Monday, October 23, 2023

Historic Goodness in Southeast Portland


(Jessica Engeman photo -- National Register nomination)

Completion of the Rex Arms Apartments in 1913 at 1230 SE Morrison St. was an amazing achievement for the neighborhood and for Richard F. Wassell, a developer, contractor and apparently a self-taught architect.

 Portland’s first boom in apartment house development occurred mostly on the more affluent West Side, including downtown and the Northwest Portland neighborhood.  East Portland’s dominantly working-class residents unquestionably felt their economic inferiority.

 Wassell, who lived just a few blocks from the Rex Arms, no doubt believed he was striking at least one blow for equality, erecting a 62-unit building in an Italian Renaissance style that matched the size, quality and appearance of comparable buildings going up on the West Side.  The Rex Arms, now an affordable housing site owned by REACH Community Development, is Portland’s latest nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

 The 90-page nomination form, compiled by Erik Hovmiller and Jessica Engeman, offers an exhaustive look at the building that, aside from window replacements, has seen little exterior change over the decades.  The document also provides a comprehensive history of Wassell, whose short working career certainly deserves attention.

 Wassell worked as a carpenter and bricklayer before he started calling himself an “architect” in 1909.  He apparently was self-trained since there is no history of a formal education. "Evidence suggests that he primarily learned design through self-study and from his hands-on work as a builder,” the historians state. 

Decorative bracket and cornice (Engeman photo)

“After several years working in construction, he was driven to accomplish more and sought to become an architect and real estate developer. Building these skillsets afforded him an unusual amount of control over every aspect of his buildings—the aesthetic character, the features and functional aspects of the building that would affect his real estate pro forma, and the quality of the construction.”

 The Rex Arms illustrates Wassell’s mastery of the common residential architecture of the day.  A notable example of his own inventiveness is the large brackets supporting an elaborate cornice.  One has to wonder if he wasn’t influenced by the interesting brackets on William C. Knighton’s Seward Hotel in downtown Portland, completed in 1909. 

 All told Wassell designed eight apartment buildings, three commercial buildings and several houses.  One of his final projects was creation of the Peacock Lane development, which is famed for its Christmas season lighting.  Peacock Lane was listed on the National Register in 2017.

Wassell may have had a hand in designing other apartments in association with the well-known Carl Linde.  He also took a run at the food processing business during World War I.

 In all, Wassell’s projects, some never built, “offer further evidence of Richard’s seemingly indefatigable ambition, remarkable talents, and may suggest a larger contribution to architecture and development than documented” in the nomination form.

 Wassell died of pneumonia in 1927 when he was 39. 

 Hovmiller said REACH hopes to achieve historic tax credits for the building that will help maintain its availability for low-income residents.

 ----Fred Leeson

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Monday, October 16, 2023

A Landmark Goes on the Market

Faced with a looming financial crunch, congregants of Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland have decided they must sell their landmark building that was designed by Portland’s most famous architect, Pietro Belluschi.

 Central Lutheran is one of two Portland churches designed by Belluschi in which he combined his love of indigenous Pacific Northwest building materials with hints of Japanese structural elements.  During his career that lasted from the 1920s into the 1980s, Belluschi was an international leader in buildings ranging from houses to churches to tall skyscrapers.

 In 1949 and 1950, Belluschi designed both Zion Lutheran Church in Southwest Portland and Central Lutheran in the Irvington neighborhood.  Zion Lutheran is perhaps a better example of the Belluschi style but Central Lutheran also has been designated as a Portland historical landmark for its architectural qualities.


Front canopy reflects Belluschi's Japanese influence

The landmark status likely will be a factor in whatever new use occurs.  Ideally, another congregation buys the building – which happened to another church just a block away that sold in 2019.  The landmark status prevents any significant changes to Central Lutheran’s brick and wood exteriors unless the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission – and perhaps ultimately the Portland City Council – agree. 

 Central Lutheran learned about violating the landmark regulations the hard way in 2005 when they whacked off the top 40 feet of Belluschi’s steeple that had suffered from dry rot.  The city forced restoration of the steeple following the original design at a cost of some $200,000. It took years of fundraising, but the steeple and its cross rising about 100 feet above street level were replaced in 2009.

Church officials have steadily worked on restoring elements of the wooden facades in recent years.  Their efforts have been hampered by the COVID pandemic that reduced rentals of church meeting rooms, and by the expense of cleaning up garbage and graffiti from homeless campers and vandals.

Rear side shows rounded end of chapel and church office.

Any savvy prospective buyers must recognize that Portland’s architectural preservation community will speak vociferously against changes that would significantly alter Belluschi’s design.  That said, the building with a sizable chapel, kitchen and meeting rooms conceivably could be converted to a new uses.

 Travelling in Denmark some years ago where Lutheranism is the state religion, your author learned that as religious views changed among the citizenry, many Lutheran churches were converted to new uses such as museums, art centers,  performance spaces and child-care facilities.

 That is the short way of stating that even if a new congregation does not buy Central Lutheran, another acceptable use potentially could be available.

 Church officials said their current funds are likely to be exhausted by the end of 2024.  That leaves an appreciable time for marketing the building and trying to find acceptable ownership and operation for a notable Portland landmark. 

 ---Fred Leeson

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