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
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
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
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
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.
Does this Postal Building/Failing Building 510 sw 3rd Have Gibbs Surrounds too?ReplyDelete
Excellent observation. They surround the bays of three windows, rather than individual windows. An impressive building!ReplyDelete
"Gibbs Surrounds". A new one on me. I learned something tonight... I thought though that the term "Billion Dollar Loser" should be applied to the Life of Trump!ReplyDelete
I reflexively thought that as well. I'll be glad when we've moved past this particular historical moment...Delete
Definitely an 'east Pearl District' landmark and one of the best examples of early 20th century Beaux Arts influenced architecture. Thanks for the spotlight!ReplyDelete
Love it when I learn a new architectural term. Too bad that there aren't more examples of the Gibb Surrounds in Portland -- not many places where I can show off my newly-learned vocabulary! Thanks, Fred, for digging up this fascinating one.ReplyDelete
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