Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Reimagining O'Bryant Square


For the past five years, chain-link fencing has sealed off O’Bryant Square, a small downtown block that used urban renewal money in 1973 to develop a park atop an underground parking garage.

In a small way, it was the kind of project that gave urban renewal a bad name.  The public restrooms attracted graffiti, drug use and sexual activity.  The big decorative water fountain seeped water into the parking garage.  It acquired nicknames of Needle Park and Paranoia Park.

Oddly, its best use occurred earlier this decade when it provided imnpromptu seating for food carts located on a nearby vacant block.  The square provided the sort of  pleasant activity that urban renewal planners never considered, since food carts didn't exist in their day.  But now the food carts are gone and that block is sprouting a luxury tower. Given all the park's problems, the city simply fenced it off. in 2018.

Now the chain-link fencing is scheduled to come down so the small block can be completely levelled.  The non-profit Portland Parks Foundation has announced plans for a public “visioning” process to determine how the park should be redeveloped.

What the park will look like, what it will be used for, when it will be rebuilt and for how it will cost are questions that have no answers as yet.

The planning will begin with some bottom-up thinking, rather than from the top down.  Randy Gragg, the park foundations executive director, said the goal is “to bring national and local thinkers together with the community to re-envision the park’s future.”

After meetings in February and March, the foundation hopes to envision a first-phase design and to “learn what activities work, and don’t, to shape the future permanent design” when funding becomes available.

 Citizens interested in learning about the process and how to participate can find information at https://www.portlandpf.org/back-to-square-one-green-dreams?mc_cid=1b2cbf4b81&mc_eid=0ca4b529f6

The planning process is similar to one used by the Parks Bureau in the early 2000s when it devised plans for Director Park.  Though the park’s activity has been stymied by the pandemic in recent years, its fundamental design was a success.

 The challenge at O’Bryant Square (named for Portland’s first mayor) is deciding who is most likely to use it and for what purposes.  Located at SW Park Ave. and Washington St., it is not adjacent to the downtown retail core nor close to most high-rise offices.  More than likely it needs some sort of pleasant attraction – perhaps a better fountain – and adequate seating, some with rain protection.  Perhaps a common "theme" can be developed that would help attract visitors.

 And it probably will need restrooms – another difficult design challenge.

 While Building on History always favors retaining the best of vintage architecture and public spaces, it is obvious that nothing in the current park is worthy of salvage.  We can only hope for a new and better outcome this time around..

 -----Fred Leeson

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Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Dr. John D. Marshall Building


Dr. John D. Marshall Building

In 1952, Dr. John D. Marshall, one of Portland’s few Black doctors, erected a modest, one-story, flat-roofed building in the heart of Albina.  Given that Blacks could not be treated at the time at nearby Emanuel Hospital, Dr. Marshall’s clinic quickly became a busy medical hub for Albina’s heavily Black community.

 Dr. Marshall practiced at the N. Williams building until 1970.  During that time, he also leased space to o a Black-owned pharmacy and dental clinic.   Then, from 1970 to 1979, the Dr. John D. Marshall Building housed to medical facilities run by the supposedly “radical” Black Panther Party, the Fred Hampton Free Health Clinic and the Malcolm X Peoples’ Dental Clinic.

While the Black Panthers operated medical clinics in several other cities, Portland was the Panther’s only dental clinic, according to research in a National Register of Historic Places nomination.  The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission has recommended the nomination for state and national consideration.

“It was the hub of Black medical care.  Nothing else like it existed,” said Caity Ewers, an architectural historian who helped write the National Register nomination.  The nomination is based on the building's significant involvement in Portland's ethnic heritage and Black healthcare and medicine. 

Besides its medical tenants, the building also housed from 1959 to 1969 the law office of Aaron Brown, a lawyer who was the first Black appointed to the Multnomah County bench in 1969.  Judge Brown had a lengthy judicial career that was well-recognized for his personable style in handling civil cases and misdemeanor crimes.

 The Dr. John D. Marshall Building is owned today by Bernie Foster, publisher of The Skanner newspaper.  Foster ran his newspaper from the building for 10 years, starting in 1980.  Even then, he said, “People would come in and say, ‘Is the doctor in’?”

 Ewers said one element of the building’s historical significance was Dr. Marshall’s ability to finance its construction in an era when racial discrimination was highly common among Portland’s lending institutions.  He was one of fewer than five Black physicians in Portland at the time.

 The National Register nomination reflects a trend in the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to place new emphasis on historic places involving Portland’s minority communities.  “Even though we have only one building today, we have others in the pipeline,” Brandon Spencer-Hartle, the city’s historic resources manager, told the Landmarks Commission.  The bureau’s efforts are supported by consulting and research by Kimberly Moreland, who also is a Landmarks Commission member.  She did not participate in the commission’s deliberations favoring the nomination.

 The Marshall Building continues its connection with the Black community today as the home of the Terry Family Funeral Home, a Black-owned firm.  The building has undergone a few significant changes over the years, but its basic shape and Roman bricks retain the building’s original character.

 The National Register nomination will be considered next month by the Oregon State Advisory Committee for Historic Preservation.   The final step after that would be consideration by the National Park Service, which administers the federal National Register program.

 -----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, January 12, 2023

Good News on N. Interstate Avenue


The "new" Palms sign (Ankrom Moisan Architects)

There is good news on N. Interstate Avenue: The sign…will be fine.

 After being removed later this year, the 50-plus foot tall iconic neon sign that formerly attracted visitors to The Palms Motor Hotel will return in in 2025 with the same type fonts and same colors of neon and paint.  Only the words “Motor Hotel” will be changed to “Luxe Lofts.”

 The sign will be moved a few dozen feet farther south on the 3800 block to make it more visible to motorists and light rail transit riders using the busy Interstate Avenue corridor.  Instead of advertising a motel, it will be heralding a 155-unit, seven-story apartment building that will replace the motel.

 Dirgesh Patel, the motel owner who has lived on the block for 25 years, told the Overlook Neighborhood Association on Jan. 9 that the sign is beloved by his family (his parents bought the motel in 1998) and by countless others.  “People from all over the world came and loved that sign,” he said.

The sign is an excellent example of how a well-designed artifact can become a vital part of the urban fabric, even if its basic role isn't terribly important.

 Architects for the Portland firm of Ankrom Moisan realized the sign’s significance from the outset. “That’s a cool sign.  We could really work with that,” said Jason Roberts.

 When reinstalled, the sign will stand on a six-foot pedestal to protect pedestrians and to prevent harm to the neon.  It will sit near a 17- by- 35-foot courtyard recessed into the building’s fa├žade.

As it looks today...

Neon enthusiasts were concerned when they first heard of plans to redevelop the motel site.  Kate Widdows, a designer and neon sign enthusiast, helped spur interest in The Palms situation, though in the end the sign evidently spoke for itself.

 “So far, you guys are totally on the right track,” she told the Ankrom Moisan team.  “We are thankful for that.”  She also added noted that a small element of the sign advertising “Free TV” will not be included as part of the sign’s restoration.  She suggested that it be saved as a stand-alone work of art.  “It’s beautiful.  It’s a part of history,” she said.  “It would be really cool in the lobby.”

People who would \like to comment on the sign's restoration play can send an email to  thepalmsdevelopment@gmail.com

 Although the over-sized Palms sign would not be allowed under Portland’s current sign code, there is an exception for a few notable neon signs along Interstate Avenue.  The city’s current historic resources code could allow the sign to become a designated landmark, independent of the rest of the property.

Patel said he was not aware of historic designation possibilities, but that he was interested in learning about them.  He also said he planned to live in the new apartments when they are finished, supposedly by mid-2025.

 ---Fred Leeson

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Friday, January 6, 2023

A 'First' for Native American History


(National Register Nomination Form)

The next Portland residence to be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places is unlike any other landmark in town.

It is not in an upscale neighborhood.

It is not grandiose.

It does not have an architectural pedigree.

It was not the home of a wealthy white person.

The modest 1930s shingle-sided house in the 10800 block of Northeast Fremont Street was the childhood home of jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper and the site of continuing inspiration while he was earning musical notoriety by blending Native American rhythm into jazz fusion. 

 The Pepper house is the first property in Portland to seek placement on the National Register because of its significance with Native American ethnic heritage and performing arts.

 Pepper’s parents, Floy and Gilbert Pepper, who came to Portland shortly before World War II, were descendants of Kaw and Muscogee Creek Native American tribes of Oklahoma.  Because of ethnic prejudices of the era, Floy and Gilbert Pepper experienced racism that affected their opportunities for employment, housing and credit in Portland. Jim Pepper was born in 1941, and after the outbreak of the war the family moved to Vanport, but lost everything in the 1948 flood.

 The family bought the home on Northeast Fremont in 1941, which at that time was outside the Portland city limits.  Jim attended Parkrose High School but transferred to Madison High School after becoming a target of bullying at Parkrose. He already was performing as a Native dancer and musician before his graduation from Madison in 1959.

Pepper played in several Portland jazz clubs with many of the city’s leading jazz artists in subsequent years.  After 1972, he lived in San Francisco and New York, and spent many years playing in Europe.  He said European audiences were more welcoming of evolving musical styles than in America, where  music was more dominated by the pop music industry. 

His influential album, “Pepper’s Pow Wow,” was recorded in New York, but Jim Pepper wrote many of the tunes on it with his father at their Portland residence, which he often visited.  The album contains perhaps his most famous song, “Wi Chi Tai To,’ which is heavily based on native rhythm of a Comanche peyote song, which Pepper said he remembered hearing at age 3.

Album's back cover

 The “Pepper’s Pow Wow” has been described by one scholar as “something of a musical ‘bible’ for Native artists."  Pepper’s performance of Wi Chi Tai To, a lengthy chant and song, can be seen here, as performed by Pepper in 1980:


 The National Register nomination includes a detailed history of Pepper’s musical career, written by Architectural Resources Group historians. Some of Pepper’s original musical notes and his saxophone have been donated to the Smithsonian Institution.  Pepper died of cancer in 1999.

As for the Pepper house on Fremont Street, “No other place is as closely or consistently associated with his development as a musician or with his productive period as an artist,” the nomination states.

The nomination will be reviewed by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission on Jan. 23.  If positive recommendations come from the landmarks commission and the the Oregon State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation, the nomination would head to the National Park Service for final review. 

 ----Fred Leeson

You can join Building on History’s email list by writing “add me” to fredleeson@hotmail.com