Sunday, September 27, 2020

What happens to the Concordia University campus?


For the first time in 115 years, there are no students this fall on the Northeast Portland campus of Concordia University.

The lawns are brown.  Doors locked.  Windows closed and dark.  Parking lots empty.  Athletic field vacant.

A pedestrian walking though these 24 acres absent of humanity can’t help thinking:   “Something is wrong here.”  Indeed.  Was it some kind of high-tech bomb that saved the buildings but wiped out the people?  Nope.  The local board of trustees pulled the plug quickly without notice earlier this year, ending CU’s history at the end of the spring 2020 semester.

 Those looking for answers got nowhere.  Nobody in the official realm was willing to talk; calls were not returned.  There may be layers of reasons for the closure, and we’ll touch on them in a bit.

 Concordia never ranked with Portland’s fanciest colleges such as Reed or Lewis and Clark.  It began in 1905 as a Lutheran Church-related private high school.  It expanded to a junior college in 1950 and to an accredited four-year university in 1977, dropping the high school along the way.

Its strongest programs were educating teachers and nurses.  It competed athletically with small, mostly church-related Pacific Northwest colleges in several sports and toward the end of its life ranked as a national power among small-college women’s soccer programs.

 Unlike many colleges, Concordia worked closely with the surrounding neighborhood.  Student teachers gained experience at Faubion School, just across the street.  Neighborhood residents were welcome to use the library and buy meals at the cafeteria.  Neighborhood teams used the sports fields.

 Your correspondent taught journalism on a part-time basis at Concordia from 2007 to 12.  During that time, the administration decided to make a major push into on-line instruction for teachers.  Graduates of the on-line program would set foot on campus only once – graduation day. 

Many of the 1200 or so undergraduates who lived on campus at the time were leery of the internet-education plans.  They felt that s significant part of the Concordia was participating in campus life.  They feared that a blizzard of on-line degrees might denigrate their on-campus degrees. Closure of the entire institution was never even perceived as a possibility.

The first decade of the century brought impressive changes to the campus, including a grand three-story library, new housing and a mini-stadium with an all-weather surface for soccer and baseball.  The campus definitely was "moving up" in spirit and physical quality.

George H. White Library 

 Admissions jumped dramatically with the on-line education program.  Nevertheless, Concordia apparently fell far behind in payments to a California firm, Hotchalk Inc., which curried and processed applications and “serviced” the on-line students.

 Meanwhile, the university evidently got cross-ways with its parent, the conservative Missouri Lutheran Synod that objected to creation of a resource center for gay, lesbian and transgender students.  (Methinks these devout Christians forgot to have a discussion with Jesus on that one.)

 To whatever extent all these issues merged, there appeared to be no answer locally.  So, boom, plug pulled. University gone.  Litigation with Hotchalk is already pending.

What becomes of the 24-acre campus?  It is for sale by the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, a financial services arm of the Missouri Synod in St. Louis.  It could be a turn-key purchase for a small college, but in this era, small colleges are facing tough times.  The internet as a high-education savior  is a bumpier road than expected.  

Athletic field 

 Could the campus be parted out?  Certainly the dorm rooms and apartments could be sold for housing and could be used immediately.  The gymnasium and athletic field could be a plum for the Portland Parks Bureau.  The new library and the much older administration building and faculty offices could easily resurface as offices. 

The short answer is that nothing will happen quickly.  Changed uses could require slow and costly city land-use zone changes from the current “campus institution” zone.  What happens to the debt on recent campus additions is anybody’s guess.

 Vacancies and delays are never good for any building, old or new.  The longer that time passes, the dimmer the future looks for what’s left of Concordia University.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Saving the Postmaster's House

One of the grand beauties of architectural preservation is that a dedicated single individual can save a historic building and assure its continued cultural benefit to the community.

Take Mike Lyons, for instance.  Twenty years ago he stepped up to buy a large but deteriorating Queen Anne Victorian-era house and move it four miles from its original lot in Irvington to the Woodlawn neighborhood.

True, he was able to buy the house for $1 because a developer planned to demolish it to make way for row houses as a result of a city of Portland zone change.  The development value of the 10,000-square foot lot made the future impossible at that location impossible for the house, no matter how attractive it was architecturally.  Several people had been interested in acquiring the house, but Lyons was the only one to step forward with a proposal to move it.

 It was not an easy move, however.  The top story had to be removed in order to fit under power lines and not damage trees during the four-mile trek up Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.  For a fee of $80,000 in 2000, the bottom portion was placed on dollies for towing.  Giant forklifts carted the upper story and eventually hoisted it back into place. 

 “The hardest part was placing no-parking signs along the route,” Lyons said.  “There had to be three or four signs per block.  That is a lot of blocks.”

 The house, often referred to as the Postmaster’s House for reasons we shall discuss in a bit, was built in 1895, during the peak of the Queen Anne architectural style of Victorian era.  The building displays several prominent elements of Queen Anne residences, including the unbalanced or asymmetrical front façade composed of a large gable and the smaller gabled dormer; a fancy wooden decoration at the gable’s peak; fish-scale shingles in addition to horizontal siding; and numerous turned spindles in spandrels decorating the front porch.

We can think of these decorations as celebrations of the industrial revolution, when machines were perfected to crank out the decorative pieces.  The intellectual and artistic rebellion that followed brought us the Arts and Crafts movement, when designs reverted to much simpler creations created by human hands rather than machines.


It took about a year’s worth of work replacing the stripped interior and all utilities before Lyons could begin living in the 1895-era residence.  “I still love the house,” he said.  But like any old house, the restoration is still not finished.  “I keep telling myself one more year,” he said.

The house has historical interest in addition to its architectural values.  It was the home of Portland postmaster Frank S. Myers, who was appointed to that job in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson and reappointed by Wilson in 1917.  Wilson subsequently had second thoughts about Myers and fired him in 1920.

 The source of Wilson’s discontent is not firmly established.  It may have been because Myers was slow to rehire soldiers return from World War I, or because of conflicts Myers had with Portland Mayor George Baker.  Regardless, Myers challenged his termination in court, contending that since his job was filled with “advice and consent” from the Senate, he could not be fired without the Senate’s approval.  Myers asked for the pay that he believed should be coming to him.

 Alas, the case wasn’t decided by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1926.  By then Myers had died, but his wife stood in line in case he won his back pay.  In a split decision, the court said the president had authority to fire anyone in his administration.  The case firmly established the separation of the president’s executive power from the legislative authority of Congress.

 Over the following decades, the Postmaster’s House fell into decline, like many large houses of the Victorian era.  It had been used as a boarding house for many years before Lyons acquired it.  Though its exterior looked forlorn, Lyons said the building was still structurally sound and that much of its original interior woodwork remained.

Twenty years after the move, we can still thank Lyons for his dedication and hard work in the spirit of preservation.  Lyons, who runs a paint-removal and architectural woodworking business, hasn't given up on preservation.  He's currently working on a long-vacant rural farmhouse nearly overrun by blackberries.  

Original site of Postmaster's House 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Coming soon to S.E. Grand Avenue


Flatworks Building (TVA Architects)

Robert Thompson is one of the lions in Portland’s contemporary architecture world.  As a founding partner and principal of TVA Architects, he leads a large firm with a long history of designing sleek, modern buildings with lots of glass and metal finishes.

In Portland, his firm did the Fox Tower (27n stories), Park Avenue West (30 stories)  and the John Ross condominium (32 stories).  In Beaverton, TVA designed the Nike World Headquarters.  In Eugene, the Matthew Knight Arena.  You get the idea. Big, new, fancy stuff.  

 An outsider never knows who all contributes to a large firm’s designs, but when it comes to dealing with public agencies, Thompson is the firm's speaker.  His presentations are direct, focused, professional, polite and delivered with consistent modulated enthusiasm.

A bystander was curious to see how Thompson and TVA would react to an unusual project for the firm as it went about preparing plans for an eight-story, half-block building that will replace a parking lot in the East Portland-Grand Avenue National Historic District.  It is a little-known, narrow district running along the Grand Avenue spine where contributing buildings date from 1883 to 1930.

TVA’s assignment was to design a building that would fit into the context of its historic neighbors without giving the impression of mimicking something "old."  The developer-client is a firm headed by Vanessa Sturgeon, who was involved in the Fox Tower and Park Avenue West projects designed by TVA. Sturgeon's presence suggests new investment interest in what has been a sleepy neighborhood for many years.

 We may begin seeing the results soon.  Sturgeon told the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission that the project is “fully funded and ready to break ground.”  The Flatworks Building will sit on the east side of Grand Avenue between S.E. Ash and Pine Streets at the northern edge of the district.

 The simplest part of the building’s design is its structure.  Structural elements and floors will be composed of cross-laminated timber, a relatively recent engineered wood product fabricated by laminating wood layers at 90-degree angles.  At eight stories, Flatworks would rank among the tallest to use the new structural technique in Portland.

 Developing the building’s exterior envelope was not so simple.  To their credit, Thompson and his team studied almost all of the nearby historic buildings to look for design cues.  In a series of meetings with the Landmarks Commission, Thompson showed seven or eight potential versions for the new building.  “We are not trying to design a building that leaps out at you,” he said.  “We want it to blend into the district.”

 The biggest design choice was to take the full-block façade facing Grand Avenue and make it look like two buildings rather than one.  A recessed main entry to the office building separates the two “sections.”  The distinction is important because only one other historic building in the district had a  a 200-foot frontage.

Dotted line shows district boundaries.  Contributing buildings in red. (TVA Architects)

 The norther portion of Flatworks at eight stories will be faced in a dark grey brick while bricks on the six story side will be cream-colored.   Two recessed stories on the six-story side will give the appearances of being a penthouse.  Recessed bays at the ground level will be available for retail uses. 

 Thompson said the cross-laminated timbers will be visible at night when the building is lit.  Recessed spandrels accentuate windows in the darker portion of the building, while metallic shrouds around the windows of the lighter building portion will extend several inches beyond the brick columns. The shrouds “will create a lot of texture and shadows when you come up Grand Avenue,” Thompson said.


Flatworks at night.  (TVA Architects)

Thompson’s presentations were professional and direct, as usual.  Perhaps the only glitches occurred when he referred to the district’s high-rise Weatherly Building a couple times as the Waverly (as in Waverly County Club). A minor slip, if you will.

 Members of the landmarks commission thanked him for his flexibility.  "We asked for some real changes and we've seen some real changes," said Kristen Minor, commission chair.  Anne Mahoney, an architect who sits on the commission, said the result “strikes the right balance between respecting the historic district and a restrained contemporary attitude.”

 If Thompson was fatigued by the sequence of commission meetings, he didn’t show it.  “Thank you so much for the process,” he told the commission and the city staff.  “It has been a delight. I'm looking forward to construction."


Monday, September 7, 2020

Good News for the Multnomah County Courthouse


The verdict is in for the soon-to-be “old” Multnomah County Courthouse.  It looks like an excellent victory for preservation and for finding a successful new use for an important piece of Portland history.

If the proposed renovation is successful, the scene of countless civil and criminal legal cases and public hearings over the past 106 years will become an office building holding approximately 1,000 employees.  New elevator and service cores erected in what originally was a central courtyard (long since filled in by three stories) will allow seismic bracing to occur without doing serious damage to the rest of the eight-story building.

 From the outside, viewers will see virtually no changes to the limestone façade with its heavy Ionic columns facing S.W. Fourth Ave. between Main and Salmon Streets.  The historic vestibule, main lobby and grand staircase that traverses the first six floors will remain intact. 

 Four, two-story courtooms, two each on the third and fifth floors, will be retained for potential uses as board rooms or meeting venues.  They will be reminders of when court proceedings were intended to occur in locations of grandeur and dignity. 

  Most of the rest of the eight stories will be parceled into offices, although as yet no tenants have signed on.  An “event space” will be placed towards the rear of the ground floor, with an elegant restored entrance from the center of the S.W. Fifth Avenue side.


Old blocked entry on Fifth Avenue

There are a couple other lesser changes proposed for the north and south sides of the building, but let’s talk first about the more historic entrance on Fifth Avenue.  This entrance originally led to a short stairway taking pedestrians to the second floor.  However, this entrance was filled in with stone many decades ago in order to provide additional office and courtroom space on the second floor.  However, the large light fixtures and bracketed lintel and chevron were left in place on the façade. .


Agustin Enriquez, an architect with GBD Architects who outlined the building’s changes, said spherical globes that originally graced the doorway will be recreated, as will globes placed at the Front Avenue side.  He said stairs and ramps from the new Fifth Avenue entry will take pedestrians to a first-floor event space that is yet to be designed.


Restored entrance (GBD Architects)

Here are the other two less-dramatic exterior changes.  In the middle of the block on the Salmon Street side, a central bay at the sidewalk level will become a service entry with a roll-down door for dumpsters and other service.  This entry will not be accessible by motor vehicles.

 On the Main Street side near Fourth Avenue, a double door will be cut into the wall to create a double doorway for access to the main lobby for people with disabilities.  The historic vestibule on the Fourth Avenue side includes a tier of stairs that will not be modified.

As a surprise to many, the location of the “new” Main Street doorway actually echoes an original entrance to the county sheriff’s office at that location.  The sheriff’s entrance disappeared many decades ago, and the outer wall was patched seamlessly to match.

All exterior changes to the building have been approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.  The commission had jurisdiction over the plans because of the building’s status as a historic landmark.

 The construction of the building in two stages between 1911 and 1914 ranked as a technological feat.  It was built as two separate L-shaped buildings while the earlier courthouse on the same site, dating to 1864, was dismantled.  When finished, the two L-shaped sides of the new building fit together perfectly. At the grand opening, citizens flooded in to ride the elevators which were still a new and rare mechanical contraption for Portland at the time. 

 Architects of the courthouse we see today were William Whidden and Ion Lewis who headed Portland’s most prominent design firm in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The courthouse was their last major endeavor.  Many of their notable works survive, including Portland City Hall, the Arlington Club, Wilcox Building, Postal Building and others.

 If plans for remodeling the courthouse succeed as planned, the historic structure will stand as an excellent example of preservation and adaptive re-use uses for historic building that reflects architectural value and the remembrance of human history that occurred inside.