If you tell Portlanders that one of downtown’s best examples of architectural preservation is the Waldo Block, the response likely will be, “The WHAT block?”
A recent paint job that does a better job of accentuating the details of a building erected in 1886 makes the slender structure at SW 2nd Ave and Washington St. look its best since, well, maybe 1886.
For 30 years it was best known as the home of the Elephant & Castle restaurant, but that run ended in 2003. The Waldo Block was erected in 1886, near the end of Portland’s adventure with cast iron construction with Italianate detailing. It featured retail on the ground floor and two stories of housing above.
The building was erected by, and named for, John Waldo, an early Portland lawyer who served one term on the Oregon Supreme Court from 1880 to 1886. The original architect is not known, but the building includes interesting recessed balconies on the third floor of the SW 2nd Avenue façade.
Sometime in the 1890s, the building became a key element of Portland’s original Chinatown, providing both housing, social events and gambling for Chinese community. Chinese owners possessed the building from 1943 until 1980, when a subsequent owner found opium scales and gambling equipment and furniture.
As the building changed hands over the years, its 19th Century cornice and some other details were shorn off, no doubt by owners hoping to reduce maintenance costs. By 1980, as a historic photograph shows, it seemed that its future likely was to include a wrecking ball. Portland’s Chinatown had moved north of Burnside and the downtown business district had moved a few blocks to the west.
An excellent restoration in the mid-1980s, however, replaced the cornice and returned the Waldo Block to its former glory. The housing was converted to offices with the restaurant as the primary ground-floor tenant.
Perhaps one reason the building isn’t better known is its unfortunate location at the westbound off-ramp from the Morrison Bridge. A parking lot lies across directly across Washington Street. Coupled with the rush of traffic off the bridge, the wider Washington street exposure is not an especially pleasant pedestrian experience.
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