Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Nathan Simon House

Few Portland neighborhoods care as much about their architectural heritage the sprawling Northwest District Association.  Back in 1989, several residents in the “save the good old houses” movement had to be dragged by police from the porch of a house scheduled for demolition.

The drama likely won’t be as great for a residence at 2124 N.W. Flanders St., one of several in the vicinity built and occupied by the powerful Simon family.  In its early years it was the home of Nathan Simon, a lawyer and brother of the one-time Portland mayor, U.S. Senator and Oregon Senate president  Joseph Simon, who lived directly behind in a housing facing on Everett Street.

For 35 years or so, Joseph Simon was one of Oregon's leading power brokers in an era from 1880 to 1915 of bare-knuckle fighting between two factions of the Republican Party.  

The Nathan Simon house missed being added to the neighborhood’s historical inventory in the 1980s.   It apparently was missed as a result of confusion involving the city’s change of addresses in the Depression.  Demolition of a “contributing” building in the Alphabet National Historic District could be opposed at the Landmarks Commission and to the City Council. 

 Both the house’s interior and exterior have changed dramatically over the decades.  A big addition was added to the back (without a proper foundation) and the house was divided into 14 units – some so small they lack a bathroom.  What once likely was an elegant front porch was shortened to a stub and the whole building was encased in asbestos siding.

A developer proposed tearing down the house in 2010 and replacing it with an apartment building, but that developer moved on to bigger projects elsewhere.  Now, new owners are proposing a larger project of five stories and 19 units.

The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission came within an eyelash of approving the apartment plan on July 27, but wants to see some potential revisions to the fifth-story penthouse at a meeting next month.  The commission made it clear it has no ability to delay or recommend against demolition.

“We don’t get to tell the applicant NOT to tear down a non-contributing building in a historic district,” said Kristen Minor, commission chair.  “It’s not in our bailiwick to say yea or nay about taking it down.”  Maya Foty, a commission member who is a preservation architect, said the thought of removing a historic building gives her “heartburn,” but she added, “I can’t step outside the rules.”

                                       Proposed apartment building (Emerick Architects)

Dennis Harper, a member of the NWDA planning committee, said the committee was opposed to the building’s 65-foot height and reduced side yards.  Like many other testifiers, he said the neighborhood regrets the loss of affordable units. 

Joel Drummond, who said at 12 years he has lived in the building longer than other tenants, praised the owner, Elliott Gansner, as a good landlord who has made it clear to all tenants that demolition was a likely outcome.  “We are all grown-ups,” Drummond said.  He added that tenants likely will have eight months’ notice to relocate.

Aaron Dawson, another tenant, said he was aware of a potential tear-down, but despite what he said were 16,000 vacant units in Portland, finding one that was affordable was still difficult.  “You could put me back to living in my car,” he said.

Gansner said he has not raised rents in the two years he has been involved in the ownership group.  He said all tenants will be eligible for relocation assistance.  “I will dedicate as much time as necessary to help them find locations,” he said.

Gansner said the building was in such bad shape, renovating it was not economically viable.  “It has continued to be affordable (for tenants) because prior owners didn’t make the capital improvements that were necessary.” As for demolition, he added, “We don’t really have a choice.  The building is not sustainable in the current state.”

Designed by Emerick Architects, the proposed building takes cues for its primary façade from many brick-faced apartments built in the neighborhood in the 1920s.  The north-facing façade would be brick for four stories, with the penthouse set back from the front by nine feet.  Units would range from as few as 319 square feet to 950.  Units facing the south and west sides would have small outdoor decks.

The block on which the building would sit currently contains other apartment buildings in addition to some Victorian-era houses that appear to be well-maintained.  The proposed building would be the tallest on the block.

The Emerick firm is well-regarded in preservation circles, both for renovating existing buildings and for designing new ones that fit the context of historic districts.  Brian Emerick is a former member of the Landmarks Commission; he was on the commission in 2010 when a the earlier developer, Dennis Sackhoff, earlier developer proposed demolishing the Nathan Simon house. 

The Joseph Simon house, shown above, is difficult to photograph because of the trees. It sits immediately south of the Nathan Simon house.  Built in 1892, the Joseph Simon house still reflects its original Queen Anne style architecture with the double front gables, eyebrow dormer and fish-scale front shingles.  Unlike its younger sibling, it is listed as a contributing building in the Alphabet historic district.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Benson Polytechnic School

Planning is in the final stages for renovation of Benson Polytechnic High School.  The expansive project presents the difficult chore of preserving cherished elements of the muddled campus while preparing it for a new century of technical and career education.

 Architects have been working for four years to reach a consensus that appears to satisfy both parts of that challenging equation.  Meanwhile, the estimated price tag has climbed from $202 million to $295 million. 

 The good news on the preservation side is that is that the historic facades facing N.E. 12th Avenue and along Irving Street on the north and adjacent to Buckman Field on south side will be carefully restored to reflect original authenticity.  The historic entrance to the front of the 1917 building will continue as the school’s main entrance, and the old gymnasium, added in 1925 and the auditorium, added in 1929, also will remain and be repaired.  Likewise, the two-story foundry building at the northeast corner of the campus will be saved.

Preservation of the historic elements will include repairing or replacing bricks as needed, restoring windows and cleaning and repairing terra cotta ornamentation. 

 The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission has no jurisdiction over internal changes but reviews and approves restoration of the historic exterior components.  However, it appears that the architectural team will respect the interesting internal designs of the main lobby, the auditorium  the old gymnasium with its running track on a mezzanine. 

 Responses from community meetings in the past showed a strong desire for the project to “respect the past but to embrace the future,” said Lorne McConachie, a principal with Bassetti Architects in Portland. 

 The “future” will be plainly visible from the north and south sides of the campus.  The one-story historic facades will be backed on both sides by new two-story structures that will be set back about 19 feet from the historic walls.  The design of the new elements will be sleek and modern, to maintain a clear distinction between what is historic and what is not. 

 Overall, the plan includes 165,000 square feet of new construction, bringing the total campus to 379,000 square feet.   About 71,000 feet will be new space devoted to technical education. In all, the square footage amounts to more than nine downtown square  blocks. 

 The historic Benson facades will perpetuate a few names in the school’s history.  Foremost is the logging baron Simon Benson, who gave $100,000 in 1915 to pay for half of the $200,000 original cost.  That led to a change from the first proposed name, The Boys’ School of Trades.  Benson also is remembered for sponsoring the “Benson Bubblers,” Portland’s historic drinking fountains that Benson presumably hoped would discourage the city’s heavy alcoholic consumption in the era before Prohibition.

A construction bid for the first design of Benson by the school district’s architect, Floyd Naramore, was rejected because it exceeded the budget.  The school district then added Folger Johnson as a “consulting” architect for design revisions.  Both men were skilled architects.

 Naramore was the district’s architect from 1912 to 1917.  During trhat short span he worked on 16 schools – many of which still exist – including Benson and Franklin High Schools.  Naramore laid out the 7.33 acre Benson campus in the configuration of a capital H.  The overall H scheme is retained in the renovation plans.

 After 1917, Naramore  moved to Seattle where he was a school architect until 1932.  Thereafter he helped create a large Seattle firm that survives to the present.

 Johnson had come to Portland in 1911 after architectural training in New York and Paris, and a year working for a New York firm.  His surviving work in Portland includes four Carnegie-funded libraries in Multnomah County, the Albertina Kerr Nursery and the private Town Club.  Benson Polytechnic would have been his only affiliation with Naramore.  Regrettably, Johnson's career was obliterated at its peak by the Great Depression, which essentially ended new construction .  Both architects died in 1970.

 The balancing act required by the new generation of planners and architects earned outright praise from the city staff that has followed the planning.  “Great care has been taken in this proposal for the modernization of Benson Polytechnic High School,” a staff report to the Landmarks Commission stated.  “Based on thorough assessment of the existing historic fabric, the proposal has been carefully designed to protect, retain and repair important historic fabric… The new construction has been sensitively designed to maintain the historic character of the resource.”

 Matthew Roman, an architectural designer and member of the Landmarks Commission, said it a bit more simply.  “I still get a sense of the old buildings all the way around.  I really appreciate the effort to do that.”


 When the work is done, one of the most noticeable changes to passers-by on busy N.E. 12th Avenue will be a large X of gently-ramped walkways to accommodate people with disabilities who would have difficulty negotiating the change in elevation from the front sidewalk to the front doors.  The drawing below shows these new routes.

                                (Bassetti Architects/Architectural Resource Group)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Portland's Black History Matters

Billy Webb Elks Lodge 

Little-known chapters of African American history in Portland earned a well-deserved boost from the National Park Service last week when the federal agency added the Billy Webb Elks Lodge to the National Register of Historic Places and approved historical evidence of dozens of additional ethnically-important sites.

The multi-property document means that large numbers of sites would be eligible for the National Register in the event formal applications are made.  “With all the pressures for development, these properties are now on the radar” as worthy of protecting, said Denyse McGriff, vice president of the Architectural Center and a state advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  “There should be no dispute about their significance.”

Many of Portland’s African-American historical sites were demolished as a result of construction of Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Interstate-5 freeway and demolition of the heart of Albina for Emanuel Hospital facilities that were never built. 

 Brandon Spencer-Hartle, historic resources program manager for the city Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said the multi-property listing should help preserve the ethnically-important resources, "many of which have been inexcusably and deliberately overlooked by past planning efforts."

Much of the multi-property documentation arose from the “Cornerstones of Community: Buildings of Portland's African American History” book researched and written by the late Catherine Galbraith, executive director of the Architectural Heritage Center, with the cooperation of local historians and numerous community members. 

The paper-bound book, completed in 1995, detailed many decades of struggle by Portland’s African American community fighting de facto segregation in housing, schools, public accommodations, entertainment, business and civil rights.  Galbraith died in 2018, but was working on the multi-property nomination until her final days.

McGriff said the National Parks Service, along with state and local preservation organizations, now realize that culturally important sites do not have to be impressive buildings architecturally. Indeed, one of the most important sites in Portland could be the small bungalow where Otto and Verdell Rutherford met for decades with political and civil rights leaders to change laws in Oregon. 

There is no dispute, either, about the significance of the Billy Webb Elks building.  “It is one of the most significant African-American buildings in the Pacific Northwest," Galbraith once said.

Located at 6 N. Tillamook Ave., the building was erected by the YWCA in Portland’s segregation era.  It became known familiarly as the “Williams Avenue branch” or the “Colored YWCA.”  It was the meeting site for many organizations, including the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality.  During World War II, the building was leased to the USO for entertaining members of the military.

In 1948, the Red Cross used the building to reunited family members who had been separated by the devastating Vanport flood.   Upon the completion of a new YWCA building in downtown Portland in 1959, the agency sold the building to the Billy Webb Elks Club, an affiliate of minority-run Elks clubs.  Billy Webb was an African-American band leader who worked on cruise ships plying between Portland and San Francisco.

The building underwent major restoration about 10 years ago.  Today it is open to the public (pandemic notwithstanding) for social events and club activities.

Golden West Hotel 

Among the many locations noted for their cultural importance, two stand out perhaps the most prominently: the Golden West Hotel and the second Mt. Olivet Baptist Church.

From 1906 to 1931, the five-story hotel at N.W. Broadway and Everett St. was the center of community life and business opportunity for Portland’s African-American citizens who were shut out of most other housing and business options.  Entrepreneur William G. Allen built the 100-room hotel that catered heavily to railroad workers working on trains arriving and departing at nearby Union Station.  Allen leased ground floor spaces to a barbershop, bar, athletic club and ice cream shop, providing  opportunities for other minority entrepreneurs.  There were few other doorways for African-Americans to lift themselves to middle-class incomes.

The Depression ended the hotel’s heyday.  Today the building has been renovated into low-income housing units run by Central City Concern.  In a nice historical touches, the large Golden West blade sign has returned to prominence and displays in two large windows on Broadway recount the building’s tenure as a vital element of the African-American community.

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church 

The second Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, at 1734 N.E. First Ave., throbbed with community civil rights activism for more than 50 years under the successive leadership of Revs. J.J. Clow and John H. Jackson.  Construction of the church was finished in 1923.  According to a church history, the project was assisted by building materials donated by the Ku Klux Klan, then politically active in Oregon, which wanted the church to move from its original location in Northwest Portland to the "proper side of town." 

The Mt. Olivet congregation outgrew the building in the late 1980s and eventually moved to a new site on N. Chautauqua Avenue.  Mt. Olivet still owns the “old” church, which is now used for services by The Well Community Church.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Albertina Kerr Nursery

The sadness here is not about the loss of a fine old building.  The building will survive.  The sadness is about loss of its pleasant and memorable public uses – no thanks to COVID-19.

There will be no more gourmet lunches or teas at Albertina’s Kitchen, at 424 N.E. 22nd Ave., nor any more sales at Albertina's Heirlooms, one of Portland's finest shops for antique glass, china, jewelry, knickknacks and small furnishings.

 After nearly 40 years of engaging directly with members of the public, the stylish 1921 Colonial Revival Albertina Kerr Center will continue being the administrative headquarters of a non-profit that provides services at several locations to children with mental health issues and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“After thoughtful consideration it is with heavy heart that we have made the difficult decision to permanently close the restaurant and shops at Albertina’s Place,” Jeff Carr, Kerr’s CEO, posted on the agency’s website.  Albertina's Closet, a thrift shop, operated from a separate building on the same property. He said the pandemic led to too much concern for health safety with the public uses.  

The closures do not weigh heavily on Kerr’s bottom line.  The mostly-volunteer-run shops and restaurant netted about $450,000 last year, a pittance in a total agency budget of more than $43 million.

However, the closures will weigh on the many people who enjoyed stylish, leisurely and tasty lunches, and slow ambles through the antiques for sale.  Kerr had a staff of volunteer antiques experts who weighed the merit and value of all items brought in as proposed consignments; they rejected items they concluded were unworthy of the inventory.

On the plus side, closure of the public commerce will not affect the maintenance of the building, which has been well-maintained by Kerr given its 99-year history.  The Albertina Kerr Nursery was built in honor of Albertina Kerr, who died one year after her marriage to Alexander Kerr in 1910.  Mrs. Kerr had a strong commitment to newborn babies who needed help, and the family home in Northwest provided adoption services and daycare for single mothers after her death. 

 Alexander Kerr,  a deeply religious man who was founder of the Kerr Glass Jar Co., carried on with his wife's charitable enthusiasm. Kerr managed his successful business from Portland, but the glass canning jars were produced in San Francisco and in the Midwest. 

Those nursery operations expanded in 1921 with completion of the new Albertina Kerr Nursery, designed by the architecture firm headed by Folger Johnson.  Johnson, who arrived in Portland in 1911, had some of the fanciest training among local architects of his era, with a degree from Columbia University and having studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, then the world’s leading school for classical architecture studies.


Johnson chose a Colonial Revival theme (called Georgian for King George III in England, but Americans  rebelled against King George so we call it "colonial"), which is noted for its red brick walls and classical ornaments such as the Corinthian columns at the front entry and the pediment above.  Johnson included a round window, called an oculus, in the pediment.  It was a technique he had used elsewhere, also.

 In a light-hearted twist to classical design, the Kerr façade includes medallions composed of infants in swaddling clothes above the windows.  The nursery was used for babies awaiting adoptions from its opening until 1967.


Johnson’s work survives in several categories.  He did some elegant homes in exclusive neighborhoods, and four small libraries in Multnomah County funded by Andrew Carnegie.  The St. John’s branch remains as a library, while three others have different uses, including the history museum in Gresham.

 Johnson served as a consultant on Benson High School.  His most elegant building likely is The Portland Town Club, a private club for women erected in 1928 at 2115 S.W. Salmon.  You can see the outside of it here:


 Like many architects of his era, Johnson's’ commissions plummeted during the Depression, which prevented him from adding to an inventory of elegant architecture.  He spent a decade starting in 1940 as Oregon director of the Federal Housing Administration.

 Johnson and his wife were active participants in Portland’s social life, and he frequently spoke to groups about architecture and gardens.  He never forgot his association with the Kerr building.  At his death at age 88 in 1970, his family recommended memorial donations to Albertina Kerr Nursery. 

Some volunteers who worked at the restaurant and heirloom shop hope that those services eventually will return.  It may well be that positive associations with those enterprises helped create awareness and fundraising possibilities for the agency's charitable work. 


Much to no one's surprise, the Portland City Council on June 2 voted 3 to 1 to set building height allowances of 200 feet in the New Chinatown Japantown Historic District in Northwest Portland.

As you can read in an earlier blog post, preservation advocates urged a 125-foot maximum in the neighborhood where most buildings are generally not more than three or four stories.  The 200-foot maximum would allow buildings of close to 20 stories.

As a consequence of the building heights, owners of the small buildings essentially are encouraged to let them run down so they can be demolished.  Kristen Minor, chair of the Portland Historical Landmarks Commission, had urged heights of no more than 100 to 125 feet.  "It's disappointing there was no effort to compromise," said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who cast the dissenting vote.  Fritz was disappointed that the council wasn't influenced by Minor's testimony. 

A crush of new buildings likely is not going to occur quickly, given economic circumstances.  But eventually it will come.  If the historic district is to have any relevance in the years ahead, it may well be only in photographs and historic displays in tower lobbies.