Thursday, October 27, 2022

Renovating Nameless High School


(Portland Public Schools)

Many Portlanders would have trouble identifying the building above, erected in 1909.  Its Renaissance Revival architecture was rendered as "un-recognizable” in a recent study, following “modernization” in the 1950s. . 

But given a clue that the building’s address is 5210 N. Kerby Ave., people are more likely to say, “Oh, yes! That’s Nameless High School!”

For 110 years, Nameless High School was identified with American pioneer who wrote a historic document believed by some to be important to creeation of the United States. But because of other comportment, he is no longer deemed worthy of veneration.  A statue of his likeness was pulled down in 2020, and Portland Public Schools has announced that a new name will be provided.

Nameless High is now the latest of several any Portland high schools to be completely revamped and remodeled.  A preliminary plan suggests that the historic wing from 1909 will be saved and braced for earthquakes, while additions added in 1928, the 1950s and 1968, probably will be removed to make room for new construction. 

The current campus is a sad architectural mishmash. The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission is expected to hear a description of the remodeling plans on Nov. 14. Previous remodeling efforts at Grant, Roosevelt, Benson and Franklin High Schools have included considerable respect for their historic architecture.  One can hope for the same at Nameless.

Nameless High School today

The fact that renovation of Nameless High fell far down the school district’s renovation list is irritating to many neighbors.  They are inclined to believe that once again they were penalized by forces relating directly or indirectly to their melanin factor.  For decades, reprehensible public policies and real estate practices restricted areas where people of darker hues could purchase homes, and Nameless High was their neighborhood school.

On the other hand, as the school’s student population, as high as 2,000 in its earliest days but now dwindling near 700,  the renovation schedule may have been driven by achieving results for the largest number of students at the quickest pace. Preliminary plans suggest that the school's future population could climb as high as 1,700. 

As often occurs in populations ravaged by discrimination, sports offered a clear outlet for proving student achievement.  A quarterback at Nameless later won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best college football player in 1962.  One of his teammates at Nameless starred in college and in the National Football League, where is honored on the Dallas Cowboy’s Ring of Fame.

Even as its student population declined, Nameless High continued to thrive in basketball, where its teams often handily defeated opponents from Portland’s larger high schools and sent a few players to the National Basketball Association.

In the 1980s, an outstanding teacher at Nameless created a creative dance program involving rigorous pre-professional training and choreography that has won wide acclaim.  Renovation of the school is expected to create new spaces for dance practice and performances, as well as new athletic facilities.

Of course, the planning and execution of the renovation plan is expected to take at least a  few years.  In the meantime, the school district will be trying to find a new name for Nameless.

 Here is a modest proposal in that regard from your Building on History host.  The school should be called Renfro-Baker High School.  If those names don’t ring a bell, you haven’t studied your Nameless High School history.

 ----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, October 20, 2022

Will Vandals Aways Win?


Gone But Not Forgotten

If you lived in Portland between 1927 and 2020, you likely will remember the tall sculpture of a pensive-looking President Abraham Lincoln in the South Park Blocks, shown above.

 Savor the memory.  It is unlikely to return.  The Lincoln statue, like those of Jefferson, Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, were illegally pulled down by unknown hooligans in 2020.  Two years later, the Portland City Council has said nothing about restoring the statues or making any formal decisions about what should, or shouldn’t, be considered worthy of public art.

 The closest determination that has been made so far comes from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, an appointed advisory group that – without public testimony or public scrutiny – has written that all those statutes are unworthy of restoration.

 In short, the hooligans win.  Is this how public policy should be crafted in Portland?

 According to RACC, the four people once honored by those sculptures either said things or took personal actions that don’t comport with contemporary concepts of political correctness.  This lumps Abraham Lincoln into the same category as Robert E. Lee.

 The trouble with the purity standard, as one might call it, is that it ignores the historical political context and legal environments of the era in which these four presidents lived.  It is difficult to think of any human being -- historically significant or otherwise -- whose lives meet perfection in every degree.

One can understand why the nature of public art does not rank high on the City Council’s list of current priorities.  The city is on pace for a record year of homicides and shootings; homeless people living on tents and blocking sidewalks make downtown unpleasant for merchants and pedestrians; the pandemic has diminished the downtown workforce with a corresponding effect on restaurants and coffee shops; some retailers, both recent and longstanding, have shut down. 

 And, oh yes, the hooligans still attack downtown windows on a seemingly random basis.


Public Art Today 

Jeff Hawthorne, the city’s arts program manager, contends that the city government eventually will hold a public dialogue about the role of public art, including whether the uprooted statutes should be returned.  But he has yet to identify a process of how that discussion will occur.  In a recent statement, he predicted that nothing will happen before the end of 2024. 

 Controversy about public art is not limited to Portland; others have given thought to potential resolutions.  One reasonable path through the wilderness of confusion comes from a commission in New York City.  It wrote:

 “The approach to memorial artwork should focus on adding detail and nuance to – instead of removing – the representations of these histories. We should take a hard look at who has been left out and see where we can add new work to ensure our public spaces reflect the diversity and values of our great city.”

 A strategy that is good for New York, it seems, could be good for Portland.  It might offer hope for George, Thomas, Abe and Teddy.


Fred Leeson

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Thursday, October 13, 2022

A Great Save for Northwest Portland?


1819 NW Everett St. (Hartshorne-Plunkard Architects)

New life for the landmark old First Church of Christ Scientist in Northwest Portland will be as a venue for food, drink, exercise and public events as a companion to a new five-story hotel behind it.

 The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission got its first look at the preliminary plans and spoke highly of the proposed effort to restore the beaux-arts church dating to 1909.  However, the panel expressed some reservations about design of the hotel to be erected on the adjoining quarter-block parking lot.

Andrew Becker, a Chicago-based architect for new owners of the church and vacant lot, promised “thoughtful and minimal exterior changes” to the former church, which has been known most recently as the Northwest Community Cultural Center.

One visual change would be a glass guard rail at the second story of the church, allowing for public access to the roof and its views of Northwest Portland and downtown.  The sloping floor if the second-floor former sanctuary would be levelled for use by events.

 The church’s basement, according to the plans, would contain a restaurant, fitness center and spa, and the main floor would contain a restaurant and lounge, in addition to the main entry.   

 Becker said the building’s stone fa├žade “is believed to be in fairly good condition” but the windows are deteriorated.  He proposed removing the opalescent glass in favor of clear glass to improve interior lighting, but the landmarks commission suggested that perhaps one large window could be restored showing the historic glazing.  Becker said the historic size and design of the window casings and frames would be retained on the three most visible facades.

Becker said the old church would be upgraded seismically to current earthquake standards without affecting exterior facades.  However, he said the full engineering details are not yet complete.  

 The architect also said it is too early to tell how much of the church’s interior details, such as woodwork and light fixtures, can be reused.  “Where we can integrate those features, that is something we live to do,” he said. 

Steve Pinger, representing the Northwest District Association, called the church restoration “a great project,” but he said a rendering  the new hotel was “kind of going backwards” from an earlier version shown in a pre-application report.  Landmarks commissioners also felt that the first rendering appeared more coherent as a design.  The building would sit at  NW 19th Ave. and Flanders St. 

First design, left, versus revised version (Hartshorne-Plunkard Architects)

The commission will hold another hearing at an undetermined future date when more information will be available about window restoration and, presumably, some design changes on the new hotel.

 Under the preliminary plan, the hotel and the old church would be linked only by a short uncovered walkway.  Becker said it is possible that someday the church and hotel would be held under separate ownership.  The current owner is Founders Development, based in Las Vegas.

For the past 10 years or longer, the old church had fallen victim to maintenance neglect, and the cost of earthquake bracing made sale of the building difficult.  It now appears that new and interesting use is on the horizon.

 “I’m just thrilled it can be saved,” said Commissioner Kimberly Moreland.  “I really like the way this is progressing.”

 ----Fred Leeson

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