Thursday, March 31, 2022

Rebuilding Benson Polytechnic High School


For 106 years, the Classical Revival west façade of Benson Polytechnic High School has been one of the most noticeable buildings in Northeast Portland.  But unless you are more than 70 years old, you never saw the back side of the original building – or ever thought about it.

 Now, an extensive  remodel underway at Benson has cleared away a clutter of accessory buildings at the rear of the school, returning to view much of the original --and historically tasteful --eastern side.  The massive renovation project is expected to cost close to $300 million before it is completed in 2024.

 The spendy remodel will include a bunch of whizzbang new features, including a new gymnasium, library and instructional facilities.   But from the preservationists’ point of view, another benefit is that historical elements of the original building – both front and back – will be restored and preserved.

Eastern facade exposed after many decades

The original building, finished in 1916, had a narrow, rectangular floorplan.  However, its designer, architect Floyd Naramore, intended for it to be added onto incrementally as needed.  Shop wings were added to the north and south sides at the rear of the building in 1917 and 1918, followed by what is now called the “old gym” in 1925 and an auditorium in 1930. A library addition in 1953 closed off from public view what little could be seen of the original rear façade.

Naramore served as architect for the rapidly expanding school system from 1912 until 1919.  During those years, he designed 12 elementary schools (many still in use) as well as Benson and Franklin High School.  Portland was growing rapidly at the time.

 To meet the needs of growth Naramore devised what were called “unit” plan schools.  “Typically constructed of reinforced concrete with brick facing, the schools were designed to be built in units over time,” according to a historical assessment prepared for the school system in 2009.  “The initial building unit typically featured minimal provisions of classroom spaces. Specialized spaces including auditoriums, gymnasiums, and cafeterias were added in intervals as enrollment grew.”

 News articles in 1915 indicated that a talented young Portland architect, Folger Johnson, was hired as a consultant on the original Benson building.  Regardless, Naramore is always listed as its architect.  Naramore left Portland for Seattle in 1919, where he served as architect for the Seattle school system before opening a practice that was heavily engaged in World War II construction work.


Still a long ways to go...western facade

EXCITING UPDATE:  After 2 1/2 years of work by volunteers with the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the South Park Blocks have been added to the National Register of Historic Places.  The Portland Parks Bureau first suggested a nomination back in 1985, but never finished an application.  The current Parks Bureau administration opposed this application in three public hearings.  The bureau's motives are best left to speculation.

-----Fred Leeson

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Friday, March 25, 2022

Two Remodels in Historic Districts

2121 NW Glisan St.

Plans for major remodeling projects in two of Portland’s historic districts have been approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.

Both buildings – Silver Dollar Pizza in the Alphabet Historic District and Grace Peck Terrace in the Irvington Historic District – are too recent to qualify as contributing elements of their historic districts.  However, the landmarks commission serves as the city’s design review agency because the properties lie within district boundaries.

The single-story Silver Dollar building will sprout two stories and add eight small apartments around an open courtyard on the second and third floors.  The pizza store will continue its long-term lease as the ground-floor anchor.  Entry to the apartments will be on the NW Glisan Street side, while the pizza entry remains on NW 21st Ave.

 The building will be encased in light-colored stucco, with gentle Art Deco adornments celebrating the Glisan façade and the apartment entry.  Pilasters on the original building will be extended on the new floors.  Landmark commission members applauded the project for adding new residences to an existing building rather than going the tear-down route.

 The one-story building was built in the 1940s and underwent subsequent renovations that lack a coherent architectural foundation.  The renovation includes a rounded cornice and corner at 21st and Glisan, adding to the Art Deco feel. 


View from NE 14th Ave. and Schuyler St.

In Irvington, the six-story Grace Peck Manor, a 95-unit subsidized housing complex erected in 1979, suffers from water leaks in its windows and stucco exterior.  The project calls for replacing all windows and cladding the building with oko skin, a fiberglass-reinforced concrete product that is expected to survive better in Portland’s wet climate.   The oko panels will be applied horizontally to reflect the wooden lap siding common to surrounding houses in the neighborhood.

 The primary colors will be contrasting gray tones, with three colors of blue standing vertically between the floors. 

The plan also calls for remodeling the main entry and creating a new patio on the Hancock Street side close to 14th Avenue that will be recessed a few feet below the level of the adjacent sidewalk.  Small balconies on the building that would have disappeared in an earlier version of the plan will be retained.  Although small at approximately 20 square feet each, tenants said they valued having them.

 “Overall, I think it’s going to be a great change for the neighborhood,” said Kristen Minor, landmarks chair.

 Landmarks commissioners also discussed the possibility of creating a large mural or work of art that would decorate a tall blank building mass above the main entrance at NE 14th and Hancock, but no conclusion has been reached about what it might be.  The building is managed by Home Forward, a federally-funded subsidized housing program.

 -----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, March 17, 2022

Albina's 'Not Little' Plan


“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”  Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect, 1910.

Over the decades, Portland had big plans for what Downtown Portland perceived as the run-down old neighborhood of Albina close-in on the Willamette River’s east side.  They included Memorial Coliseum, Interstate-5 Freeway and the Emanuel Hospital Urban Renewal Plan. 

Hundreds of houses were removed for the freeway, the Coliseum wiped out what once had been a vibrant residential neighborhood, and the Emanuel urban renewal plan fell by the wayside after the heart of Albina’s commercial and cultural district had been demolished.

In case you’re new to Portland, Albina was the heart of the city’s African-American community, where de facto housing and real estate sales policies channeled Black residents after World War II.

Now, after seven years, a non-profit group called the Albina Vision Trust has a highly-interesting plan for 94 acres of Albina.  It calls for a neighborhood of small homes at the north end, high-rise housing in the Broadway corridor, parks, access to the waterfront, historical markers, and focal points where activities could focus on the arts, food, wellness and education.

Of course, the 94 acres is a mere fraction of the area of North and Northeast Portland formerly called "Albina" in general terms.  Not shown on the pretty map is the city's public works shops and parking lots just to the north that could affect the desirability of a residential neighborhood.   

Winta Yohannes, Albina Vision’s executive director, said there is “no going back to 1956,” when turmoil began that destroyed old Albina.  She knows that many Black residents who were forced out by City Hall’s big changes are sufficiently bitter that they aren’t interested in returning.

Still, the citizen planners hope their ideas will open doors for small and minority contractors, starting with small homes planned for the area now occupied by the massive Portland Public Schools headquarters.  Success with the first phase of building that new neighborhood could leverage those small businesses into bigger opportunities as larger projects unfold in later stages.

“People want a sense of a close-knit neighborhood,” Yohannes said.  The first phase with smaller homes could help the public understand that yes, progress is possible in Albina.  The 94-acre plan also includes three new blocks that be built on covers over the I-5 freeway.  The covers, if built, would support the weight of three and  four story buildings and provide better walking and bicycle connections  to neighborhoods now split by the freeway. 

The Albina Vision plan is scheduled to be presented to the Portland City Council in late March.  Members of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and Portland Design Commission spoke highly of the plan at a meeting in February.

“There is so much to like about this,” said Kimberly Moreland, a landmarks commission member.  “Albina still serves as a cultural and spiritual center.  There are so many connections that are still here.”  She asked the planning team to make careful note of significant buildings that still remain from the historic African-American era.

 One thinks that Daniel Burnham, who dreamed big plans and then built them in Chicago, might be impressed.  The question now is how Albina's  “big plan” can be implemented between now and 2050.

As somebody smarter than your host once said, it takes a special talent to proclaim big plans from the heavens.  It takes another kind of talent to tinker them into reality.

David P. Thompson Elk Fountain update:

Last week's article about the potential demise of this iconic fountain drew a record number of readers by an astounding margin.  One sophisticated reader thought I was too pessimistic.  The matter ultimately will be decided by the City Council.  It is not too early to let the city commissioners know your feelings about restoring the fountain.

Mayor Ted Wheeler:
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty:
Commissioner Dan Ryan:
Commissioner Carmen Rubio:
Commissioner Mingus Mapps:

----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, March 10, 2022

Goodbye, David P. Thompson Fountain


(Regional Arts & Culture Council image)

If you had hoped to see the historic David P. Thompson fountain restored to its rightful location on S.W. Main Street, forget it.  Won’t happen.

In what seems like a Kafka-esque turn of events, the City of Portland is pursuing a 120-day “demolition delay” for a historic landmark that the city itself  hastily demolished in 2020.  As a consequence, the Beaux-Arts designed fountain, dating to 1900, will be removed from the city’s list of historic landmarks.

This is the case of city bureaucrats prevailing over the city’s historic fabric.  The Portland Water Bureau didn’t like managing the fountain, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation wanted more room on Main Street for a bike lane and bus passage.  So say bye-bye to an iconic historic landmark.

The fountain, originally intended to provide water for horses and dogs, provided a pedestal for the iconic elk statue donated by the Portland pioneer entrepreneur and early mayor, David P. Thompson.

The city promises to return the elk – removed after it was damaged slightly during political protests in 2020 – but it will stand on a new pedestal of as-yet undisclosed design.  The pedestal will be smaller in size than the original fountain.

As you may recall, the Regional Arts & Culture Council on July 2, 2020 removed the elk statue after minor damage occurred.  Within two weeks, the Portland Water Bureau hired a company to demolish portions of the granite fountain and salvage other parts.  The speedy demolition appeared to fly in the face of state and city laws intended to protect historic sites.

Gone and not coming back

Meanwhile, the transportation bureau late in 2020 offered drawings showing the fountains site narrowed either by 4 or 8 feet on its northern and southern edges to accommodate its desired traffic plan.  

Last fall, a memo from a city preservation planner recommended that the fountain be restored.  “Given that the landmark resource is specifically noted as a fountain, staff believes that maintaining this function is important to maintaining the resource’s historic character and significance,” Hillary Adam wrote.  “Staff does not believe that reducing the fountain to a pedestal maintains this character or significance, essentially reducing the landmark by at least half of its cultural and aesthetic value.”  In an informal meeting, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission agreed.

But removal of the fountain landmark designation leaves the Landmarks Commission no voice to recommend its preservation.  A new pedestal will be reviewed instead by the Portland Design Commission, whose hands will be largely tied by whatever designs are presented to it.

In coming months, the Design Commission will send its recommendation to the Portland City Council, which already will have made up its mind by informal agreements long before the hearing.

Yes, people can testify to the City Council.  Then the council will vote and, as it usually does, thank one another for outstanding leadership.  Their decision will send a sad message, as noted by Brian Libby, an astute critic who usually writes about modern architecture.

 “To keep the statue separated permanently from its fountain would bring a grim reality: that the City of Portland will have done more lasting damage to this landmark than any protester or counter-protester,” he wrote.  He added, “It tells me there’s a problem here that’s bigger than Elk: that the City of Portland is not a thoughtful, committed or humble caretaker of its own heritage.”

-----Fred Leeson

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Friday, March 4, 2022

A Miracle on N.E. Eighth Ave.

It’s good news, usually, when politicians and TV cameras show up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.  It was miraculous news for the Allen Temple CME Church that finished a $3 million restoration that took more than six years to finance and finish.

 News accounts properly reported on the remarkable fund-raising and volunteer work that ultimately involved more than 70 design, construction, religious, social and financial partners.  There was little discussion, however,  of the architectural significance and the population changes now well into a “third wave” in the Northeast Portland neighborhood.

Architectural preservation is not specified as a religious mission, but Allen Temple was fortunate in having two architects assist who know the preservation world.  Bill Hart and Logan Cravens, affiliated with the Carlteton Hart Architecture firm, preserved the historic envelope of the building and sanctuary while completely updating the building's other "innards."  While original repair estimates were put at $400,000, the completed overhaul cost $3 million. 

 The Allen temple, at 4236 NE Eighth Ave., was one of several wood-framed churches to sprinkle the neighborhood in the early 20th century.  Like this one – erected in 1913 as the Second German Congregational Church  and enlarged in 1921 and again in 1927 and 1932  --  many were connected to the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the Scandinavian and European immigrants who dominated the neighborhoods composed of smaller, less expensive homes.    In physical size, this church was larger than many.

 Like the Allen Temple, most of these vernacular buildings were planned and built by carpenters, not architects.  They featured the gothic-arch windows, modest spires and crosses that signified a single meaning: “church.”  These small churches were common to most western towns, where wood was the least expensive building materials and carpenters had the ability to create simple designs.  Over time, many fell into disuse or the parishes graduated into more substantial edifices made of brick or stone.

 Demographic changes occurred dramatically in North and Northeast Portland after World War II, when thousands of Black workers recruited to the shipyards were funneled into the Albina area by Portland’s de facto racial segregation policies adopted by the real estate and lending businesses.


The Allen Temple CME Church was organized by Black parishioners in 1949.  As its membership grew, it learned in 1960 of the potential sale of the former German Episcopal building, and has been based there since 1961.  In 2015, two electrical fires that started within hours seriously damaged the church interior and its roof.  The site could have been cleared and sold for housing. 

 The Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes Jr., pastor since 1997, thought otherwise.  As the neighborhood gentrified during the past two decades, he believed it was important to maintain the presence of Black church and its social services in the neighborhood.  Most of the other small wooden historic churches in Northeast Portland had long since given way to other uses.

 Overall, the restoration was a daringly bold plan that required thoughtful execution.  One assumes that its success will provide for decades of religious and social benefits, as well as retaining a neighborhood architectural landmark. 

----Fred Leeson

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