|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.
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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