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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