Saturday, September 25, 2021

Honoring Abner H. Francis


Plaque dedication:  From Left, James Larpenteur, Lang Syne Socity; William J. Hawkins III, architectural historian; State Sen. Lew Fredricks; Kimberly Moreland, Oregon Black Pioneers; Kenneth Hawkins, historian; Dave Dahl, Lang Syne Society (Sarah Munro photo)

 We pause today from our customary respect for vintage buildings and public places to honor a small piece of Portland’s long-gone architectural history and a man who should not be forgotten, Abner H. Francis.

Francis was an early Black Portland pioneer, who, with his brother, I.B. Francis, operated a well-regarded clothing store in one of Portland’s earliest brick buildings, located on the corner of S.W. Stark Street and Front Ave.  This alone was a major feat in a territory that by law said a Black person could not reside, vote, or own property. 

Francis had been an active abolitionist for 20 years before arriving in Oregon, where he hoped that the Oregon Territory would allow freedom for Blacks to build businesses and enjoy equality guaranteed by the US. Constitution.  He had become a friend of Frederick Douglass long before his arrival in Oregon, and wrote nine mostly lengthy to Douglass discussing racial issues in Oregon and San Francisco, where he travelled often on business.

Douglass printed Francis's letters in his abolitionist newspapers. 

 “Francis’s letters. . . . show how systemic racism in the Oregon Territory reflected slavery politics in the United States, how White supremacists worked to thwart Black leaders such as Francis, and how a network of lesser-known abolitionists joined Francis and Douglass for years to resist White supremacy across the nation,” wrote historian Kenneth Hawkins. 

 Hawkins, who holds a doctorate in history, reprinted nine of the Francis letters to Douglass and added historical context in “A Proper Attitude of Resistance,” in the Winter, 2020, edition of the Oregon Historical Quarterly.  Hawkins’ research on Francis’s life in Portland is detailed and extensive.

 During his first year in Portland, a judge ruled that Francis had to leave, based on the Black exclusion law passed by the Territorial Legislature in 1849.  More than 200 Portlanders signed a petition urging that Francis be allowed to remain, and an exclusion order was never implemented.  Regardless of that attempt, Francis remained a devoted abolitionist and argued unsuccessfully for termination of the Black exclusion law.  A state constitutional provision approved by voters in 1857 declared that Oregon would not allow slavery – nor would it allow Blacks as residents. 

The Oregon Black Pioneers history organization is aware of other Black pioneers like Francis who remained in several Oregon locations despite the constitutional provision.  Many of them ran successful small businesses or were successful at trades.  However, they did not enjoy the greater rights and opportunities assured to White residents, and survived by keeping a low profile in their occupational and social lives. 

The deprivations suffered because of race apparently aren't worthy of discussing or teaching in modern schools, according to a popular view of many who apparently believe that American history is composed only of feel-good moments. 

In 1860, A.H. Francis had an opportunity to visit Victoria, B.C., where the parents of his wife had emigrated.  He liked the appearance of the city and the opportunity it represented.  In a letter to Douglass, he wrote, “In relation to colorphobia, I must close by saying that there is a grand future for the colored man in British possessions on the north Pacific.”  Certainly more grand than in Oregon. 

 Francis ultimately became a British citizen.  He died in 1872.

A plaque honoring Francis has been placed near the site of his long-gone store by the Lang Syne Society, which places historical markers around the city, and by Oregon Black Pioneers.

 ----Fred Leeson

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Sunday, September 19, 2021

African American Cultural Landmarks


Golden West Hotel

Thanks to recent interest in long-ignored ethnic history, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission has nominated three buildings for listing on the National Register of Historic Places that reflect African-American culture in Portland in the early and middle portions of the 20th Century.

Two – the Golden West Hotel and Mt. Olivet Baptist Church – are large buildings easily recognized in their Northwest and Northeast Portland neighborhoods, respectively.  Much less noticeable is the smaller and newer Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop located close to Mt. Olivet.

 All three buildings reflect the pains of social, economic, residential and employment discrimination from racial attitudes of the dominant white society well into the 20th Century.  Herewith are brief synopses of how these buildings played important roles in African American society:

 Golden West Hotel, at 707 NW Everett St., was built in 1892 and expanded in 1913, in a French Renaissance Revival architectural style with a Mansard roof on the 6th story.  Its vital role in African American history occurred from 1906 to 1930, when it was operated by William Duncan Allen. 

 Under Allen’s management, the Golden was Portland’s largest hotel catering to Black visitors and tenants.  Many tenants were waiters and porters employed by railroads at the nearby Union Station.   Most of the ground floor and basement were leased to African American entrepreneurs when those spaces were difficult to find in most of Portland.  The one exception in the Golden West was a Chinese restaurant.

 Despite Allen’s successful tenure as manager, the building was owned by Caucasians.  Allen departed in 1930 to run a hotel in Albina, a neighborhood where Blacks were being encouraged to live and work.


Mt. Olivet Baptist Church

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church followed path.  Originally located adjacent to the Golden West, the church moved to Northeast Portland in 1921-23, with encouragement to some degree from the mostly-white Northwest neighborhood.  Mt. Olivet at 1734 NE 1st Ave. was built in a Romanesque Revival style based on plans from an Illinois architect who apparently designed many churches largely by mail order.  The building includes 13 stained glass windows by Portland’s notable Povey Glass Co.

 Mt. Olivet, the first African-American church in the area, became well-known for its choir and gospel singers.  The church also played a leading role in civil rights activism for many years and hosted meetings and speeches by civil rights organizations and national leaders.

 Mt. Olivet moved away from the building 1994, but continues to own it and rents it to another congregation.

Dean's Beauty Salon and Barber Shop

Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop, at 213-215 NE Hancock St., was built 1956 in a Mid-Century Commercial style by Benjamin and Mary Rose Dean, according to plans largely created by Benjamin Dean.  Mary Rose Dean had run a beauty shop in their nearby house before the pair succeeded in achieving funds to build their shop when banks commonly would not lend to African Americans.

The Deans migrated to Portland from the South during World War II.  Benjamin Dean worked in the shipyards and later as a federal janitor before deciding to take up barbering, one of the few professions available to Black men, while Mary Rose concentrated on female clientele.  For several decades, Black-run barbershops played vital roles where people could congregate, converse and enjoy camaraderie and grooming free from racial bias.

The shop has two entrances; originally it was segregated inside for women and men.  The center wall later was changed to create a single interior.  The shop continues today under ownership of the third generation of the founding couple.  Few other similar shops have survived the decades of urban renewal, freeway building and gentrification of the nearby Albina area.

 Funding for preparation of these three National Register nomination forms was proved by the Portland City Council, a body that currently shows little interest in historic preservation.  Approval of the nominations by the State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation next month is expected to be a slam dunk.  Then they will be forwarded to the National Park Service for final action.

-----Fred Leeson

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Friday, September 10, 2021

A Double 'Save' at the Woodlark House of Welcome


Political demonstrations in downtown Portland and the COVID-19 pandemic dealt harsh blows to the downtown hotel industry.  When your correspondent wanted to write about an exciting architectural preservation breakthrough last year, the Woodlark House of Welcome hotel was locked tight.

Thankfully, the doors have reopened and the lobby was busy during a recent visit.  The comparatively “new” hotel of 151 rooms was composed by joining into a single hotel the original Cornelius Hotel, completed in 1908, and the neighboring the 9-story Woodlark Building erected in 1912.

The conjuncture of the architectural neighbors was approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and tinkered into reality by the Portland firm, MCA Architects.  It is an excellent example of how a new use can provide new life for old buildings, in addition to being a creative “double whammy” to find enough rentable rooms to make the project economically viable.

The Woodlark House of Friends opened early in 2019, but then suffered in 2020 when pandemic-related closures smacked downtown hotel occupancy rates from 77 percent to less than 27.  Most downtown hotels including the Woodlark were closed for at least parts of 2020.

At first glance, the more interesting building is the old Cornelius, which was developed by Charles W. Cornelius, an early Multnomah County coroner.  The “House of  Welcome” on the big blade sign is a throw-back to the informal reputation gained by the hotel in its early era when it hosted an affluent clientele.

A historic picture postcard view 

The Cornelius was designed by a firm headed by John Virginius Bennes, who practice architecture in Portland for 37 years.  He designed many notable buildings on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis.  His firm – though Bennes might not have been the guiding force – also designed the big Hollywood Theater that still presides over the Hollywood District in Northeast Portland.

A notable feature of the Cornelius design is the steeply pitched Mansard roof that sits atop the sixth story.  The Mansard design with windows peeking through was a device invented in Paris in the 19th Century to squeeze one more story out of the Parisian height restrictions.  There are only a few of these French Renaissance examples in Portland.  Regrettably, it is difficult to see the roof with its gabled dormers from the street level.

Until the recent renovation, the past several decades were tough ones for the Cornelius Hotel.  It eventually devolved to low-income housing, and then a fire devastated three floors.  The building appeared headed for demolition in 2014, but was saved when a new development team advanced its plan to merge it as a hotel with the Woodlark Building.

Next door, the taller Woodlark Building with its gently arched main entrance was an early “skyscraper” from the firm headed by A.E. Doyle.  In fewer than 20 years, Doyle’s office designed 19 downtown buildings, making his team the still-reigning design champions for downtown Portland.

 Many of Doyle’s later buildings are taller, but the Woodlark showed his interest in terra cotta ornamentation and his fundamental “base, middle and top” strategy for arranging tall buildings. 

While the middle of the Woodlark and its heavy original cornice remain, the ground floor facades have been substantially modified over the years.  Regardless, the building is an interesting and peaceful example of an early 20th Century office tower.  Its creamy terra cotta fares well in Portland’s cloudiest months.

One hopes that  the demise of the pandemic (if ever) will allow for a successful future for this interesting amalgam of historic Portland buildings from the early 20th Century. 

----Fred Leeson

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Saturday, September 4, 2021

Stewart Hotel/Mary's Club


People who enjoy architecture often spend more time looking at the structure and details of a building while paying less attention to what occurs inside.  If you mention “Stewart Hotel” to most Portlanders, few could picture the building at 129 S.W. Broadway.

 But mention “Mary’s Club” and chances are they will know exactly where it is, thanks to its catchy blade sign and descriptive reader board.  All of which are indications that since the middle 1960s, Mary’s Club has been known as one of Portland’s earliest bars offering first topless and eventually all-nude dancing girls.

However, after 67 years the party is ending for Mary’s Club, at least at this location.  The three-story brick building with 57 now-vacant sleeping rooms above has been sold and will be demolished and replaced with something presumably bigger. 

Club owners say Mary's will move to a new downtown location -- as yet undisclosed -- and take the signs and interior artwork with them.  It remains a family business, operated by the heirs of Roy H. Keller, who bought it in 1955 and shifted to topless entertainment about a decade later.  His inspiration was a craze that was first ignited in San Francisco. 

Of course, many people objected to nude dancing as a form of entertainment.  A Portland newspaper columnist minimized it by writing, “When you’ve seen two, you’ve seen 'em all.”  However, an Oregon appellate court wiped away local attempts to regulate nude dancing by ruling that dancing was a form of communication protected by the state’s free-speech clause.

Keller died in 2006, at age 90.  Some 150 people showed for his funeral, including dancers, bartenders, other employees and friends.  Like an outpouring on Facebook when the club announced that it was forced to move, Keller’s funeral showed the lasting affections that can be formed by a family-run business that respects its workers and clientele.

 The three-story brick Stewart Hotel, meanwhile, apparently never had pretensions beyond being more than affordable habitation.  It was built when streetcars, including the Broadway Line, were a heavily-used means of transportation.  The building followed a common "streetcar architecture" pattern of ground-floor retail with housing above.  The simple cornice, lintels and sills were the same cream-colored brick as the walls.

Nobody famous (so far as we know) ever slept there.  The hotel was not an element in any important historical movement or involved in any significant ethnic involvement.  References to it in the newspapers over the decades mentioned it occasionally as the scene petty crimes and as the address of a a defendant being charged in court.  In its last years, it was home to low income tenants including the elderly and disabled.

 The Stewart may have reached a nadir in 2008 when its furnace boiler broke and tenants went 10 days without heat in December cold before a fix was accomplished.  The upper floors are now vacant, possibly as a condition of a sale.

 Demise of the Stewart is not likely to cause any public handwringing.  It can be dismissed as an old building, inadequately maintained, that outlived its usefulness and became an "opportunity site" for redevelopment.  It is regrettable, however, that we lose inventory of fixable affordable housing for low-income residents.   It is a sad reflection of our throw-away society that a building only 100 years old can be dismissed so easily.

----Fred Leeson

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