue right-of-way.  The five feet at the western edges of those blocks currently are paved with hexagonal pavers for pedestrians.  Matthews said those walkways “are not very useable” and that most pedestrians prefer to use the center-block routes.

Nevertheless, no portions of the park’s 100 by 200 foot blocks have ever been dedicated to vehicular access.

The draft plan also suggests closure of Madison Street within the park, creating space for a “flexible programmable plaza” in the former street right-of-way.  The tentative plan also suggests “an overhead sculpture as a place-making feature” for the plaza that would attract attention and signify the plaza as a gathering space, close to entrances of the Portland Art Museum and Oregon Historical Society.

“I think that can actually bring people to our front door,” said Andrew VanDerZanden, an OHS employee who sits on the advisory committee.  Historically, the grassy, tree-covered park provided quiet spaces for pedestrians and flexible open spaces for occasional public events.  It was never intended to be a revenue-generating asset.

If people value the park for the green open spaces it provides, this is a good time to make that appreciation known.

Friday, June 5, 2020

New Fliedner Building

Chances are you’ve never heard of the New Fliedner Building in downtown Portland, let alone the “old” Fliedner that preceded it.

Yet if you go to SW 10th and Washington and look carefully at the multi-colored five-story building with the unmistakable Zig Zag Moderne detailing, you’ll probably never forget it. Zig Zag Moderne is a category of Art Deco architecture that needs no further definition once you notice all the crosshatches among the purely geometric ramblings.

Kevin Bond, a planner for Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said Zig Zag Moderne is decoration applied to a traditional building, as opposed to Streamline Moderne in which the building itself is "streamlined" with rounded corners as if it were shaped in a wind tunnel.  Bond's comments were part of a presentation to the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission seeking support for the building's nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. 

The exterior we see today is a product of the fruitful mind of Richard Sundeleaf, an architect who practiced in Portland from the 1920s to the 1980s, decades when architectural fashions emerged from classical European roots to sleek, glassy modernism.  Sundeleaf’s work spanned both camps.  His best-known works today are probably the Jantzen Knitting Mills building in Northeast Portland and the Children’s Museum housed in what formerly was OMSI near the Oregon Zoo.  Old-timers will remember another Sundeleaf project, the long-gone Jantzen Amusement Park.

An interesting aspect of the “New” Fliedner is that the five-story building originally dates to 1906, and was the home for many years of the Eastern Outfitting Co., a successful clothing and department store for some 60 years.  Its proprietor, Joseph Shemanski, expressed his thanks for his success in Portland by donating the Shemanski Fountain in the South Park Blocks near Salmon Street.

In its original version, the Fliedner was a typical masonry building of the era with a heavy brick exterior.  When Eastern Outfitting outgrew its retail space at the end of the Roaring Twenties, Sundeleaf was hired to revamp the southern and western facades that face Washington and 10th Avenue.  The remodel was completed in 1931. 

What we see today, then,  looks nothing like the original building.  The “New” Fliedner is decked out with flatter but heavily colored and detailed facades with Zig Zag patterns.  There are decorative bands above the first floor and at the cornice; the second floor includes creative posts and lintels surrounding the windows; and the main entry on Washington would fit an Art Deco movie palace. 

Robert Mawson, an architectural history consultant who worked on the National Register application, called “the fabulous exteriors…great work by Sundeleaf.”  He said it is the only building downtown showing  Zig Zag Moderne styling. 

The ground floor of the building always has been used for retailing and the upper floors were used for offices.  The upper floors have been substantially gutted and have been vacant for many years.  Mawson said the new owner, a firm from Bellingham, Wash., intends to restore the upper floors for office use and return the ground floor to retail.

Matthew Roman, a member of the Portland Historical Landmarks Commission that reviewed the National Register application, said Sundeleaf is better known for having designed houses and industrial buildings rather than commercial buildings.  “I’m excited to see this building preserved.  It is a rare and unique instance downtown.”

The landmarks commission will forward the National Register application to a state advisory committee.  If that committee approves, the application will be sent to the National Park Service for final consideration.

In fact, Sundeleaf later performed another architectural magic trick in downtown Portland, just across Washington Street from the New Fliedner.  He added several floors to an older building and turned it into a 1950s glass skyscraper.  That is a story for another day.