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.



  1. Does this Postal Building/Failing Building 510 sw 3rd Have Gibbs Surrounds too?

  2. Excellent observation. They surround the bays of three windows, rather than individual windows. An impressive building!

  3. "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!

    1. I reflexively thought that as well. I'll be glad when we've moved past this particular historical moment...

  4. Definitely an 'east Pearl District' landmark and one of the best examples of early 20th century Beaux Arts influenced architecture. Thanks for the spotlight!

  5. 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.

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