Saturday, May 29, 2021

Old Blanchet House: Soon To Be Gone?


Old Blanchet House, right

With little warning, Portland’s hardy band of architectural preservationists finds itself facing the nasty echo of a battle that was lost on the same Portland block 11 years ago – involving the same cast of characters.

The building at risk is the old Blanchet House of Hospitality, which a leading preservation advocate admits is a “sad and ugly little building that presents a great challenge.”

Unimpressive as it may be, the little three-story building that dates to approximately 1906 is a contributing element  in the New Chinatown-Japantown National Historic District – and the last one remaining on the its block.  If it is scraped away, the block could be removed from the district and would be a potential blow to the viability of the whole district’s historical designation.

The Blanchet House, a social service agency that provides free meals to the impoverished and works with people trying to overcome drug or alcohol addiction, moved into a new building on the same block in 2012.  That was after the City Council in 2010 approved demolition of the old Kiernan Building – better known most recently as the Dirty Duck Tavern – to make way the new Blanchet House.

It was clear in 2010 that the old Blanchet House was in jeopardy.  Now, still under Blanchet House ownership, the non-profit agency has applied for permission to demolish it. 

Blanchet’s request is unusual.  The usual procedure when the City Council is asked to demolish a historic building is to compare the virtues of the historic resource against the virtues of the proposed new use.  That method was followed when the Dirty Duck was demolished in favor of the new Blanchet House.

But this time, the Blanchet House has not proposed a new use.  It claims that demolition is appropriate because the old building has no viable economic value.

During the past decade, Prosper Portland – the city development agency known earlier as the Portland Development Commission – was supposed to be considering new potential uses for the old Blanchet, since it had put together a deal to obtain the new Blanchet site.  Alas, nothing has happened.

Peggy Moretti, the former executive director of Restore Oregon, said there is no desire to cast aspersions on Blanchet House, since its human services are valued by the neighborhood and city.

But she said scraping the building does a disservice to its historic value and importance.  “It is one of the rare buildings with great significance to the AAPI (Asian-American Pacific Islander) community,” she said.  “It should be respected better than it has been.”

Given the recent surge in interest in America's multicultural heritage. Moretti said preservation needs to be about more than "pretty buildings" and reflect cultural history.  As mentioned earlier, the old Blanchet House is not a special architectural gem.

The building was operated as the Yamaguchi Hotel until 1931, and later as another hotel with other ground-floor used.  For many years it was used by a prominent Japanese midwife.

Blanchet House acquired the building in 1952 and used it to serve meals and house some tenants undergoing drug and alcohol rehab.  It was one of a few so-called “soup kitchens” in the neighborhood where eaters lined up around the block for free meals.

New Blanchet House, left; old Blanchet House, right

Otherwise, the number of diners served and people housed is roughly the same as in the old building.  The new building includes interior waiting space to eliminate the appearance of lines.

 The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission will hear testimony on June 14 with a goal of making a recommendation on the demolition permit to the City Council.  The council could consider the case as early as June 30.

In the meantime, Rick Michaelson, one of Portland’s foremost preservation advocates and historic building renovators, has suggested asking for a six month delay on the demolition request, and urging  Prosper Portland to find creative alternatives.

Moretti said the goal is not to prevent new development on the block, but to find a way to reflect its cultural history.

  ------Fred Leeson

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Saturday, May 22, 2021

Windows, Windows.... (NOT Microsoft)


Irritated by drafts and sometimes smoky air infiltrating their widows, owners of a nice old home in Irvington thought their best option was to replace them with new top quality windows. 

To their surprise, the City of Portland said…not so fast.

Because the 114-year old home is in the Irvington Historic District, the city is fussy about swapping out windows in historic structures.  The concern is echoed in districts throughout the country because window sash sizes, shapes and depths contribute to the overall character of historic facades. 

The lesson here applies to almost any older house, whether it is in a historic district or not:  Repair in most cases is a cheaper, longer-lasting option than replacement.  This realization gets lost in the steady drumbeat of advertisements for replacement windows on many media platforms. 

 While we’re at it, we should say that the worst possibilities as replacements are the widely-advertised vinyl windows that often warp under prolonged sunshine exposure.

 The beauty of old windows is that they were made from old-growth timber that is no longer available.  A skilled window repair craftsperson can take old windows apart, splice in new wood for parts that may be rotted, and prepare the sash to accept new double-paned glass.

 “If they are pre-war windows, you can’t buy quality like that anymore,” said Kristen Minor, chair of the Portland Landmarks Commission. 

 Maya Foty, is a Landmarks Commission member and an architect who concentrates on preservation projects.  She said experience shows restoring  historic windows is often less expensive than buying replacements.  “It’s hard to argue that replacement gets you better quality,” she said.

 Another option available to homeowners wanting to improve window insulation and reduce drafts is an interior storm window that presses into place and seals the edges tightly with compression tubing.  These interior storms are invisible from the outside, thus preserving historic appearances.

 Preserve Montana, a preservation advocate in the state where weather is more severe than Western Oregon, recently reported the following on window replacements:

 Research has shown that homeowners never recoup the amount the amount of money spent on window replacement during their lifetime, and that the replacement windows do not last as long as the better built historic windows.

 “As any homeowner can attest, the seals on double-glazed windows can fail within 10 years of installation, resulting in condensation forming between the panes. Weatherstripping cracks off, leaving gaps around the window that allow cold air to blow in. And when is the last time you saw a window repair company that you could call to fix them? These windows were created with obsolescence in mind, unlike historic windows.”

 The discussion over repair versus replacement could well come before the Portland City Council this fall.  City agencies are trying to revamp Portland’s historic code regulations.  The Planning and Sustainability Commission in charge of recommending revisions tentatively has suggested much wider use of window replacements on buildings in historic districts.  

 During a work session with the planning commission, Minor, the landmarks chair, presented the case that repairs are usually less expensive and provide as good or better results.  She was disappointed in the Planning Commission's reaction.  “I just don’t think they got it,” she said.

 The owners of the house in Irvington apparently did get the message.  They have dropped their appeal that sought approval for the new replacements.

---Fred Leeson

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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Going, Going....Gone (Sorry, Elmer)


For 90 years, this gabled, shingled building served as clubhouse for the Broadmoor Golf Course, an 18-hole public course on N.E. Columbia Boulevard.  The family-owned course closed for good last fall. The doors and windows were boarded up. 

Today, the site of the old clubhouse is bare earth.  Scraped.  Over and done. 

 The land is zoned both industrial and open space.  Eventually, the frontage on Columbia Boulevard will converted to some industrial use,, like an exciting parking lot for big trucks, or a tasteful concrete warehouse with no employees.  Meanwhile, the northern portion of the old golf course will be retained as wetlands.  The Columbia Slough is no longer an intimidating water hazard for middling golfers. 

  When the huge Amazon distribution building was erected on the site of the old Portland Meadows horse track, its developers had to compensate for the wetlands lost as part of that project; a portion of the former golf course fulfills that requirement.

 The Broadmoor clubhouse was one of the few buildings designed by Elmer Feig that was NOT an apartment building.  During the 1920s, a decade of fast growth in Portland, Feig designed at least 33 apartment buildings, most of which survive.   Some of them are among the interesting of his era. 

Technically, Feig never was a licensed architect.  He had studied architecture at the University of Oregon, and worked for the city as a plans inspector from 1922 to 1927.  He operated an architecture office in Portland until 1935, when the Depression had essentially closed the construction business.

Feig then moved to Orlando, Florida, where he worked as a construction supervisor.  He retired to Yamhill County in 1965, and died three years later.

 While none of Feig’s apartments are exact duplications, he had design elements that he used frequently.  He liked fireplaces and heavy brocaded plaster finishes in his lobbies, even if the fireplaces were only decorative.  He liked colorful Spanish tiles on lobby floors.  Apartments almost invariably had coved ceilings and brocaded plaster walls; kitchens had many built-in cupboards.

Here are a few of Feig’s interesting apartments:

 Aronson Court Apartments, 1930.  Romanesque arches and turret towers were intended to capture “old world charm.” 

Aronson lobby

The lobby has been maintained in original condition.  No matter if the weather is sunny or rainy, when people enter here they know they are in…a different place.


Zenabe Court Apartments, 1929.  Some of Feig’s designs were like paired boxes, with a deeply-recessed entry way.  He often used corded cast stone to surround doors or windows.  The candle-like decorations also occurred often.


The recessed lobby provides an elegant entry passage, but requires extra steps to get to a unit.

 Irving Manor, 1928.  One of Feig’s smaller buildings.  Many of his doorway designs with Romanesque arches were similar to this on his smaller apartments. 


Flanders Apartments, 1930.  One of his larger designs shows Feig’s preferred decorative ornaments.  Regrettably from a visual standpoint, the fire escapes had to be added later.

The Depression ended Feig's career as an apartment designer in Portland.  Now eight and nine decades later, many of the current tenants love his buildings.  His Broadmoor golf clubhouse, however, is history.

------Fred Leeson

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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Remembering Lee Gray Holden (2)


Northwest Portland

We continue in this article to look at fire stations designed by Lee Gray Holden, a Portland Fire Bureau battalion chief and later fire chief and amateur architect who designed 24 fire stations – some of them more than once – between 1912 and 1928.

It is said that 11 buildings remain, and only two continue to be functioning elements of the Fire Bureau.  Experts would not rate Holden as a great architect, but many of his buildings have survived for other uses because the nearby communities loved them and wanted them saved.  They are excellent examples of how interesting buildings can become important through time and create memorable senses of specific places.

The fire station above, erected in 1912, was one of four double-bay fire stations using clinker bricks to give a variegated texture.  This station in Northwest Portland has been masterfully restored as a single family house.  The Romanesque arch, bracketed cornice and geometric ornaments give these stations lasting appeal.  In this case, Holden accentuated the arch and the second-floor windows with cream-colored brick. 

Historic Kenton Firehouse

In 1913, Holden designed a smaller one-bay station in Kenton.  He applied geometric brick decorations to the stucco façade and firmly marked the building’s sides with brick quoins.  This station fell into disrepair for many years after the Fire Bureau left it, but citizens convinced the city to restore and save it.  Today it is home for the North Portland Citizens’ Committee and a community lending “library” for tools.

 Holden’s other architectural distinction was designing “bungalow” stations intended to fit comfortably into residential neighborhoods.  We looked last week at the first of these built in 1912 in Irvington.  The next year, Holden revised his bungalow template to include a taller gable and the porch supported by simple Doric columns. The taller roof form presumably opened some useable space on the second floor.

 By my count, seven of the "second generation" bungalow stations remain in existence. Two of the bungalows built in 1927 in Portland Heights and Lents remain in active service.  The Portland Heights station is used only by an emergency medical vehicle, while the Lents station had a shed-roofed addition erected to house larger vehicles.

Portland Heights (Portland Fire Bureau photo)

After reading last week's article, Randy Leonard, a former Portland city commissioner and former Fire Bureau lieutenant, brought to mind another bungalow station built in 1913 that clearly was a Holden design.  After it was no longer useable as a fire station, the Portland Firefighters Association acquired it for its union office, a function it still retains.

Holden added bungalow stations in Sellwood in 1920 and in Woodstock in 1928.  After fire equipment grew larger, the Woodstock building was saved by the city as the Woodstock Community Center.  The Sellwood station is now owned by the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League neighborhood association.  It also is used for public purposes.

(City of Portland photo)

The final Holden design was erected in 1929 in the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood, about a year after he retired as fire chief.  It subsequently was purchased and is operated by the non-profit Oregon Stamp Society.   The designs of these final bungalow stations are remarkably similar; clearly, Holden came up with a concept that was functional for the needs of the era.

Fire Station 7
 The last station we mention is Holden’s largest, built in the Buckman neighborhood in 1927.  Fire Station 7 was designed to be the administrative headquarters for East Portland and the site for East Portland fire vehicle maintenance.  The second floor contained living quarters.

Fire Station 7 remained in service into the 1980s, when it was sold and became an automobile repair shop for many years.  It was acquired, restored and converted to offices in 2010 by the late Art DeMuro, a key preservation figure before his sudden and sad demise.  

 After his retirement in 1928, Holden moved to Seaside in 1939. He returned to Portland in 1943.  While visiting Fire Station 7, Holden suffered a stroke that proved fatal.  He was 77. 

Holden was a progressive fire administrator in other ways, too.  He initiated fire boats on the Willamette River; created first-response medical cars;  and trained all firefighters in first aid.  While those achievements are easily forgotten, his buildings live on.


Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Fire(s) Last Time


Irvington Fire Station (Portland Archives)

Lee Gray Holden might be the most important fireman in Portland history, given that his “amateur” architectural works still survive with many uses in several neighborhoods.

Holden, who was fire chief from 1923 to his retirement in 1927, designed 24 fire stations during his  tenure, apparently some of them more than once.  His stations were built between 1912 and 1929. 

 How many remain is not perfectly clear, but the best guess appears to be 11.  Holden’s tenure was notable also for adding Portland’s first fire boats and creating an emergency “squad wagon” for saving lives.  He also required all firefighters to learn first aid.

Holden started his fire career in 1885.  He had breaks in service from 1896 to 1898 and again from 1908 to 1911 before returning to the Fire Bureau to begin building new stations.   His later years saw the transition from horse-drawn wagons to motorized fire engines.  

 One of Holden’s earliest fire station designs was built in 1912 in Irvington.  Residents were opposed to a fire station that wouldn’t blend into their residential neighborhood, so Holden designed a single-bay station that came to be known nationally as the first “bungalow” fire station. 

 As the historic image above shows, the engine bay was hidden by two doors decorated with planter boxes that swung outward.  Both the brick building and its front porch had gable roofs.  There was decorative  water fountain in the front yard that later was removed and placed in front of a mansion at 1914 NE 22nd Ave., where it remains today.

 Many of Holden’s designs were outgrown in following decades as larger fire engines outgrew the stations’ bays.   Fortunately, several of these buildings have survived with new lives as a community center, neighborhood office and a homes for non-profit agencies. 


The contemporary view of the Irving station above shows how the engine bay was bricked over to create interior office space.    The building is now the headquarters of Project Linkage, a nonprofit agency that provides rides for seniors and passengers with disabilities.

 Holden followed the Irvington building in 1913 with three, two-story, double-bay stations.  Two shown here have clink brick facades that give an engaging, historic, variegated appearance.  The designs  appear to be close to identical with bracketed cornices, parapets and the charming romanesque arches on the second floors. 


The station at 1425 N.W. Glisan had been headed for demolition as part of a project including a large new residential building.  Late in the planning, a fortunate decision was made to save the building and let it sit in an urban plaza. For many years the station housed a popular restaurant; one hopes that it might someday again.  One unsettling consequence is that Holden designed the building only with a street façade, since there were neighboring buildings on the east and west sides.  With its neighbors long gone, the station looks a bit naked with two sides that were never intended to be exposed to view.


Perhaps the saddest of Holden’s surviving stations is located at N.W. Third and Glisan Street, where it has been boarded up for years and is falling into worse and worse condition.  The Yellow Line Max train makes a tight turn near the front of the building as the train finishes its descent from the Steel Bridge.

 This 1913 station is a good example of Holden’s affection for clinker brick on more than just the front façade.  The building was used as an architectural office after its tenure as a fire station, but it has been owned for many years by the city’s development agency.  Whether it has a future other than a deteriorating monument to an earlier era is unknown.

 We shall take a lot at additional Holden stations in a future post.  You will learn that Holden died in 1943 -- ironically, sadly -- soon after visiting the biggest station he ever designed. 

--Fred Leeson