Thursday, September 8, 2022

A Good Save Downtown


Alderway Building -- A Few Years Ago

In times of economic distress, smart money looks for “bargains” that will pay off when times improve.  That is good news for one of downtown Portland’s most interesting old buildings, where the purchaser appears to be motivated by long-term gain rather than short-term riches.

The four-story Alderway Building is named for the prominent downtown corner where SW Broadway intersects with Alder Street.  It was built by Portland entrepreneur Fred G. Meyer, best known for his big chain of one-stop shopping centers bearing his name in Oregon and a few other states.

 Before the Great Depression intervened, Meyer planned to be a commercial property developer.  However, the Alderway Building and crash of 1929 forced Meyer to concentrate full-bore on groceries and retail.

 In 1928, Meyer took a 99-year lease on the failed Pantages Theater, a vaudeville house that had been on the site since 1911.  Meyer planned to demolish the theater a build an office and retail building.  Demolition was in progress when engineers advised Meyer that the theater’s underlying steel structure could be left in place and reused.  Ever mindful of expenses, Meyer agreed.

 The building as it stands today was designed by the Claussen & Claussen firm that continued to work with Meyer remodeling old buildings into Fred Meyer stores during the Depression that followed.  The Alderway building is a clear example of  the "Chicago School" architecture, with a clear expression of the steel frame, masonry cladding, expansive tripartite windows and rather minimal decoration.

 The revamped building was completed early in 1929.  Meyer moved in his corporate office and planned to rent most of the other three office floors.  On the main floor, he introduced Fred Meyer Toiletries & Remedies, his first venture into a self-service drug store.  Adjacent was the Fred Meyer Thrift Laundry where customers brought in clothes for laundry and dry cleaning and picked them up the following week.  (Meyer contracted with others who did the actual cleaning.)


Early 1930s Fred Meyer storefronts

Meyer had just moved into the new Alderway Building when the stock market crashed in October, 1929.  As a consequence, he was unable to lease the vacant space and eventually had to forfeit the lease.  Meyer by nature never discussed his failures, so how much he lost on the Alderway project is not known.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the rest of the Great Depression worked out reasonably well for Meyer.  He added several stores during the era and was one of the few companies to add employees during the painful economic era.  After World War II, he continued expanding aggressively until his death in 1978.

 The new owner of the Alderway Building is Melvin Mark Investors, a branch of the Melvin Mark real estate companies that have been active in Portland since 1945.  The company plans to do some renovations to the building that likely will not jeopardize its historic feel.  The Hennebery Eddy architecture firm that will design the changes has a solid reputation working on old as well as new buildings.

 The gamble for the Mark firm is that the business environment around the Alderway will improve with new towers under construction nearby, and that Portland ultimately will get its act together in recovering from the pandemic and rampant sidewalk camping.  In the meantime, at least, the Alderway Building is not in jeopardy.

----Fred Leeson

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  1. Great news about the long-term future of the Alderway Building. And here's a bit of background on its predecessor, the Pantages Theater, which provided the steel structure for the Alderway. The Pantages Theater was the second of what would become a national chain of Pantages vaudeville and motion picture houses, the first having been built a few years previous in Seattle. Pantages hired noted Portland architect Emil Schacht to design his new theater, possibly one of the few major Portland architects of the day willing to take a commission from an entrepreneur known for his roots supplying Alaska Gold Rush miners with morally questionable entertainment. The Pantages was a very successful venture initially, but its relatively small size and design built around vaudeville performance was out of step with the market for "movie palaces" being built in the 20s, and Pantages eventually moved his business to a larger structure. After a few years of struggle, the old theater folded, soon to be partially demolished and re-used as the structure of the Alderway Building.

  2. Thanks, Jim, for the excellent addditional background on this building site.