Saturday, January 30, 2021

Yes, the Burnside Bridge is (Most Likely) Toast


Multnomah County Images of a Potential New Bridge 

Members of two civic commissions that will review the looks of a new Burnside Bridge wondered if the existing historic bridge could be braced adequately against the rumblings of a major earthquake.  They got their answer on Jan. 25.

 In a word, nope.   Members of the Portland Landmarks Commission and the Portland Design Commission easily reached an informal consensus after a joint briefing where one of the chief bridge planners laid out numerous difficulties in trying to revamp the existing bridge built in 1926.

 “It’s a question that has come up quite a bit,” said Steve Drahota,  a consultant with the HDR engineering and planning firm that is a member of the Multnomah County bridge planning team.

 “I’m a bridge designer,” he said.  “I love the Burnside Bridge.”  Nevertheless, it was built in an era when engineers knew nothing about seismic bracing or the risk of a major quake in Portland.  The Burnside route with its through-routes to East Portland and West Portland has been chosen by regional planners to be the key bridge link needing to survive a severe Cascadian subduction zone earthquake.

From its telephone-pole pilings under the river to its deck, railings, bascule mechanisms, cute operator’s houses and supporting columns on both sides of the river, “There is no piece of the bridge we wouldn’t have to touch in some way,” Drahota said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge would be supporting columns at the east end of the bridge, where mushy, unstable soils reach as much as 200 feet below the surface.  This are the soils that are subject to liquefaction in a major quake, which Drahota said amounts to the wet mass turning to Jell-O or soup.  The better solution, he said, is a “long span” option in which most of the unstable soil would be avoided.

John Czarnecki, an architect and long-time preservation advocate, told the two commissions that he thought the analysis was one-sided against reinforcing the old bridge.  “We seem to be looking at reasons to destroy the bridge,” he said.

 Members of the two commissions, however, clearly were impressed by Drahota’s presentation.  A design commissioner, Zari Santner, said the presentation “addressed everything we raised that needed to be clarified.”  A landmarks commissioner, Andrew Smith, said trying to retrofit the old bridge would lead to a “Burnside Frankenstein and it still wouldn’t perform as it should.”

 Matthew Roman said he was no longer concerned about trying to save the bridge.  “I’m convinced from the presentation today that it’s not feasible.”

 Maya Foty, a landmarks commissioner, said the city needs to turn its attention to building an attractive bridge, even if it costs more money.  “Wouldn’t it be exciting to have a bridge people want to come to see?”  She mentioned the Sundial Bridge in Redding, California, as an example.

The proposed long-span new bridge would be about 20 feet wider than the current bridge, once it departs from the street grid.  The extra width would allow for wider vehicular lanes by about six inches each, and wider bicycle and pedestrian routes.

At Czarnecki's request, the Architectural Heritage Center has created a small committee to see if bridge rehabilitation options have been adequately considered.  If the bridge is to be demolished, the committee will offer suggestions on saving or commemorating the bridge's historical elements.

Steve Dotterrer, AHC  advocacy committee chair, said defeat of last November's regional transportation ballot measure could slow planning and construction timelines. 

There are many procedural hoops to clear as bridge planning continues.  At present, the start of a final design is expected in 2022, and construction is expected to last from 2024 to 2028.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Brewing a Great Save


For several months, it seemed that a 111-year old Craftsman-era church in Northeast Portland was headed for demolition and replacement by a five-story housing project.

But then two men wanting to build a small brewery learned about the potential sale of Metropolitan Community Church at 2400 N.E. Broadway and jumped in to change the outcome.  “Dustin (Harder) and I are really passionate about preserving historic places and we are really excited to bring this project to life,” said Brody Day, Harder’s partner.

The church has stood as a sentinel perched above the bush intersection of Northeast 24th and Broadway since 1909.  It was built with the best native materials of the time – old-growth fir timber and cedar shakes.  Large bracketed gables dominate the prime west and northern facades

Construction fences protect two sides of the building these days as work gets started on Steeplejack Brewery.  It will bring dramatic new life to the steepled church that housed four different congregations between its opening in 1909 and the departure of Metropolitan Community Church in 2019.

Finding new uses for vintage buildings that have outlived their original purposes pose great challenges for preservationists.  Yet churches offer interesting possibilities as houses, music venues -- and even as a  brewery. 

When ready for its first customers, presumably sometime next summer, the Steeplejack building will look virtually identical on the exterior, except for a new paint job and Plexiglas covers to protect the stained-glass windows. 

Although never designated as a city or federal landmark, the church is included on Portland’s historical inventory list.  Harden and Day had to work through the city’s design review process to change the building’s function from an assembly space (church) to a brewery.  “They didn’t want us to change the outside of the building,” Day said.  “That wasn’t a problem.  We didn’t intend to, anyway.”

Accommodating vintage buildings to meet modern accessibility requirements often is a challenge.  Day said they were fortunate that the Metropolitan Community Church, which owned the building from 1977 to 2019, added a lift on the Broadway side and remodeled bathroom access in the 1990s.

The interior of the church remained largely unchanged from its original days.  Large wooden trusses leave the ceiling open.  Day said wood salvaged from pews will be used to make tables and seating.  Plans call for the interior of the steeple to be opened to view so people can see the craftsmanship involved in its construction with old-growth timber.

 The Steeplejack Brewery moniker comes from the traditional name of the worker -- steeplejack -- who built or repaired steeples or smokestacks at dangerous heights.     

Harder and Day, who first became interested in beer as students studying overseas in the 1980s, originally thought of trying to find inexpensive warehouse space for a brewery.  Then they learned that the 1909 church was for sale.  The church was negotiating with a housing developer when the prospective brewers arrived.  Day said the fact that they would keep and preserve the building was important to the Metropolitan Community Church as sellers.

 While original construction was underway in October, 1909, President William H. Taft visited Portland and showed up to lay the cornerstone for what was to become the new First Universal Life Church of Good Tidings. 

Taft himself was a Unitarian, but during his presidency he engaged in cornerstone ceremonies for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish institutions.  An estimated 20,000 people swarmed into the Irvington neighborhood to see him, according to the Oregon Journal newspaper, with people peering from trees, rooftops and crammed streets. Taft told the crowd that he believed in separation of church and state, but he said religion and moral uplift were vital to improving society. 

In more than a century, the church also was home to Grace English Lutheran Church, First Church of Divine Science and finally, Metropolitan Community Church.

The Steeplejack project comes at a difficult time for eating and drinking establishments.  COVID-19 has crippled many restaurants, and what may have been a surfeit of craft brewers has led to the closure of some breweries. 

Day said Steeplejack will sell its own beers, in addition to providing taps from other Oregon and Washington brewers.  “The dining and beer culture in Portland has been a really special thing,” he said.  "It's still a vibrant culture."  Even with recent losses, Day and Harder have faith in the region's beer-making and drinking capacity. 

One hopes that an interesting building, tastefully restored and adapted to its new use, will be a helpful attraction.   


Saturday, January 16, 2021

Will WeWork survive at the Custom House?

Several years ago, people who admire Portland’s grand old buildings were pleased that the U.S. Custom House, designed along the lines of an Italian Renaissance palace, finished in 1901, had found new life as a private office building.

Now what was once the young city’s most elegant public building finds itself a bit player in a disappointing chapter of modern venture capitalism.  While no one is making predictions just yet, it is possible that the stately historic building could be headed for yet another change in service.

Stepping back, it is amazing to think that a frontier city only 50 years old could see a building such as this come to grace its neighborhood at 220 NW 8th Ave., facing on the North Park Blocks.  James Knox Taylor, supervising architect for the U.S. Department of Treasury, is always listed as the primary architect.  But given the fact that Taylor’s name is mentioned in connection with several dozen federal buildings, the local architect, Edgar Lazarus, no doubt played a key role.

 Lazarus practiced in Portland in fits and starts during 45 years.  His best known building, Vista House at Crown Point overlooking the Columbia River, is a deservedly well-loved public monument with spectacular views high above one of the nation’s great rivers.

 The Custom House is an incredibly elaborate building, with all sorts of columns and decorations.  The front entry, with a courtyard faced with a granite loggia with tall arched openings and a scrolled parapet, tells that this is no ordinary structure.  Another of the building’s many notable features are the so-called “Gibbs surrounds,” a layering of architectural ornament along the sides of the major rectangular windows, in addition to the sills and lintels. 

  The technique is named for James Gibbs, an English 18th Century architect who pioneered the concept for highlighting doors and windows.  The technique has not been used frequently in Portland, and the Custom House is clearly the city’s best example.

South facade shows Gibbs surrounds on second and third floor windows

 The Customs Bureau left the building in 1968 to move into a former Post Office building nearby.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then moved in, and remained until 2004.  Like many government buildings, various attempts at modernization ruined many interior details, but the grand vestibule and four-story iron stairway remained untouched, as well as many lesser design elements.

 The Custom House was sold into private ownership in 2012 and again in 2017.  Interior renovations by Portland’s GBD Architecture removed some of the offending renovations and helped recapture much of the building’s original interior feel.

In 2015, WeWork, a New York-based office-sharing company with grandiose ambitions, leased the Custom House and began offing spaces as small as a single desk to freelance workers and small businesses.  Since its inception in 2010, WeWork accumulated leases on more than 800 properties around the world and adapted them to the office-sharing format, including availability of meeting rooms and social spaces for internal gatherings.

 Trouble is, WeWork has never turned a profit -- or even come close.  It has been sustained with literally hundreds of millions of dollars from venture capital firms, all hoping to cash out with big profits when stock ultimately was sold to the public.  In retrospect, business analysts suggest that WeWork’s board didn’t supervise the eccentric behavior, big spending and grandiose non-business ambitions of WeWork’s founder, Adam Neumann.

 In 2019, investment bankers reviewed WeWork’s preliminary documents for the initial public offering.  In light of their negative reactions, WeWork withdrew the proposed offering.  The venture capitalists then convinced Adam Neumann to leave management, in return for a payout amounting to more than $1 billion.

 Details are available in a new book, “Billion Dollar Loser,’ by Reeves Wiedeman.  A Nov. 30 article in the New Yorker magazine, "The Enablers," by Charles Duhigg, criticizes the conduct of venture capitalists involved with WeWork. 

 The pandemic is another challenge for WeWork arising not long after the IPO implosion.  Freelancers and small entrepreneurs started to find that working from home was a better option; social distancing had an impact on how closely desks could be placed.

 New managers at WeWork are not giving up, however.  Their focus has switched to recruiting established corporations that might need flexible work space or satellite offices in other cities.

 How well the Portland Custom House location stacks up in the WeWork universe is not known.  The company’s website says space is available.  The front gate is patrolled by a security guard, limiting one’s ability walk in and find a list of occupants.  The building is owned by a real estate investment firm in Santa Monica, Calif.

 Whether it is WeWork or some subsequent occupant or owner, one hopes that the building’s architectural beauty and its role in Portland history can remain undiminished and well-maintained.


Saturday, January 9, 2021

Phoenix Rising on Foster


As Southeast Foster Road angles through a working-class section of Portland, there are not a lot of buildings that attract attention based solely on their architecture.  There is one building, however, that indisputably draws the eye.  

Matt Froman is trying hard to restore it.  “I guess I’m a sucker for old buildings,” he says.  “They don’t build them like this anymore.”

When Froman mentions his restoration project to acquaintances, they often reply, “You mean the building with the curve?” 

Yes.  The former Phoenix Pharmacy, built in 1922 by John Leach, sits on a trapezoidal site at S.E. 67th and Foster.  The architect, whose identity is yet to be revealed by historical research, took the acute angle at that intersection and molded the two-story brick wall in a gentle curve around the corner.  It was a pleasing architectural decision that commands attention no matter how fast one motors down Foster.

The old pharmacy is an example of how a noticeable vintage building creates a special sense of place for a neighborhood.  Anyone who lives in the vicinity or drives the street periodically knows immediately, "This is Foster Road." 

Leach had entered the pharmacy business in 1911, when Foster was muddy and rutted. He proved his allegiance to the neighborhood by erecting his new building 11 years later.  “It was a poor man’s district,” he told a newspaper reporter late in his life, “but (it is) where I belonged, for I liked working people and was one of them.”

Long after he retired, Leach gave the building to the YMCA to be sold to raise money for a neighborhood Y.  Leach and his wife, Lilla, a respected botanist, also donated their home and 17 acres of horticultural gardens to the City of Portland.  Today Leach Botanical Gardens is operated by the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation.

For approximately 20 years after the pharmacy closed,  the building was home to Allied Video, a seller of video tapes and reconditioned telephones, until its sale in 1999 to Robert (Buck) Froman, Matt Froman’s father. 

Buck Froman’s plans for using the building never materialized, and in 2012 he agreed with his son’s goal of restoring it to a commercial space on the ground floor with offices above. The ground floor has been used for storage by Robert Froman’s business, Buck’s Wood Stoves, located nearby.  Matt Froman partnered in 2018 with local preservationists Rich Michaelson and Karen Karlsson, and finally launched preservation work in 2020.

“It has been vacant so long, it needs a lot of upgrades,” Froman said.

Construction of a new roof is underway.  Froman hopes by summer the project will advance to replacing interior plumbing and wiring.  At that point, he hopes to be able to begin discussions with potential tenants.  Final renovation of the ground floor likely will depend on the needs of the tenant.

The upper floor will be restored for offices.

 Froman intends to be a landlord rather than operating a business within the building himself.  He thinks the ground floor could be of interest to a brew pub or perhaps a music venue or a retailer.  If all goes according to plan, when the renovation is finished he will refinance the building and buy out Michaelson and Karlsson.

As occurs with many restoration projects, work takes longer than expected and proves more expensive.  Froman knew from the start there likely would be a larger net return by tearing down the Phoenix and building something like apartments.  He chose to take a stand for preservation, instead.   He has taken out loans against his residence to help with financing.

Froman doesn’t want to lose the history of the building and its landmark status on Foster Road.  He appreciates that significant old buildings play a continuing role in the neighborhood's identity.  Further, he not want to lose the Froman family connection with it. “We are trying to do something for the community,” he said.  “It’s the right thing to do.  The goal is to keep it in the Froman family for generations.” 


There is about a week left to submit written testimony, no matter how brief, to support the nomination of Portland's South Park Blocks to the National Register of Historic Places. One of the city's oldest parks is eminently worthy of the honor. 

Comments can be submitted to:


Saturday, January 2, 2021

Help Honor the South Park Blocks

                        (National Register Nomination Form, South Park Blocks)

After 10 months of intense research and writing by a small cadre of volunteers, a nomination aimed at listing the South Park Blocks on the National Register of Historic Places has achieved its first major milestone.

Robert Olguin, Oregon’s state historic preservation officer, has accepted the 100-page nomination from the Downtown Neighborhood Association for consideration by the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation in February. 

If supported by the state committee and by the Portland Landmarks Commission, the nomination would be sent to the U.S. Department of Interior for final consideration and probable listing on the National Register.

“This park is such an obvious landmark for Portland, it is long overdue to correct an obvious oversight,” said Story Swett, a Portland architect who played a major role in preparing the nomination form.  “A formal designation may help motivate retention of this valuable public space.”

 Given its lengthy history and beloved green space in Portland's dense urban heart, one would think that approval would be both a slam dunk and a major victory for the preservation community.  Comments from citizens who love the blocks, using addresses listed below, could prove helpful.   

The 12 blocks, extending from S.W. Salmon to Jackson Streets between S.W. Park East and S.W Park Avenue West are among the oldest public spaces in Portland.  They were donated by pioneer entrepreneur Daniel Lownsdale in 1852, and were landscaped in 1877 under the direction of horticulturalist Louis Pfunder.  Pfunder’s basic design, still clearly evident on many of the blocks today, included five parallel rows of deciduous trees – mostly elms – above a carpet of grass and flower beds.

 Although the Portland Bureau of Parks had recommended a national listing for the South Parks Blocks on a few occasions in the past, the bureau for whatever reasons never followed through.  The Downtown Neighborhood Association over a year ago began discussions that led to the nomination effort.

 The detailed nomination form includes extensive discussion about the history of Portland parks, the role of the South Park Blocks in civic life, and the significance of Pfunder’s landscape design.  Swett and Brooke Best, a historic resources consultant, were the primary writers, with research assistance from Roberta Cation and Leslie Hutchinson.  Research was hampered at times by the closure of libraries during the pandemic.

 Citizens have until Jan. 15 to submit comments in advance of the State Advisory Committee’s hearing.  Comments can be submitted by mail to:

 Robert Olguin

Oregon Parks and Recreation Department 

State Historic Preservation Office

725 Summer Street NE, Suite C

Salem, OR 97301

or by email at:

 Comments to the Portland Landmarks Commission can be sent to:

                            (National Register Nomination Form, South Park Blocks)

 Over its many decades, the South Park Blocks have attracted Portland State University, several cultural institutions, churches and high-rise apartments as surrounding neighbors.  One of the park’s primary functions has been to provide quiet green space for contemplation, walking, picnics and small gatherings.

 “The South Park Blocks (as a single park) is defined by its restrained simplicity and simple, direct material palette,” the nomination states.  “Pfunder’s original design intent is visible in the promenade plan and axial planting layout, featuring a unifying canopy of mature, deciduous trees.”

 “Another defining characteristic of the park blocks is the paved plaza areas that provide a place for communal gathering and private contemplation. Public monuments, artwork, plaques and memorials, and bench seating have been added over the years.”

 Several cross streets toward the southern end of the park have been closed to vehicles, making that end of the park a public open space for the PSU campus.  Blocks at both ends of the park are used from time to time for farmers’ markets.

 The nomination notes that many small changes have occurred over the years.  Regardless, “Overall, the South Park Blocks retains its original shape, much of its historic pedestrian circulation pattern, significant public monuments and sculptures, as well as its major character-defining features. The park’s integrity of materials and workmanship have been slightly diminished, due to the addition of non-historic features (including light standards, cruciform walkways, park furniture and public art) on some blocks.”

Here are several reasons why Portlanders love the South Park Blocks.  If you support the National Register Nomination, select some that are important to you to include in your comments. 

· Beauty of the towering arches of mature trees

. Green spaces for quiet in the midst of the big city

. Shade in the summer, more sunlight in the winter; vivid colors in the fall

. A place for meeting friends

· Farmers markets

· Seasonal gardens and flowers

· Appreciation of public art

· Students studying in the grass

· Graduation ceremonies

· Young children playing

· Long promenade walks on separated paths with long views,

· Quiet mid-day lunch spots

You can read the entire nomination form here: