Monday, October 26, 2020

An Architectural Love Story


 As a teenager in the 1960s, I rode the blue suburban buses to the Multnomah County Central Library a couple times per month, primarily to go to the basement newspaper room to read Jim Murray sports columns in the Los Angeles Times.

As a sophomore in high school, I went many times to look at catalogues of colleges to which I might apply. 

At the time, I could have told you about the grand staircase in the lobby and about the huge Audubon bird book encased in plastic nearby.  And I could tell you about the musty aroma of the newspaper room.

What did the library building look like?  Uh, maybe I knew it was built with bricks.  Other than that, I could tell you nothing.  Like most Americans, I didn’t have a clue about how to look at a building, or why I might even want to.

All that changed my sophomore year in college.  At an overseas campus program in Britain, I chanced to take some architectural history classes.  I learned about some of the architectural eras from the classical to Modern.   I visited several of the great cities of Europe and wandered through cathedral after cathedral.  While many of my fellow students were bored by cathedrals, I stood in wonder at their size, their artistry and their amazing engineering feats – long before the days of scientific engineering.

I learned to stop and look at buildings – just for the sake of looking.  And I never tired of it.  To this day, when I plan to venture into a new city, I do research to see what significant buildings there are to see.  No wonder, then, that upon my return to Portland one of my first missions was to see buildings in my own environment – really for the first time.

One of the first I looked at was the Multnomah County Central Library – in all of its early 20th Century Georgian Revival beauty.  Frankly, I stood still in awe while taking in the brick and limestone façade, its paired pilasters at the corners, its three elegant arched entrances and the symmetrically-spaced large windows at the second floor, the balustrade topping the eaves.  This was, to my mind, one of the greatest buildings anywhere in Portland.  After admiring it for several decades, I still feel the same way.

The origins of Georgian architecture relate to England in the 18th Century -- the reign of King George III -- when the manufacture of bricks made them a study and cost-effective construction choice.  The architecture quickly  migrated to the Colonies, despite contempt for King George.  Thus Americans often call the style "colonial" rather than Georgian.

The library was an early downtown achievement from the architectural office of A.E. Doyle, whose firms designed about 20 downtown buildings – still more than any other firm in Portland.  Besides his work downtown, Doyle designed the English Gothic buildings at the heart of the Reed College campus.  Doyle’s own story was equally interesting, as a largely self-taught architect whose career thrived in the Roaring 20s, but was cut short by his death from a kidney disease in 1928.

The library was built on a tight budget.  Doyle kept costs down by eliminating interior hallways and scrimping on additional exterior adornment he had in mind.  An interesting and inexpensive adornment was the inscription of the names of many of history’s greatest writers and thinkers on spandrels below the large windows. Regardless of its simplicity, the library’s beauty and excellent proportions shine through.


The library comes to mind these days because changes are afoot for the landscaping within balustrades that adjoin sidewalks on three sides of the building.   We shall explore these revisions in this space next week.

An elementary guide to looking at buildings

Meanwhile, if you are not accustomed to stopping and looking at buildings, here are some basic suggestions that might be helpful:

1) What holds the building up?  Wood?  Stone?  Brick?  Steel frame? Reinforced concrete?  The structure is a determining factor in what happens next.

2) What is the building’s function?  Does the design reflect one or more uses within its spaces? What effect do you think the architect was trying to achieve?

3) What is the overall nature of the façade?  Is it symmetrical, or non-symmetrical?

4) Look at the placement of the windows.  Do they follow a pattern?

5) Look for “decorations.”  Are there columns? Brackets at the eaves?  Casings atop or around the windows? Balustrades?

6) Is there a historical “style” present?  This is particularly useful in looking at “old” buildings.  Classical?  Georgian? Italianate? Romanesque?  Second French Empire?  Gothic?  Art Deco? This will require a little research on your part to learn about historical styles, but it is easy to find basic examples on the internet.

I hope these basic guidelines will give you a greater appreciation of the human-built environment, and add richness to your lives in the way it has in mine.  The next time you go near a building that is important in your life, stop for a moment and LOOK at it.  Take it all in.  Perhaps for the first time.  

Monday, October 19, 2020

Updates: Concordia Campus, Molalla Log House


The Sept. 27 article about the vacant Concordia University campus attracted one of the highest volumes of readers in the modest history of this blog.  Many people said they’d like to see the campus used for emergency housing, low-income housing or a combination of low-income and market-rate housing.

Given land-use zoning issues, the quickest path for the 24-acre campus would be to remain as an institutional campus.  Wayfinding Academy, alternative two-year college in North Portland, has expressed interest in acquiring some but not all of the Concordia buildings.  That option appears tenuous, at best, given the hardships of carving up the resource.

Nick Bertram, a friend of mine who graduated from Concordia High School before the institution advanced to the collegiate level, offered another interesting idea.  He believes Portland State University should acquire it to add housing and classroom space for PSU students.

Taking over the whole campus also would give PSU a genuine home field for its women’s soccer and softball programs and men’s and women’s tennis teams.  A PSU graduate, Bertram thinks the university could simply move an academic program of an appropriate size to the Concordia academic buildings. 

Public acquisition of a former private college is not unprecedented in Portland.  Cascade College closed its North Portland campus in 1969, unable to pay mortgages it owed on new buildings.  The campus, with the help of tax funding over many years, has morphed into the attractive Portland Community College Cascade campus.

Since this blog concentrates on the value of historic buildings, the comments of Paul Falsetto, an architect who frequently visited the Concordia campus, are relevant:

“Years ago I was researching university alumni centers, and one factoid stayed with me. After conducting scores of interviews with college graduates, it was determined that three elements have the most important influences on graduates’ memories: the people they met, the buildings they inhabited, and the open space that defined the campus.

“Seems to me that with the movement towards online education, both as a business model and as a pandemic response, today’s students will miss out on all three. I’m hoping that our region’s higher education institutions are able to tread wisely during this time of challenge, and retain what they do and where they do it. An active campus grows roots that run deep in the experiences and memories of alumni and neighbors alike.”

Those of us who attended attractive campuses where we lived and went to school would agree. 


                                                               (Pamela Hayden photo)

 Fortunately, recent major forest fires in Clackamas County did not threaten the Molalla Log House, the venerable building that may be among the oldest in Oregon, undergoing restoration in the Hopkins Experimental Forest north of Mulino.

The history of this interesting structure was related in an Aug. 12 article on this blog.  Hand-hewn timbers that were rescued years ago from another location are believe to be from 140 to more than 200 years old, depending on which analysis one chooses to accept.

While all the timbers fit together tightly without need for metal fasteners, modern building codes would not allow reconstruction of the roof without steel support.  Pamela Hayden, who has dedicated many years to saving and reconstructing the log building, said there was no choice other than adding steel supports so the building eventually can be used for tours and meetings.

“We will have a seismically safe building,” Hayden says.  “The irony is that in the recent fires the only thing that remains in severely burned wooden buildings are their steel components - sadly stark in the embers.”

Research suggests that the building has had several roofs during its lengthy life.  The exact nature of the original one is not known.  Gregg Olson, a craftsman and scholar of historic woodworking, is fabricating a roof that he believes to be close to what the original may have been.

“Preservationists must stay steadfast,” Hayden says.  “Our first priority was to do everything possible to keep the original integrity of the log building as close to the original builders’ intent as possible - trying to adhere closely to the Secretary of Interior Standards for Historic Rehabilitation.  This took a lot of study, research, time and last but not least - new Douglas fir wood and lots of money to hire the labor of qualified and knowledgeable craftsmen.

“We definitely had to be open to making some modifications since another priority was to make the building accessible to the pubic inside and out.   The good news is we will have a building that will last at least another 100 years (hopefully) with ongoing maintenance - that can be enjoyed by generations of new learners and architectural history buffs.”

                                                               (Pamela Hayden photo)

Monday, October 12, 2020

Watering-down Portland Preservation Regulations


For the past several years, planning agencies at the state and city of Portland have issued a steady drip, drip of regulations aimed at diluting state and local historic preservation laws.

 The latest proposed swipe at history comes in the proposed city’s Historic Resources Code Project.  Under the worst analysis, the proposed changes would virtually eliminate the possibility of adding new historic resources while hacking away on the boundaries of existing historic districts.

 The Code Project is a comprehensive reworking of the city’s preservation laws, prompted in part by the state Land Conservation and Development Commission’s decision in 2016 to reduce design review of changes for historic buildings included in National Register Districts.

 The proposed changes are the result of three years of examination by the City of Portland to reorganize its rules about historic resources.  Brandon Spencer-Hartle, the city’s historic resources manager, told heritage advocates that public comments during the study were split: Many people thought the city wasn’t aggressive enough in protecting historic, while many others felt the preservation rules were too restrictive on new development.  Spencer-Hartle said the proposal aimed at “balancing” those competing views.

 The “balance” limits the power of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, and would have the Planning and Sustainability Commission make recommendations to the City Council on any new historic districts.

 As it stands, the Planning Commission is weighted with representatives of the development community, and at present has nobody with any historical interest or knowledge. 

 “The PSC is largely opposed to any sort of preservation,” said Rod Merrick, an Eastmoreland architect who has been deeply involved in preservation.  “This is very, very troubling.”

 Jim Heuer, an Irvington resident and historian of Portland’s neighborhoods, is concerned that the PSC also would be enabled to ask the City Council to reduce or modify current historic districts.  He said the proposal “sees historic designation as a ‘zero sum game’ between the historically dominant culture and underserved and under-represented communities, so that we need to de-designate historic resources associated with ‘over-represented’ communities, rather than simply broadening our concept of what is ‘historic.’’

He added, “The proposal allows districts to be resized and protections removed if the goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan are better served in the opinion of City Council and the PSC.”

Indeed, one of the rationale's for the putting the PSC in the driver's seat for any new historic districts is that the PSC, not the Landmarks Commission, is charged with reviewing zoning code rules that determine what kinds of activities and buildings can occur in any of the city's dozens of land-use zones.

At a work session on Oct. 12, Kristen Minor, chair of the Landmarks Commission, said, "There are some really great things in the (proposed) code, as well as some we are concerned by."  The commission she chairs will discuss the code further before preparing testimony for the Planning Commission later this month.

One important amendment to the proposed new rules would be requiring at least some of the PSC members to be knowledgeable about architectural history and Portland's neighborhood history.  For the past several years, the PSC has been largely dismissive of any public testimony speaking to the value of Portland history. 

 Spencer-Hartle said the Landmarks Commission would play an advisory role to the Planning Commission in recommending new districts or amendments or down-sizing of existing districts.  Heuer said the proposal would take the Landmarks Commission “out of the process of adding potentially historic resources to the ‘significant historic resources’ list, which is the first important step in designating new historic resources and districts.”

 There is no desire here to criticize Spencer-Hartle for this unfortunate proposal.  He is trained in preservation and worked for Restore Oregon, a state-wide preservation advocacy non-profit before going to work for the city.  Heuer believes Spencer-Hartle has added a few elements that could benefit preservation despite pressure from his bosses at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and from Eli Spivak, the chair of the PSC, a developer/builder. who has firmly opposed preservationists’ concerns over several years.  

If approved, the changes would make it easier to add solar panels to buildings in historic districts.  It also would be easier to remove “secondary” buildings from a historic site, such as small or non-functional garages.

 The changes also would put the Landmarks Commission in charge of hearings, not currently available, when an owner wants to demolish a building that has been identified as a historic resource but has not been designated as a landmark or located in a historic district.  The proposal also suggests greater flexibility in finding new uses for historic buildings that otherwise would not comply with current zoning rules.  That latter element could help valued historic properties find successful new lives. 

 Before going to the City Council, the proposed new rules will be heard by the Planning Commission on Oct. 27.  As Spencer-Hartle noted -- which some take as a warning --  the commission can amend the proposal as it wishes.  That being the case, some of the "positives" for historic preservation could be removed. 

 The hearing will be held via the internet.  More information about the proposal and details on how to testify can be found at

For the dedicated among you, you can find more than 200 pages of specific code changes if you filter far enough through the website.  Trying to absorb it all is a daunting task. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Fairmount Apartments


How many times do we hear that an old building is too decrepit to save?

 Frankly, no building is beyond saving if there is enough willpower or a sharpened financial pencil or some combination of both.

Take the Fairmount Apartments on Northwest 26th Avenue, for example.  It was built in 1904-05 as an upscale hotel abutting the Vaughn Street entrance of the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition.  The fair, created by Portland’s early civic and economic boosters, drew more than 2 million visitors during its four-month fun and fueled the young city’s rapid population growth.

The two-story hotel, built in the shape of an E with the spine on 26th and legs extending along Upshur and Vaughn Streets, had 150 rooms and a dining room that served more than a thousand meals a day.  Rooms rented for $1 per night; dinner was 35 cents.

Alas, the fair site had already been sold for industrial development, making it a difficult location for a hotel.  Located far from the heart of town, the hotel soon lapsed into inexpensive single-room housing.  Its physical condition deteriorated as the years passed.  Today, it is believed to be the last building built for the fair still in its original location. 

The nadir for the Hotel Fairmount, later known as the Evergreen Apartments, likely occurred in 1982, when city fire officials declared it to be possibly the city’s worst firetrap.  By then, fire safety equipment was either inoperable or nonexistent.  The roof leaked.  Units on the second floor had no functioning heat, and were warmed by kitchen stoves.  A fire marshal predicted that it would take less than an hour for the wooden, two-story building to burn to the ground, threatening the safety of 150 low-income residents.

A judge ordered the building to be vacated if repairs were not made quickly.  “If they think this place is so bad, they should check out living under the Burnside Bridge,” said one tenant who felt he could not find housing elsewhere.

The city government came through with a $65,000 emergency loan that year, but progress was tedious.  The building had many years ahead in a declining state.

In 2000, the building was owned by Brad Malsin who has a history of renovating historic buildings.  He funded an application that listed the Fairmount on the National Register of Historic Places, largely because of its connection with the fair and the urban growth it promoted.

The architect and builder of the Fairmount are not known.  Surprisingly, the registration form does not speak highly of the building’s architecture.  “Although the Fairmount is not of great merit stylistically, it is significant as a unique vernacular example of an early 20th century wood-frame hotel,” it says.  “Few wood-frame commercial buildings of this vintage remain in Portland today.”

Regardless, the building is still attractive to the eye with details common at the time, including paired brackets at the eaves and a simple cornice.  Porticos project from the west and south sides, set off with wooden quoins to define the corners.  A recessed, one-story porch covers all three sides, with simple square columns supporting the upper story.  The first floor is finished with rough stucco, and the second with horizontal wooden siding.

“Although it has been neglected and requires significant restoration, the mere fact that the Fairmount remains, essentially in original form, is astounding,” the registration form noted in 2000. “The current owner of this still rather notorious building is aware of its historical significance and intends to completely restore the Fairmount.”

It was no simple task. Funding ultimately was finalized by Urban Development+Partners, a firm that recruits investors for buildings both new and historic.  Finally completed in 2018, the $6 million Fairmount project completely revamped the interior into 80 apartments, including studio, one and two bedroom units.  The exterior was restored to close to its original appearance with historically-accurate materials.

While the Fairmount has seen a lot of change in its life, so has the Northwest Portland neighborhood near it.  Some heavy industry and trucking enterprises have disappeared, and more apartments have sprouted immediately to the south and west.  These developments over the years no doubt made the Fairmount more attractive as a restoration project.    

Now 115 years old, the revamped Fairmount should have a long life.  It gives the neighborhood a welcome taste of early 20th Century architecture and a hint of the big fair that helped place Portland as a major Pacific Northwest city.