Monday, November 16, 2020

Rinehart Building: Goodness in Albina


Sometime in the next few months, well-intentioned citizens operating as Albina Vision hope to offer plans for revitalizing what for decades was the heart of Portland’s African-American population, culture, society, religion, business and recreation.

 Bear in mind, however, “Everything that used to be in the neighborhood has been demolished,” says Winta Yohannes, Albina Vision’s managing director.

 Yes and no.  That is true in the confines being examined by Albina Vision just north of the Moda Center and Memorial Coliseum, where the group dreams of creating new housing, parks and business opportunities.  There is more territory in “old” Albina, however, and select properties are being restored, preserved and recognized for their historical importance.

 One of Albina’s greatest recent achievements is restoration of the 110-year old Rinehart Building at 3041 N. Williams Ave.  It was built in 1910 when the Williams Avenue streetcar was a prime mover of people between downtown and North Portland.  Albina in that era was populated heavily by Scandinavian and other European immigrants, before giving way to a heavily African-American population attracted by World War II jobs.  In an era of de facto segregation in Portland, Black residents were heavily channeled into Albina by Realtors and home lenders.

 The new population infused the neighborhood with stores, restaurants, bars, barbershops and many other small businesses.  Albina’s successful jazz nightclubs became a key destination for many of the nation’s best jazz musicians.

 The two-story brick Rinehart Building opened with shops on the ground floor and apartments above.  Though not imposing by today’s standards, it exemplified Albina’s commercial transition from wood-frame to masonry buildings.  The Rinehart’s turret at the corner of Williams and Monroe Street was intended as a beacon for streetcar riders; apartments and shops tended to focus on streetcar stops where riders got on and off. The designer was William H. Downing, who had started designing houses in Portland in 1890.  

James H. Rinehart, a real estate investor who came to Portland in 1907 from Eastern Oregon, lived in his building until his death in 1919.

The building was known more recently as the Cleo-Lilliann Social Club, an entertainment venue offering food, drinks, music and cards to African-American members.  The club succeeded Cleo’s Taver, which opened in 1957.  The club also raised money for neighborhood charities, from 1968 to its final closure in 2001, when building conditions had substantially deteriorated.  Noise complaints from neighbors were a final blow.

Peeling away old layers (National Register of Historic Places)

By then, Albina had suffered host of serious debilitations, starting with the demise of the streetcar in 1930.  Later, Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Jr. Boulevard) became the main north-south highway.  In the late 1950s, Portland wiped out part of the neighborhood to build Veterans Memorial Coliseum, followed soon thereafter by more demolition for the Interstate-5 freeway.

The nastiest cut may have come in the early 1970s, when several blocks in the heart of the Albina commercial district were cleared for a proposed expansion of Emmanuel Hospital.  However, after all the demolition was finished federal funding for the hospital project evaporated.   Fifty years later, some blocks still remain vacant.  Meanwhile, many Black residents were driven away by predatory lenders and landlords. 

 “The Rinehart Building is significant as one of the few remaining commercial buildings in Albina with a high level of integrity associated with the social and cultural fabric of the African American community,” states the building’s registration on the National Register of Historic Places.

The original metal cornice was removed sometime in the 1980s.  At some point, the storefront windows were hidden by sheets of plywood.  The building sat vacant from 2001 until 2011, when Damon Stoudamire, a prominent Portland Trail Blazer, bought the building and vowed to restore it.

 A Portland resident, Brandon Brown, saw an opportunity in restoring the Rinehart Building.  He partnered with his father Timothy P. Brown, to buy it from Stoudamire and undertake the elaborate task of restoring the Rinehart Building in accord with rigorous U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s preservation standards.  The restoration was completed in 2013.

Today the ground floor has been restored to two storefronts, and the upstairs has been renovated into five, one-bedroom apartments.  (One apartment includes the turret.)  Working from historic photographs, crafts people were able to recreate the metal cornice.  Damaged bricks were replaced.

No matter what success is achieved by Albina Vision, the Rinehart Building and a few other significant buildings will stand as a reminder of a vibrant community that used to be.  We will look an another important Albina landmark next week. 


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