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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