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.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Eastmoreland Historic District

One of the ugliest squabbles in Portland preservation history may be drawing to a close thanks to proposed new rules that would determine which people claiming property ownership can object to creation of national historic districts.

 The dispute arose Southeast Portland’s Eastmoreland neighborhood, where a handful of owners created trusts allegedly carving their residential properties into 5,000 pieces.  A four-year effort to create an Eastmoreland National Historic District was stalled when those so-called trusts outnumbered owners who supported the district.

 If the tactic sounds fishy, consider that no names were ever added to those numbers.  After lengthy disputes and court battles, the National Park Service refused to approve the Eastmoreland application until the ownership-counting question is resolved by state rule.

At issue is a proposed district of 475 acres that would contain 1,030 buildings, mostly houses dating between 1910 and 1961.  The neighborhood’s general plan follows the early 20th Century City Beautiful movement, with a long grassy esplanade along Southeast Reed College Place and east-west streets following the gentle flow of the topography rather than being carved into rectangular blocks in an urban grid. 

 As an early Portland suburb, Eastmoreland’s attractiveness drew several of the city’s most prominent architects.  Their designs fell mostly into the popular historical architectural revival styles of the early to mid-20th Century.  

   Southeast Reed College Place 

With its proximity to Reed College, Eastmoreland Golf Course and the Crystal Springs lake and gardens, the leafy "Eastmoreland Subdivision remains one of the finest residential districts in the city," according to architectural historian William J. Hawkins III. 

Many Eastmoreland residents feared that city planning and development guidelines would not honor the historic nature of the area and its houses.  Like Ladd’s Addition, Laurelhurst, Irvington, Kings Hill and the Alphabet District, they envisioned a national historic district as their best option for limiting demolitions and new construction that failed to fit the neighborhood context. 

 “The nomination has met all technical criteria for approval by the National Park Service and OPDR (Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation) and has been penalized only as a result of the unethical tactics of objectors whose challenges exposed the lack of clarity in the existing rules,” said Rod Merrick, an architect and chair of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association, in testimony concerning the new rules.

 A state Rule Making Advisory Committee is in the final stages of recommending several revisions to Oregon administrative rules that would affect the management of historic district applications.  “Especially controversial is counting property owners and objections to established owner consent as required by federal rules, specifically trusts but also other ownership arrangements,” the committee said prefatory remarks.

 A layman’s reading of the proposed rule on ownership indicates that an owner or owners would have to hold the equivalent of fee-simple title or be a purchaser under a land-sale contract in order to cast a vote.  Owners would not include individuals, partnerships or corporations holding easements amounting to less than fee interests.  In simplest terms, a “fee interest” is held by the entity who holds an unconditional right to control the property.  It would appear from the proposed rules that only one party or interest would be able to speak for a particular property.

Under that interpretation, the 5,000 trust interests  related to five residential properties would have no impact in the neighborhood vote. 

 1000 Friends of Oregon, a non-profit land-use advocacy group, has opposed preservation efforts at City Hall and the Oregon Legislature.  The organization, often tied with a state homebuilders organization, contends that historic districts were developed during eras of racist restrictions and are sought by elitists.  In fact, any racial bias in land sales was eliminated more than 70 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The countervailing argument is that the homebuilders don’t want to be restricted from historic, popular neighborhoods where they see the highest profits in demolition and reconstruction.

“A National Register listing is about history and preservation,” Merrick said.  “The limited protections provided under historic preservation laws in our state are for the purpose of providing public recognition and at least some level of protection against raw market forces that can bring the wrecking ball to every neighborhood, rich and poor and irrespective of skin color, that meet stringent standards for historic significance and cultural value.”

If the district is approved, demolition of a contributing building could require City Council approval.  Exterior physical changes (not paint colors) to a contributing building would have to seek historic design approval.

What happens to the Eastmoreland national district application if the new rules are adopted?  The results could please the preservation community.  According to the state Parks Department, the state historic preservation officer “will then determine whether to resubmit the nomination if the rules are adopted and resubmission is appropriate under such rules.”

"It is especially important to us that as a result of this process the Eastmoreland HD  (historic district) is not forced to reinitiate the nomination process," Merrick said.  "For us it has been a wrenching, time consuming, and costly effort."

You can view the proposed rule changes here. There is an opportunity for public comment until Aug. 31.