Thursday, December 30, 2021

Our Very Own Preservation Awards!

 After careful thought, the brain trust at Building on History is ending 2021 by announcing three Preservation Awards recognizing excellent work in the categories of private enterprise, public service and residential rehabilitation.

The purpose of the awards to honor good work of the people involved, and to celebrate the architectural and social advantages that preservation brings to our city.  Idealists among us also might hope that the recognition will inspire others faced with destroying a vintage building to consider finding new life for it, instead.  

 These are the first annual awards from Building on History because the brain trust was too dumb to think of it last year.  All three of these projects were completed during the COVID-19 pandemic that added additional burdens on restoration work.   Herewith the honorees:

Steeplejack Brewing


This project in the Sullivan’s Gulch neighborhood transformed a historic vacant church into a vibrant brewpub offering a creative food menu and a big variety of beers, many brewed on-site.  This outstanding effort checked several boxes showing why preservation is important:

--It saved a neighborhood landmark from demolition;

--It found a creative alternative use to provide new life for the building;

--It exemplified excellent work in faithfully restoring the façade, replacing the roof and creating an interesting interior while saving many of the interior design elements;

 From its inception, the building served four different congregations before the last one departed in 2019.  President William H. Taft attended cornerstone ceremonies in 1911, attracting a crowd of 20,000 to the neighborhood.  Dustin Harder and Brody Day, two beer-loving former college classmates who had dreamed of brewing their own someday, saved this building at virtually the last moment from being demolished to make way for a housing project.

It took amazing dedication and a substantial investment to pull off this daring enterprise in the midst of a pandemic that still shows no indication of a permanent end. 

 Henry Building

Central City Concern, a non-profit that provides housing and access to medical and other services to low-income tenants, housing, completed renovation of the six-story Henry Building, adding 20 more housing units – to 173 – and upgrading mechanical systems, respecting historic elements and adding pleasant communal space for tenants.

 Built in 1909, the Henry is Portland’s only structure in which “Tiffany-enameled” bricks were used on the façade.  The bright white bricks went through two stages of being enameled and then fired, no doubt adding to the expense but leaving an indelible impression.

 The building originally housed a bank and offices.  Central City took over the building in 1990.  The agency has an excellent reputation for saving and restoring a number of vintage Portland buildings for its social services mission.  It took true dedication and skill from a social service organization to cobble together multiple funding sources that made this project happen.

The Henry Building literally will be a bright spot in Portland's downtown for many years to come. 

 1923 English Cottage


This two-story Irvington home was the proverbial “fixer upper” when John McCulloch, one of Portland’s leading residential restoration experts, acquired it.  The upstairs had never been finished and many original elements of the main floor had been removed.

McCulloch used his expert eye for historical interior details to replace some that had been moved and to recreate others.  He revamped the second floor so that it could be used as a separate residence and filled it with innovative cupboards and closets.  He refashioned the yard to include an outdoor video screen and sunken fire pit.

The rolled eaves are a nod to thatched roofs on the original English cottages.  McCulloch went to far as to consider applying a thatched roof, but backed off considering the hassles of importing thatch from England and squabbling with Portland building inspectors.  Instead, he used cedar shingles; the curved ones were soaked in water and hand-formed.  Overall, the house gleams inside and out like never before. 

 ---Fred Leeson

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Thursday, December 23, 2021

New Hope for the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center


The good news is that Portland Parks & Recreation hasn’t given up on trying to find a formula that will succeed at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. 

A citizen advisory committee recently recommended that the 39-year old cultural center and former historic firehouse at 5340 N. Interstate Ave. become a showcase for the history, arts and culture of Portland’s African-American community. 

The next step is finding someone to do a study to see how to do it.  The objective of the feasibility study is to determine the viability and sustainability of a revitalized arts and culture center” that meets the city’s goals, according to the request-for-proposals. 

Success, however, will be no small task.  Two nonprofits have tried and ultimately failed in finding a route to financial stability.  As it stands now, the center has a 100-seat auditorium and smaller rooms available for other purposes.

The building has an interesting pedigree.  Designed by the firm of MacNaughton, Hobson and Lawrence, the two-bay station opened in 1910 when city fire wagons were still pulled by horses.  The tower was used to dry out wet hoses.  A city document describes the architecture as being Romanesque revival, although one could quibble about that.

Approximately 1910 (City of Portland)

E.B MacNaughton practiced as an architect for 20 years, but he is better remembered as a reputable banker and businessman who later served as president of Reed College.  His younger partner, Ellis Lawrence, went on to lead the University of Oregon architecture department for 40 years in addition to designing many significant Portland buildings.

The building sits in Patton Square Park, a 1.26 acre composed of greenery and a children’s playground.  A tall water tank also sits in the park, but it is long empty and serves only as a cell-phone tower.

 The Portland Fire Bureau moved out of Station 24, as it was then known, in 1959.  In 1982, Charles Jordan, the city’s first African American City Council member and later director of Portland Parks, created the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center as a community space and site for celebrating Black culture.

View from the south

A nonprofit was created to run the building, but finally gave up in 2010 from exhaustion and inability to find grants to assist operations.  Ethos Inc., a nonprofit devoted to teaching music to children, operated the center until 2014.  The building has been used for short-term events ever since.

The city’s emphasis on creating a site for celebrating Black culture makes perfect sense in the era of enhanced ethnic awareness.  And the IFCC sits in the neighborhood that for several decades in the 20th Century is where de facto segregation policies forced most Black residents to live.

 As years have progressed, however, the Black population of North and inner Northeast Portland has declined steadily, for reasons that can be argued vociferously.  The upshot, however, is that the neighborhood surrounding the IFCC will be filled with residents perhaps less than automatically interested in its ethnic programming.  A steady diet of ethnic-oriented programming may prove to be a difficult path to sustainability. 

 For the sake of the landmark building and its 111 years as a neighborhood standout, one hopes that smart minds will figure out ways to make its future a lasting cultural and economic success. 

-----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, December 16, 2021

A Holiday Treat

During a span of roughly 80 hours this month, motorists and pedestrians numbering in the thousands will flock to see Portland’s newest and smallest National Register Historic District.

Most of them won’t know the historic designation exists, or pay much attention to the architecture upon which it is based.  Nope.  To be cutesy about it, they are coming for enlightenment in its archaic form.

 The street sign shown above is the clue that most Portlanders will recognize.  Peacock Lane, a single street that runs for four blocks with no intersecting streets in Southeast Portland, is widely known as the city’s “Christmas Street.”

Every year since the late 1940s   -- the date is not documented – owners of the 32 houses on both sides of Peacock Lane festoon them with colorful Christmas lights.  Some add music or sometimes even moving decorations.  The lights are on five hours per night from Dec. 15 to 31.  The first mention of Peacock Lane decorations in the Oregonian newspaper was in 1949.

The tradition is maintained only by informal agreement among the neighbors.  As one owner once said, nobody would buy a house on Peacock Lane if they didn’t want to be involved.  The event is not without grief for the owners; aside from the labor of installation, driveways are rendered useless each evening by the steady stream of one-way traffic.  One can only imagine the chaos if an ambulance or fire engine was needed in an emergency.

 Neighbors sought and gained National Register status for Peacock lane in 2017 after a developer demolished one original house and built a larger new one.  Residents hoped the national status would provide protection from further demolitions.  Although changing state and local preservation rules are somewhat in flux, the result is “so far, so good.”

Daytime view 
 For the National Register listing, Peacock Lane is recognized as an early Portland suburb designed as a planned community to include automobiles.  The houses were designed and built by Richard F. Wassell, a designer and building who was associated for a time with Carl Linde, an important Portland architect.

 Wassell’s residential designs were mostly English cottage and Tudor revival styles, generally about 1,900 to 2,000 square feet in size.  He designed the lane to include garages, driveways and curbs and gutters.  Some of those elements were added later to older neighborhoods as cars ascended as the primary mode of transportation over Portland’s elaborate streetcar network. 

 Houses on Peacock Lane were constructed between 1923 and 1930.  Walking the street today (in daylight) gives a very definite feel of how it felt early on.  Most of the houses retain their original architectural form and materials.  One historical analysis states, “The architecture of the district is cohesive without being repetitive, an uncommon trend in the 1920s.” 

Oh, yes.  A few lights...

 In today’s urban geography, Peacock Lane would be considered part of the central rather than as a suburb.  But even with its proximity to heavily travelled and noisy S.E. Cesar Chavez Boulevard, it remains a quiet, tree-lined street.  With cars parked on both sides, there is room only for a single traffic lane.

 Peacock Lane did not turn on the lights in 2020 because of the pandemic.  The visual feast resumes this year.  If you’re looking for the new house that prompted creation of the historic district, it will be hard to recognize at night.  Like the others, it is encrusted with holiday lights. 

-----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, December 9, 2021

City Hall's Sausage Machine


Portland City Hall (Circa 1915)

There is a dispute about who first compared sausage-making to the legislative process in the 1800s, but it doesn’t matter; the essence still holds.

 Heading into the final stage of revising Portland’s rules for regulating historical landmarks and historic districts, two city commissioners have suggested three amendments that finally provide some hope for the preservation community.  In short, the sausage may have a better flavor as a result.

Two proposed amendments from Commissioner Mingus Mapps would thwart attempts by the city Planning and Sustainability Commission to restrict recommendations from the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission to the City Council, and to dilute the professional qualifications required of landmarks commission members.

One Mapps amendment would leave qualifications for landmarks commissioners the same as they have been for the past 50 years.  The other would give both the landmarks commission and the PSC equal opportunities to advise the City Council on matters involving proposed new historic districts or reducing the size of current districts.  Recent history makes it clear that the developer-driven PSC as now composed likely would never support historic preservation. 

 Both of these amendments are consistent with good public administration and should be adopted by the council.  It remains to be seen, however, whether three votes from the five council members can be mustered in support. A vote likely will be taken on Dec. 15, so time is limited for the preservation community to express support for these amendments by email to city commissioners or by oral testimony on the 15th.

You can sign up to testify to the City Council via Zoom.  Register here:

Another vital amend, this one from Commissioner Carmen Rubio, would revise rules for deciding when to demolish a landmark by removing a current standard allowing demolition when a building has “no reasonable economic value.”  We believe the “no economic value” standard can promote intentional neglect by an owner wanting to demolish an important historical structure by ignoring routine maintenance.

The importance of the “no reasonable economic value” rule came to the City Council’s attention recently in the case of the Yamaguchi Hotel building that later served as home of the Blanchet House charity that provides food and shelter for the needy.  After moving to a new building Blanchet House did little or nothing to maintain the old building and then sought demolition saying it no longer had economic value.

 The Rubio amendment lists several criteria that would be weighed in deciding whether to demolish a historic building.  They would include the economic status of the building as well as its age, condition, historic integrity, historic significance, design or construction rarity, options for rehabilitation, or reuse of the resource and value to the community and association with historically marginalized individuals or communities.  In addition, the city could consider the merits of a development proposed to replace the historic property.

 Those are all genuine, legitimate factors to be considered.

There are eight proposed to the Historic Resources Code Project, but the three addressed here are the most important for the preservation community.  They are numbered 3, 5 and 6 on the list. 

Those of you willing to support proposed amendments 3, 5 and 6 can email your support to council members listed below.  Don't wait; there is little time left.  I could not find a working email address for Mayor Ted Wheeler.  

Commissioner Carmen Rubio

Commissioner Dan Ryan

Commissioner Mingus Mapps

Commissioner Joann Hardesty

 -----Fred Leeson

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Friday, December 3, 2021

South Park Blocks (Chapter 5)


(State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation)

 Though consequences are yet unclear, a devoted group of volunteers trying to save historic fabric of one of Portland’s oldest parks has won a major step toward placing the South Park Blocks on the National Register of Historic Places.

 A 5-1 vote by the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation on Nov. 30 was a hard-fought victory for the Downtown Neighborhood Association that sponsored the nomination, and a setback of sorts for the Portland Parks Bureau and Portland State University who opposed it.

What remains murky is the effect the designation could or would have on the Parks Bureau’s 50-year masterplan that would allow gradual death of dozens of historic deciduous trees, add conifers, change walking paths and impair the historic landscape plan with its five axial tree rows.  Despite substantial public opposition, the City Council earlier this year approved the plan for the 12-block stretch of narrow park blocks in Southwest Portland, even though there is no budget yet for making the proposed changes.

Four earlier posts on Building on History were devoted to master planning and its consequences.   earlier. 

If the park were a “building” instead of a park, substantial proposed changes would have to undergo a historical review to assess whether changes were necessary and historically appropriate.  However, there apparently is no such standard under the federal rules for public parks.  And even if major changes were to require historical review, it is probably that a series of smaller changes could slip through piecemeal. 

 A knowledgeable preservation expert predicts the city will "do everything possible to minimize" the impact of the designation.  

 On preservation’s plus side, a national listing would mean that no federal funding could be used for park improvements without historic review.  And advocates trying to preserve the park in years ahead can use the extensive historical document to lobby future City Councils against disruptive changes.  There is always a chance that future City Councils will pay more attention to the importance of historic public spaces rather than deferring to special interest groups that promoted the 2021 master plan. 

 The 12 park blocks were donated for park use in 1852 and planted in 1877 with five axial rows of deciduous trees, mostly elms, running north and south.  Those rows are largely intact today, with trees being replaced when necessary.  Although often used for public events, the blocks are noted mostly for the quietude the offer in the heart of a busy city. 

 A Portland State University official opposed the designation on grounds that the southern six blocks are now part of the PSU campus.  He also contended that a designation would hinder PSU’s ability to make changes needed for students of varying disabilities.  Heidi Slaybaugh, one of the state committee members, noted however,  that “there are many ways to provide accessibility in a historic park or a historic building.”

The detailed and heavily-documented nomination report was written by volunteer historical consultants  Brooke Best and Kirk Ranzetta.  They were assisted by a handful of volunteers who helped with  research and graphics.  Wendy Rahm, a neighborhood association board member, recruited, managed, cajoled and encouraged the volunteers in an extraordinary example of citizen participation.

The nomination  is based on the history of planning and development for Portland parks and for the distinctive landscape architecture.  

Given the recent preoccupation with ethnic awareness and inclusion, the nomination includes a concise narrative of indigenous history before the park was created.  Nevertheless, the Parks Bureau, which steadfastly opposed the nomination, asked for “a more nuanced narrative" -- whatever that means.  

Stephen Beckham, a well-known Pacific Northwest historian who chairs the state committee, seemed to push back on what might be an idyllic view of native life in and around the Park Blocks.  He listed tribes in Western Oregon that engaged in slavery, and noted that when first surveyed in the 1850s, the Park Blocks were composed of dense, old-growth trees showing no signs of human habitation.

The one vote cast against the National Register nomination was from John Arroyo, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon.  He said the number of “non-contributing” elements in the blocks outnumbered the historical contributing elements.

 In other action at the same meeting, the state committee approved National Register nominations for three buildings closely associated with African American History in Portland:  Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, Golden West Hotel and Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop.   Photographs of those buildings and descriptions of their importance were detailed here on Sept. 19.  You can see the posting below:

----Fred Leeson

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