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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  1. It looks to me to be a natural for a neighborhood cultural and fine arts center similar to the one in Sellwood.

  2. to bad it can't be a restaurant, or brewery. Keep the stage for live music.

  3. Agree with you about the live stage and beer. I also want to add that Charles Jordan, mention in the article, was as honorable as a public official as they come. I wish we had more like him.

  4. Kinda seems like the biggest strike against the building is that the city owns it.