Saturday, August 28, 2021

Finding a Home for Food Carts


Ankeny Block

After decades of planning babble and urban renewal projects, nothing has added as much vitality to downtown Portland as the dozens of food carts that popped up in recent years on surface parking lots.

 For less than the price of a restaurant meal, workers, residents and visitors could find an array of international aromas and food choices packed within easy walking distances. Entrepreneurs found entrances to the food business at less than brick-and-mortar prices.  Parking lot owners no doubt enjoyed the steady monthly rentals.

Two years ago, construction on a high-rise luxury hotel forced eviction of 55 food carts from a block at S.W. 10th and Alder.  The city government pledged to find a new home for at least some of them, and hit upon a half-block site at W. Burnside that happened to be the southern terminus of the North Park Blocks.

 Sometime in the 1920s, the block had been adorned with two public restrooms designed in the Georgian style, most likely by architect Jamieson Parker. The brick restrooms flanked an elegant water feature that included a lion’s head emptying water into a reflecting basin.

Historic image from Ankeny Street (Date unknown)

 Parker ranked as one of Portland’s highly-skilled architects at the time, having worked in the offices of A.E. Doyle and then Folger Johnson before opening his own practice in 1921.  He designed dozens of Portland houses and the carefully-crafted First Unitarian Church, in the Georgian style, completed in 1924.  Alas, his architectural career like many others was sadly derailed by the Great Depression.

 The Ankeny Block (as it came to be known) at the southern tip of the North Park Blocks fell into hard times.  The restrooms ultimately were locked shut and substantially abused by graffiti.  The water feature’s reflecting pool was covered over.

 The city approved $269,000 to prepare the site for about 20 food carts on three sides.  While the carts are now open for business, the rest of the park is a work in progress.  Fortunately, the graffiti has been cleaned up, and the restrooms might be returned to use someday. 

"We had to snake all the drains as they were backing up and we pulled all sorts of stuff out," said Keith M. Jones, director of Friends of Green Loop supervising the project.  "All of this work is very expensive and we are tackling it in stages. Our plans are to reopen the bathrooms to the public, but we will need to have a lot of work done first."

On a less appealing side, the remaining portion of the historic water feature was removed.  As seen below, big electrical boxes were added to one restroom, detracting from its architecture.

Pictures of the old water feature are rare. A request is pending with the city archives (now closed by the pandemic) to look for an image showing the "front" side of the demolished fountain.

A former member of the Portland Parks Foundation advises, “The original photo showed a partially brick (with cast stone elements) garden wall, with balustraded railings at both sides. The fountain's water supply appears to be a lion's head, which spilled into a decorative basin.  The basin was covered up when a partial stage was constructed over it some years ago. In all, (the demolition) demonstrates Portland Parks and Recreation’s current attitude toward history and architectural features within our Portland Parks.

The center of the block is now barren gravel.  Jones said, "We also want to bring back the stage that was in the center of the park and start programming the space." 

 Success of the city’s efforts to relocate food carts at Ankeny Block is not guaranteed.  The carts are farther away from the downtown employment core, and the employee population might continue to be reduced by the pandemic and long-range effects of more people working from home.  Indeed, the project is considered by the city to be a three-year experiment.

If successful, the block again could become an attractive element of the historic North Park Blocks. Who knows, maybe some day someone will be interested in restoring the historic water feature.   

 ------Fred Leeson

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Saturday, August 21, 2021

Courting the Old and New


Portland Railway Light & Power (1909)

Sometimes salvation for historic architecture occurs when successful new uses thrive within old walls.  Prime examples in the Portland area include renovations by the McMenamin brothers that turned a mortuary, erstwhile county poor farm and a vacant elementary school into vibrant venues for eating, drinking or lodging.

A new Portland example is equally unusual: a local government turning a former (dating to 1909) Portland Railway Light & Power substation into a courtroom that is backed on two sides by a new 17-story Multnomah County Courthouse.

The new tower is worthy of a visit itself.  Designed by the Portland firm SRG Partnership, the lobby is pleasantly filled with natural light.  Three-story pillars of reinforced concrete pull your eyes upward, all bearing natural images from the wood that helped form them.  One has to assume they are an interesting, even playful, reflection on the classic fluted columns commonly associated with Greek and Roman forms used in historic courthouses and public buildings.

For our purposes, the other must-see element is the Crane Room, (see below) located up the lobby stairs and then to the right down a hall.  The room is two-stories tall and shows the muscular reinforced concrete bones that once housed the heavy electrical equipment that served downtown buildings and part of the early Portland streetcar system.  The Crane room contains a courtroom for high-volume minor cases, and lots of spaces for people to wait and for attorneys to negotiate cases.

Crane Room 

The electrical station, believed to be the first example of reinforced concrete architecture in Downtown Portland, was converted to office and restaurant uses some 40 years ago.  Yet one historic element from its early days remains, and that is a large movable crane near the ceiling.  It is labelled “20 Ton Niles Crane,” likely a site gag based on the name of the character in an erstwhile popular television sitcom.

 In fact, the crane was manufactured by the Shepard Niles Crane & Hoist Corp., an Elmira, N.Y., firm that started producing heavy equipment in the 1880s.  The firm also made a similar crane capable of bearing 25 tons.

 The station was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.  The nomination form was written by the late George McMath, an architect who is considered the father of Portland’s efforts from the 1970s to recognize and attempt to preserve the city’s notable landmark buildings.  Oddly, the nomination form does not include any historic photographs of the building, which nowadays is a standard element in nomination applications.

McMath wrote, “The Jefferson Substation achieves architectural and engineering significance as a relatively rare extant example in Portland of an early electrical substation --it is the only remaining structure of its type in downtown Portland -- and as a very early local instance of a building with a reinforced concrete superstructure.” 

It was an industrial-style building erected for its practical use, not for architectural interest.  Yet its clearly-expressed structure and steel sash windows show a simplicity that a few decades later led to the “revolution” of modern architecture over historical styles.

Courthouse Tower

By 1980, the neighborhood had changed dramatically around the electrical station, with tall buildings and a seven-story parking garage.  “While partly surrounded by new high-rise construction, the simple unadorned structure of the Jefferson Substation fits well with its larger neighbors,” McMath concluded.

It now rests comfortably nestled on three sides by a 17-story courthouse, with a lifetime of many, many years to come.

------Fred Leeson

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Saturday, August 14, 2021

Gone...and Going?


Fire Station No. 2 recently 

It’s increasingly common these days for people to wonder whether Portland will ever return to “normal” as we remembered it before the pandemic and the surge of homeless camp that  dot many major streets.  Trash abounds and many stores downtown and in neighborhood commercial centers are vacant.

 Almost all of retail spaces on the ground floors of the city’s many new apartment buildings also sit vacant.

Regrettably, the short answer the question above is “no.” A couple notable examples in the past week:

1) Prosper Portland, the city government’s development agency, quickly demolished the historic clinker-brick former fire station erected in 1913 near the west end of the Steel Bridge, without bothering to provide advance public notice.

Yes, one could find the demolition permit issued June 7 if one had the inclination and savvy to scrounge on the Internet.    But the agency’s PR staff never bothered to mention it. Understandably so, since the agency no doubt wanted to avoid public hand-wringing in advance.

Fire Station No. 2 now (Scott Allen Tice photo)

 Ironically, the station sat across Glisan Street  from the historic Yamaguchi Hotel/Blanchet House building, which Prosper Portland could have bought for $1 and perhaps saved…but didn’t.  We have written recently about the likelihood of its demolition in coming months.

 The old fire station was one of several designs created by Lee Gray Holden, one of the Fire Bureau's greatest leaders, about whom we have written in the past.  The “good” news is that a very similar Holden station in Northwest Portland has been elegantly restored into a private residence, so some of Holden’s good work survives.

All done?

2) What has appeared for many months to be the long, slow death of the Lloyd Center shopping mall in Northeast Portland accelerated last week, when a significant fire evidently destroyed an electrical station somewhere in the basement, forcing closure of the entire mall.

A week later, the mall remained closed.  Five days after the fire, a representative of the Dallas, Texas, owners said the damage was being "assessed" and that the mall would reopen.  However, no prospective date was offered.  The owners contended earlier this year that they planned to reconstitute the mall as a shopping destination.

  However, vacancies have grown, and the fire-related shut-down, for however long it lasts, will not help.  Some of the remaining retail tenants were reassessing whether to stay at Lloyd Center even before the fire.  

Meanwhile, one potential option for the center’s big footprint has disappeared.  There was talk that the space might become a major league baseball park if Portland could attract the Oakland A’s franchise.  While the fate of the A’s in Oakland remains undetermined, Portland is no longer mentioned as a potential site.   The best gamble for a new home, so to speak, is Las Vegas.

The center covers 18 square blocks in Northeast Portland.  The site conceivably could become available for high-rise offices, condos or apartments if the mall were to be demolished.  In any event, it is difficult to see the mall returning to its few decades of glory after it opened in 1960. 

Cities are evolving, changing organisms.  Those of us who want to protect the best of the past often are viewed as enemies of progress.  But here is another question:  Will the “new” Portland be better than the old one?

-----Fred Leeson

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Saturday, August 7, 2021

New Life for Montgomery Park


Picture postcard, late 1930s (GBD Architects)

 Northwest Portland’s biggest and most unusual historic building is headed for a makeover intended to make it more lively and interesting to the industrial and residential neighborhoods it straddles.

 It is the huge former Montgomery Ward & Co. warehouse and retail store that years ago had railroad spurs allowing rail cars to be shunted from N.W. Wilson Ave. directly into its basement.  (See lower right corner of postcard.) For more than 50 years, the big building helped Ward compete against Sears for mail-order business long before anyone dreamed of Amazon.

 Ward shuttered the retail store in 1972 and departed the rest of the building in 1982.  It was bought by the entrepreneurial Naito family, who converted the building to offices and exhibition space.  Bill Naito took great pride in renaming the building Montgomery Park by merely changing two letters in the huge neon sign looming above the building.  The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in addition to being a Portland landmark.  

Unico Properties, a major Seattle-based property investment firm with large holdings in Seattle, Portland, Denver and a few other cities, bought Montgomery Park in 2019.  The firm’s goal is to develop mixed-use properties in and around it.  

 Under plans approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, Unico intends to open retail and food opportunities on all four ground-floor frontages of Montgomery Park.  The firm also wants to add a restaurant at the top of the east bay, including access by visitors to the roof and spectacular east-looking view below the huge Montgomery Park sign.

Pop-out vestibule to be removed (GBD Architects)

 The most noticeable change will be on the west side.  Unico plans to remove the pop-out vestibule added by the Naitos when they switched the main entrance to the building’s west side.  In its place, the design calls for a glassy, three-story tall curtainwall panel set just proud of the main walls.  The entry would feature two doors thirty feet tall and 10 feet wide that could pivot open in good weather to add fresh air to the central atrium.

Proposed west-side entrance (GBD Architects)

 Dark metal framing of the curtainwall struck one commission as “too dramatic” for the style of the historic building.  Others believed it reflected a boldness characteristic to the building’s overall size, and approved it as proposed.

 The building was erected in two L-shaped phases, the first in 1920 and the second in 1936.  The two Ls created an open plaza to the west, which was covered by a tilting glass ceiling by the Naitos to create a dramatic atrium. 

 The reinforced steel beams on all facades show a clear expression of the building’s structure, with little effort to dress them up with architectural ornament.  The hundreds of windows have industrial-style steel sashes that appear to have weathered well over the years.  Glass panes that were painted or covered over the years will be cleaned, according to the plans.

Kimberly Moreland, a landmarks commissioner, suggested that the building and grounds should have historical markers.  The site itself was part of the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition, and bygone neighbors included the Guilds Lake World War II housing project and the Vaughn Street baseball stadium.

(GBD Architects)

 Should anyone be wondering, yes, the big Montgomery Park sign will remain.

-----Fred Leeson

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