Saturday, June 26, 2021



Southern facade facing N.E. Couch St.

Given the perpetual challenges to our architectural history and public spaces, it's a pleasure to look at  excellent outcomes.

Chances are, few buildings in Portland have as many odd, quirky and sometimes funny historical connections as the 109-year-old KEX Hotel, nee Alco/Vivian Apartments, at 100 N.E.  Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Similarly, chances are unlikely that the three-story “streetcar era” building stands out in your mind.  

The former mixed-use retail and residential building is a somewhat prosaic kind of structure that used to dot Portland’s busiest streetcar stops: ground-floor retail with apartments above.  This one originally had 26 units when it opened in 1912. It housed some interesting commercial tenants over the years -- and now is the home of another unusual enterprise.  

 The building sat near the busy intersection of the Burnside and Union Avenue streetcar lines.  Its apartments were attractive for residents wanting to live close to streetcar lines, which were the major form of transportation at the time.   Fortunately, this “urban fabric” building has been nicely renovated to serve a new and unusual use.

There is so much that could be said about this building, perhaps the most direct way is through bullet points:

  • ·         The architecture firm that drafted the original plans was headed by E.B MacNaughton, a name that means little in the city’s architectural history.
  • ·         The same year the Alco was finished, MacNaughton was overseeing a renovation project at the 10 story Marquam Grand Building downtown.  Alas, the center bay of the Marquam collapsed one night in 1912 with little warning.  Fortunately, no one was killed or injured.  MacNaughton was fired from the project.
  • ·         In retrospect, the collapse of the Marquam was attributed to poor-quality bricks used in the original construction in 1892.  MacNaughton’s work was not a factor in the debacle.
  • ·         MacNaughton later left architecture to become a banker, and ultimately president of the First National Bank.  He was remembered by Portland historian E. Kimbark MacColl as one of the city’s most reputable businessmen of his era.
  • ·         MacNaughton’s career also included serving as president of Reed College from 1948-52, and board chairman of the Oregonian Publishing Company from 1947 to 1950.  His tenure at the newspaper ended with its sale to Samuel Newhouse. Ironically, the Oregonian at the time of the sale was owned by the same family that owned the Marquam Grand and fired MacNaughton in 1912. 
  • ·         A subsequent owner of the Alco Apartments changed the name to Vivian Apartments, in honor of a daughter.
Original canopy protected the apartment entrance.  Cornice is pressed metal 

  • ·         Longstanding tenants on the ground floor included the Thurlow Glove Shop, from 1934 to 1987, and Artistic Taxidermy, from 1941-90.  Customers could bring their own deer or elk skins to Thurlow or purchase ready-made gloves of Thurlow’s patented design.
  • ·         Another longstanding tenant was Fairly Honest Bill’s, a second-hand shop.  The name may have achieved a new standard for truth-in-advertising.  Bill’s sidewalk sandwich board said, “If this sign be here, we be open.”
  • ·         Hennebery Eddy Architects completed a major restoration of the building in 2019, cleaning up renovations of 1939 and 1956 that changed some of the original appearance.  The new tenant: KEX Hotel.
  • ·         KEX has nothing to do with the Portland radio station using the same letters.  The word is Icelandic for “biscuit,” which somehow relates to the hotel owners’ original plans devised in Reykjavik.  (Trust me.)
  • ·         The hotel features private rooms as well as hostel-like communal sleeping quarters in bunks ranging from two to 16 people per room.  The hotel has tried to use environmentally-friendly finishes and furnishings.  A fashionably elegant restaurant and bar is on the main floor, and the basement contains food-storage and cooking facilities for tenants.

·         Quirky but sad:  A few months after its opening, the pandemic began interfering greatly with normal operations.  When conditions allow,  perhaps we can all enjoy a nice cold drink of something Icelandic and offer a toast to a successful renovation.

                ---Fred Leeson

Update  on the original Blanchet House of Hospitality:  The Portland City Council will consider on June 30 a request to demolish the 3-story building erected approximately in 1906.  Some of the preservation community's superstars opposed the demolition with compelling before the Historic Landmarks Commission earlier this month. A prediction:  The council will provide more time to consider possibilities for saving all or parts of the building, which played a key role in the early era of Japanese-Americans in Portland. 

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Saturday, June 19, 2021

So: What About Those Trees on the South Park Blocks?


Any discussion about the proposed master plan for Portland’s South Park Blocks settles to a single issue: How many of the 325 trees on the 12 blocks will or will not be lost? .

 What makes the topic difficult is the clear contradiction between verbiage in the South Parks Blocks Master Plan and what the plan’s own charts demonstrate.  One independent effort to determine how many trees are at risk came up with a total of 86, but acknowledged that parts of the plan are difficult to interpret. 

 For starters, look at a document provided by an arborist who consulted on the plan for the city.  This is the same consultant who reported in 2019 that 97 percent of the parks trees are healthy. The report suggests 26 trees for removal and another 65 for “optional removal.”


The next chart shows characteristic tree spacing in the Cultural District, the six northern blocks.  All of these blocks would be included in the proposed Green Loop for bicycles and scooters.  The chart shows a reduction per block from 42 to 27 trees, including the large row of elms adjacent to the bike paths.  Those elms apparently would be replaced with smaller trees. 



The “tree succession plan” in the Cultural District, shown below,  makes it clear the long-term consequence: The central row of the five current rows is eliminated, and only two of the five would remain as they are recognized today.  These charts are included because some of my readers last week insisted no trees would be removed. 


These charts make it difficult to accept the written report that says “no healthy trees” would be removed.

 It is interesting to note that in 2005, the Parks Bureau issued a publication titled, “South Park Blocks: Benefits of Trees.”  Jerry Poracsky, a PSU geography professor, wrote, in part, “The most prominent feature of the area is the trees…the predominant trees of the South Park Blocks are American elms and it is these large, graceful sentinels that do most to create the special character of the area…

 “Like a rough-hewn colonnade, five rows of trees stretch the length of the twelve blocks, creating a high canopy that shelters the grass, walkways, and benches below. From the center, looking either to the north or south between any two rows of trees, you have a vista down a long, green, arched tunnel narrowing into an indistinct vanishing point blocks away.”

“The aesthetic value is hard to measure…What price can you put on the experience of sitting in the South Park Blocks on a warm summer afternoon, gazing down long rows of majestic American elms? The feelings of relaxation and enjoyment one experiences in such a beautiful, treed urban green space just cannot be duplicated.”

 But they CAN be seriously impaired.

-----Fred Leeson

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Assault on the South Park Blocks


Yellow ribbons indicate some of  the trees that would be removed in the new plan.  Black line on right shows location of bicycle lanes. (William J. Hawkins III photo)

 The Portland City Council will be asked on July 7 to degrade the boundaries and historic landscape of the South Park Blocks, a strip of 12 narrow blocks that represent one of the city’s oldest and most beloved parks. 

The proposal from the Portland Bureau of Parks is expected to draw substantial criticism, including from a heavyweight group of “concerned citizens” that counts among their number former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg and many others with political and reputable connections to Portland history.

A detailed study by these citizens suggest that the plan would eliminate 86 of the park’s current 325 trees, a 26 percent reduction.  Many would be sacrificed to make way for the “Green Loop” two-way bicycle lanes along 10 of the 12 blocks.  From its earliest planting of deciduous trees in 1877, the park has never been considered as a thoroughfare for any kind of vehicles.

The bicycle lanes would reduce the width of 10 of the 12 park blocks by about 15 feet, for a total park loss of 17,400 square feet.  The plan’s map, shown below, makes it difficult to reconcile with the following statement in the plan:  “While this master plan does not advocate removing any mature healthy trees, it is understood that all trees have a life span and that over time existing trees will need to be replaced when they become hazardous or simply reach the end of their lives…”

Green Loop shown in Master Plan

Ironically, the Parks Bureau contends that the bike lanes fall within the right-of-way of S.W Park Avenue West, and thus do not impinge on the park’s dimensions.  However, the current blocks measure 124 feet wide; if the Parks Bureau is correct about the right-of-way, then big trees and grass have lived there for many, many decades.

“There is a striking difference between what the Master Plan says narratively and what it entails,” according to the citizen’s report.  “The plan works to convince the reader that trees will not be removed but in fact the plan will hasten their demise in multiple ways.”  The plan's long-range vision would remove most of the central aisle of trees on several blocks. 

Drawing by William J. Hawkins III shows bike lanes in red; blue dotted line is how the Parks Bureau interprets the park's boundaries.   Black line shows current boundaries. 

The Master Plan does not specify a new planting plan, but urges the addition of at least some conifers that would infringe on winter-time sunlight in the park.

The blocks were planted in 1877 with five axial rows of deciduous trees, mostly elms.  The plantings created a “cathedral” of trees over grass and pathways for pedestrians.  The plan created view corridors between the rows; offered a canopy of shade in the summer and more daylight during winter. The simplicity of its design and the flexibility of activities the design allows have been long-cherished. 

Another sticking point is a proposal to add an architectural canopy over a block that sits within the Portland State University campus.  The canopy would require removal of many trees.  PSU originally welcomed the Park Blocks as welcome green space for its dense urban campus, but now the university seems intent on using the blocks for its own purposes.

“Whose park is it?” asks Wendy Rahm, land-use chair for the Downtown Neighborhood Association.  “Is it the peoples’ park or is it PSU’s?”  She said one good improvement in the Master Plan is a triangular part of one block near the Native American Student & Community Center that would be planted with native plants selected by indigenous people. 

 Members of the concerned citizens who oppose the plan include former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg; David Judd, a former deputy director of the Parks Bureau; Stephen Kafoury, a former state representative, state senator and Portland School Board member; William J. Hawkins III, architect and park historian; Kit Hawkins; Rahm, and Walter Weyler, Downtown Neighborhood Association president.

 Citizens who wish to save the South Park Blocks are encouraged to write to the Portland mayor and city commissioners.  Their email address and street addresses are below.  Citizens should submit their own reasons for opposing the Master Plan. 

 People writing should select their own reasons for opposing the plan.  OFFICALS UNDERSTANDABLY DISCOUNT BOILERPLATE LETTERS.  Writers could include one or more of the following reasons, or create their own:

1) The park should retain its historic block widths of 124 feet and the deciduous tree scheme for the environmental and social benefits the park has represented for many decades.

2) It ain't broke, so don't try to fix it. There is no need to spend $20 million or $40 million to ruin a park that is beloved as it is.

3) The park was never intended to be a thoroughfare for vehicles of any kind.

4) Larger and noisier active uses are antithetical to the residential neighborhood that the city has encouraged along the park for at least 70 years.

5) Portland State University must restate its willingness to maintain the six blocks adjacent to its campus as green space intended for the use of all citizens, rather than being dominated by the university.

6) No “plan” for the park is acceptable without a detailed description and locations of new or additional trees to be planted. 

7) Planting conifers would add unnecessary shade in the winter and interfere with the historic north-south view corridors.

8) The plan should be suspended until a result is determined from a pending application to the National Register of Historic Places. 

Email addresses:

"Real" letters can be addressed to  council members at 1221 SW 4th Avenue, Portland, OR  97204

---Fred Leeson

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Saturday, June 5, 2021

A Spendy "Save" in Irvington


Many of us love our historic neighborhoods, but few of us have the knowledge or gumption to improve them.  One who does is contractor/designer John McCulloch, who has a deep understanding of Portland’s historic residential architecture.

In the past several years, McCulloch has purchased and restored several historic homes in Laurelhurst, Irvington and Lake Oswego.  His best-known project is likely the Markham house in Laurelhurst, which he saved from demolition after its proposed demolition had become grounds for public protests.

 McCulloch’s latest achievement is the complete remodel of a 1923 English cottage-style house in Irvington, shown above.  The rolled roofing at the eaves is a nod to historic English thatched roofs; the roof gables, under-sized dormers and multi-paned windows also are essential to the English cottage style.

When McCulloch bought the house, the attic was unfinished and many of the original details on the main floor had been removed.  Overall, the condition of the house was somewhere between poor and worse, according to a neighbor.  It offered McCulloch what amounted to a blank palette.

Given his understanding of historic interior design, someone walking inside today won’t realize that the interior is new from the bare studs.  Upstairs, McCulloch added additional bedrooms (one with skylights) and a bathroom.

You can see details of the project here:

 As one can tell from the price tag and his earlier projects, McCulloch is renovating elegant homes for high-end buyers.  By adding a sunken firepit, a deck and seating for an outdoor theater, McCulloch has turned this house into far more of a show  place than it was ever intended to be.  But by saving the original envelope and adding many interesting and even amazing details, he likely has added many decades of successful life to a highly worthy residence.   

While work was in progress.  Retaining wall and fencing are new. 

McCulloch puts  a lot of thought into his renovation decisions. In this case, he even explored the possibility of a real thatched roof.  Given the overwhelming expense, he opted for hand-shaped cedar shingles, instead.  The empty attic offered him several interesting design options to please adults and children.  He shares many of his ideas in a video here:

It is important to realize that McCulloch knows more about housing issues than restoring high-end homes.  He also has been working on projects concerning housing affordability and homelessness.  He calls his approach the “sharewell model,” in which existing houses are purchased and renovated to house about five people who share a common issue.  The tenants would pay rents far below average, while having access to group meetings and mentors to help them try to succeed.

 The solution to houselessness, he says, is one that public officials never seem to understand: The most affordable housing is housing that already exists. 

 McCulloch paid for a bungalow in Lake Oswego to house single mothers.  He hoped to generate revenue to buy more houses with money from people with retirement accounts in search of investments that have public benefits.  He told me recently that COVID has slowed his recruiting for sharewell donors.

 He said the concept of shared “micro communities” is a better solution than large housing projects that can become centers for crime and drugs because the only shared issue is poverty.  The shared concerns in micro communities, he said, encourage residents to “help each other succeed.”

It is rare, indeed, to find a developer actively working at both ends of the affordability spectrum.

 ---Fred Leeson

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