Thursday, April 28, 2022

Another Monument Needing Help


Don Porth, a retired, 28-year veteran of the Portland Fire Bureau, is on a mission.  He wants to restore the David Campbell Memorial at SW 18th Ave. and Alder Street and erect a wall honoring 34 other Portland firefighters who lost their lives on active duty.

 Simple though it sounds, Porth’s vision calls for a complex restructuring of the little triangle that bears the name Portland Firefighters Park.  He would relocate a restored Campbell Memorial to the southern tip of the triangle, which would require relocation of a gazebo that holds a 4,200 pound antique fire alarm bell. 

The large bell, used for nearly 40 years until 1913, reportedly could be heard as far away as Oregon City when it was used to alert fire crews.

According to Porth’s hand-drawn sketch, the memorial wall would be placed on western side of the triangle adjacent to SW 19th Ave.  The names of those firefighters are currently located on the floor of the memorial below the now-unused fountain.

 Porth wants an accurate and professional restoration of the Campbell Memorial, which dates to 1928.  The fountain and pool were designed by Paul Cret, an architect who was a professor for 34 years at the University of Pennsylvania, and a major figure in American Beaux-Arts designs of the era.  Campbell, who was killed fighting a fire in 1911, is memorialized in a five-foot tall bronze bas-relief by sculptor Avard Fairbanks.

 The wacky nature of Portland city government makes it difficult to know who’s in charge of the monument and small park.  Though bears the name of “Firefighters Park,” is doesn’t belong to the Parks Bureau.  Though the monument is about Portland Fire Bureau history, the Fire Bureau has no administrative responsibility.  For many years, maintenance of the memorial was provided by the volunteer David Campbell Memorial Association.  Porth is its current president.    

 The agency with ostensible control over the little triangle, Porth says, is the Portland Bureau of Transportation since it is considered part of the right-of-way between SW 18th and 19th Avenues.  Of course, PBOT isn’t in the business of attending to public parks OR to commemorative monuments.


Porth also believes the revamped memorial should add additional interpretive elements.  Indeed, given Campbell’s immense influence in Portland before his death, his history deserves fuller description.

 Campbell started his career as a firefighter at age 14 in 1878.  He was too young to be hired when the city switched to a paid staff in 1883, but was hired in 1885.  He served as fire chief from 1893 to 1896, and gain from 1898 until his death.  As an athlete, Campbell was a highly skilled boxer and taught boxing for 5 years at the Multnomah Athletic Club.  As fire chief, he began the transition from h9orse-drawn to motorized fire engines.  

 The day Campbell died, fire had broken out at a Union Oil distribution plant near the Willamette River in Southeast Portland.  As the fire raged, Campbell concluded that the best way to fight it was from inside the building.  He took two other firefighters in with him, but an explosion knocked two of them out of the building to safety.  Campbell never came out.

 His death led to a momentous outpouring of grief and respect.  Newspapers estimated that 150,000 people jammed the streets for a memorial.

 It doesn’t take an expert to see that the elegant memorial needs help.  Porth is gradually building constituencies of supporters before taking his plan to the City Council.  He knows the project would be expensive, but he said private funds could be added to the city government's share.  

In an era when Portlanders often seem not to care about history, one thinks of C.E.S. Wood’s words on the Skidmore Fountain late in the 19th Century:  “Good citizens are the riches of the city.”  True then; true now. 

 -----Fred Leeson

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Friday, April 22, 2022

The Phoenix Flies Again on Foster

Matt Froman with a historic photograph

Think of Matt Froman as the man with a million-dollar smile.  Or perhaps really $1.1 million.

 Froman is a self-taught preservation expert who threw open the doors of the 100-year old Phoenix Pharmacy building last week to celebrate both its centenary and the near completion of a four-year restoration effort.

 There is likely no better-recognized structure along the angling SE Foster Road than the two-story brick building erected with a fa├žade that curves gently along the most acute angle of its trapezoidal lot.  From its opening in 1922 until 1946 it was the home of the Phoenix Pharmacy, operated by the much-admired pharmacist, John Leach. 

 For the past years, two Froman has worked full-time on the project, returning the landmark back to its original appearance and to full occupancy with a retail store, Foster Outdoor, soon to arrive on the ground floor and five offices above.  Along the way, he tackled the duties of general contractor, manual laborer and leasing agent.


Early on, Froman was fortunate in partnering with two longstanding preservation experts, Rick Michaelson and Karen Karlsson, of Inner City Properties.  After acquiring the building from his father, Froman granted 51 percent ownership to his partners; now the plan is for Froman to refinance the building based on its ongoing revenue and retake full control.

 Until renovations began, the building has been largely vacant for about 20 years.  The roof leaked so badly, water had to be contained and then drained from the second floor.  Critical elements of the restoration included a new roof, seismic bracing, new electric and plumbing systems, restoration of the original storefront system and tall transom windows.  Original doors from SE 67th Avenue to the offices above and the stairway were stripped and refinished; many walls had to be replaced, as well as the water-damaged flooring on the upper floor. 

The project began with no knowledge as to the identity of the original architect.  It remains a mystery, despite research by Jessica Engeman, a historic preservation consultant.  The nomination she wrote for the National Register of Historic Places suggests that it was Richard Martin Jr., or Morris Whitehouse.  Whitehouse designed a house in then-rural Southeast Portland for Leach and his wife, Lilla, who was a prominent botanist.   

Ground floor, looking toward front door

After the demise of the Leaches, their home and extensive gardens on 16 acres near 122nd Ave. and Foster Road were accepted for public use by the City of Portland.  The site today is called the Leach Botanical Garden.

The Phoenix Pharmacy building was the largest along SE Foster when it was built.  The street, once a Native American path that runs at an angle from SE 48th and Powell Boulevard, was newly paved from a dirt road when Leach built it. 

 Given Froman’s restoration work and his desire to retain a longstanding ownership, one hopes the interesting flagship of Foster Road will become an inspiration for restoring other interesting old buildings along the street.

------Fred Leeson

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Thursday, April 14, 2022

Coming to Northwest Portland?


(Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture)

One of the oddest chapters in Portland architectural landmark history may start unfolding soon to  transform the 1909 former First Church of Christ Scientist into a contemporary two-building hotel complex.

 There are questions galore about the proposed development, but perhaps the most solid “fact” is that the owners of what is now called the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center may have no option other than to sell the building and an adjoining lot for $4.5 million to a Nevada development company. 

 Regrettably, no other entity has stepped forward to save the former church that was converted to a neighborhood center housing non-profit entities back in 1977.  Under the proposed deal, a new five-story hotel with 80 rooms would be built facing on NW 19th Avenue and the old church would be converted to house an additional 18 hotel rooms and unspecified hotel amenities.

Proceeds from the sale would be placed in a trust fund that would provide annual payouts for civic-minded projects in Northwest Portland’s Alphabet National Historic District.  The 500-plus “owners” of the historic building are to be presented details of the sale for potential approval on April 26.  Whether they will want more details or ask for more time is not known.

Given the complexity of the proposal, be assured that it contains elements of “good news” as well as elements of “not so good news.”  Here are some that come to mind so far:

As it stands today 

Good: The roof, dome, portico and three public facades of the historic building would be saved, and ostensibly restored under guidelines approved the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.  Believed to have been designed by a prominent Chicago architect, Solon Spencer Beman, the historic shape of the Beaux-Arts design would continue as a prominent city landmark.

Not so good: Louis Sullivan’s famous architectural dictum from 1896, “form follows function,” suggests that the shape and design of a building should indicate its function.  Given its style, this building screams “church,” or, without its art-glass windows, perhaps even “government building.”  Nothing about it suggests “hotel.”  A modest means of atonement might be a plaque somewhere near its front that explains its history.

Good: The firm that produced the preliminary views, Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture of Chicago, has a track record of working on historic buildings.  It is currently working on another Portland project revamping the old Troy Laundry building and adding an adjacent residential building.  

Not so good: Founders Developments, the Las Vegas builder and proposed buyer, appears to have no track record of working on old buildings.  The firm’s website talks about it being in the business of high-end housing, which makes one wonder why it is venturing into a highly challenging project as a hotel.  

 Good: A primary difficulty in preserving the old church is its vulnerability to earthquakes.  The interior no doubt will be gutted to create a new steel frame tied to the roof and remaining walls.  This complicated engineering feat should assure survival in a major quake. 

Not so good: That means little, if anything, if anything will remain from the historic interior.  It will be a disappointment to old building lovers who often value interior design as much as the exterior.  Preliminary images suggest that the art-glass windows will be retained, which is a plus.  Otherwise, we can think of it as a Cracker Jack box with no treats inside.  (The Landmarks Commission has no jurisdiction over the building's interior.)

 Good: The shape of the new hotel to be built adjacent looks like a pleasing addition to the historic context of the Alphabet District;

 Not so good: The light color and undisclosed exterior materials as seen in the preliminary drawings soon would become water-streaked in Portland’s climate.  If the exterior is stucco, drip flashings can interrupt the pleasing smooth look.  The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission no doubt will pay close attention to these details.

 Since a sale is likely to be approved at some point, the best a preservationist can say is hang on and hope for an interesting ride, bumpy though it may prove to be.

-----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, April 7, 2022


Trying to encourage historic preservation in Portland can be a lonely and depressing task.  Yet when something positive happens, all the effort is worth it.

 Within just a couple days in the last week of March, two encouraging results emerged.  First, the Portland Parks Foundation expressed support for restoring the David Thompson Fountain, and authorized a study of how best to do it. The fountain and the elk statue that stood above it dated to 1900. 

 Soon thereafter, the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office announced that the South Park Blocks had been approved for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.  This was a victory for the Downtown Neighborhood Association, which spent 2 1/2 years working on the nomination.  The roots of the 12-block linear park date to 1877. 

If you wonder why the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation did not announce this pleasing result it is because the bureau opposed the nomination from the start and tried its best to derail it in a series of public meetings.  Some park bureau critics think the bureau wanted to turn over six of the blocks to Portland State University as part of a strategy to cut maintenance costs.

 Building on History takes pride in momentum to restore the Thompson Fountain because the substantial number of page views from our report dated March 10 helped City Commissioner Dan Ryan and many other people realize that there was strong support for restoration.  While many of these blog posts received fewer than 1,000 “hits,” the fountain article attracted more than 18,400.

 Commissioner Ryan deserves praise for being the first city commissioner to announce political support for the fountain.  Journalist and architecture critic Brian Libby also has been strongly supportive. The public should thank former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg and dedicated citizens Stephen Kafoury and Henry Kunowski for their work in approaching the levers of  city power.

The ad hoc Friends of the Thompson Elk Fountain want the city government to take four actions:

---Withdraw the pending application to withdraw the fountain as a historic landmark;

---Restore the entire artwork, including the fountain, troughs, pedestal and the elk and recreate any missing pieces consistent with National Park Service preservation standards;

---Restore the landmark artwork to its original location on SW Main Street;

---Address roadway improvements after the restoration. 

Concern about the fountain’s future remains.  The PPF board took notable action in trying to reach a conclusion about the fountain's fate.  However, preservation is far from assured.  The study committee is expected to look at other options in addition to historic restoration; one "preservation" member on the committee could easily be out-voted.  We hope the PPF board will be both diligent and  vigilant as this process moves forward.   

 As a personal note, this month marks the end of the second year of weekly posts by Building on History.  The blog’s goal was to attempt to increase public support for preservation of important historic buildings and places.  It would be imprudent to claim wild success on behalf of preservation.  Your author is heartened, however, by consequences from the Thompson Fountain article.   Building on History shall continue to blunder ahead with hope in its heart.

We all lose if we give up on what made us what we are. 

 ----Fred Leeson

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