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. 

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1 comment:

  1. This was our neighborhood pharmacy in my early childhood, before Phoenix Pharmacy moved to a new location across Foster. I remember being impressed with this curved building and have sadly watched its decline. Thanks to Mr. Froman for preserving this piece of Southeast Portland history.