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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