Thursday, April 25, 2024

Famous Long Ago


The building above bears no formal historic designation.  Still, it truly is a “landmark” in the dictionary sense of being a prominent feature of a particular place.  For roughly 40 years, it helped define Northeast Portland’s Hollywood thriving business district as much as the grandiose Hollywood Theatre across the street.

The single-story building with basement was the first Fred Meyer retail store built to the specifications of Fred G. Meyer himself after World War II.  It was the first of three Meyer one-stop-shopping venues to feature rooftop parking, a concept he no doubt borrowed from the unsuccessful Portland Public Market that opened downtown during the Great Depression. 

 A preliminary design for Meyer’s Hollywood store was completed in 1936.  However, the Depression and World War II delayed its completion until 1947.  Until then, Meyer’s nascent retail empire had grown through the remodeling of older buildings he purchased during the Depression.

 Meyer followed the Hollywood store with a rooftop parking store at Rose City (now destroyed) and at the Hawthorne store, which still retains about half of its original upper-level parking.  His rooftop parking plans died a few years later when he learned about a faster, cheaper construction process that did not allow the weight of vehicles on the roof.

 By the time Meyer died in 1978, his newer suburban stores were several times larger than the Hollywood store.  The company closed the Hollywood store in the late 1980s after building a far larger emporium a half a mile away on the former Hyster forklift manufacturing site.  For a while, the bigger store was a place you could buy all your food, drugs, clothes, shoes, garden supplies and hardware, in addition to a table saw and a Barbie doll.  (Kroger Inc., the current owner, has scaled down the inventory compared to the old days.)

 The drug chain Rite Aid renovated the old Fred Meyer store and operated a pharmacy until moving out last year.  The bulk of the building remains vacant, although a bank and a couple small businesses operate on its edges. 

Empty racks and assorted retail debris still clutter the former Fred Meyer/Rite Aid space.  Several other vacancies dot the Hollywood district as well.  What once ranked as one of Portland’s busiest neighborhood commercial centers is in apparent decline.  One of the most notable vacancies is the old Poor Richard’s steakhouse that enjoyed an ample parking lot.  The Poor Richard’s site, just a couple blocks from the former Fred Meyer store, has sat vacant now for several years.

Drive right up...but why?

Oddly, perhaps, rooftop parking is still available at the old Hollywood Fred Meyer store.  The monthly fee is $90, should you live in the neighborhood and need a place to park.  It is also possible to walk up the ramp to get an interesting and rather close-up elevated view of the Hollywood Theatre's amazing terra cotta fa├žade across Sandy Boulevard. 

While the fate of contemporary retailing remains heavily in question, the Hollywood business district will remain a shadow of its former self until a successful enterprise reincarnates Fred Meyer's vision from long ago.

 ---Fred Leeson

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Friday, April 19, 2024

Unwelcome Visitors and the Gates


While we might quibble about the causes of human impoverishment, there is no need to hedge about the damage done to Portland buildings and parks by the revolving assortment of homeless campers.  Sadly, some of the worst damage has occurred at valued historic buildings.

 Going back a century and longer, many commercial buildings and apartments were designed with recessed doorways that sheltered people from Portland’s damp weather as they entered or departed.   Alas, the same recessed doorways became popular places for campers to unfurl whatever they slept on and to deposit their unpleasant human droppings.

 For employees, stepping over the campers and asking them to depart was an unpleasant task with responses ranging with varying degrees of disaffection.  Stepping over – and cleaning up – the human wastes was worse.

As a result, many buildings have responded to putting up gates that close off entrances.  The gates are effective, but not necessarily welcome aesthetic additions. And for certain they are an unwelcome albeit important expense.  

Three doorways at the AHC

The Architectural Heritage Center, a non-profit whose mission is to encourage preservation of Portland’s historic buildings and public places, added three scissor gates to protect recessed entries facing on S.E. Grand Ave.  The center hoped to find a more attractive design befitting the building’s 1891 heritage, but the spaces couldn’t accommodate more attractive cast iron gates.

Besides keeping intruders out, the scissor gates substantially fold back somewhat out of sight when the building is open.

Barber Block

A block north on Grand Avenue, the 1890 Barber Block found more attractive iron gates that are less disruptive to the building’s architecture.  But some of the additions on the building's southern facade don’t have to open and close, making the design decisions much easier.

 One of the most jarring applications of fencing and gates appears at the 1890 Immaculate Heart  Catholic Church on N. Williams Avenue.  The stark application of powder-coated steel shows that even an institution that values charity, benevolence and reformation has limits on its patience.

One assumes that contemporary architects working on new buildings have a new consideration to ponder, in addition to form, function, materials and environmental concerns.  Unlike their ancestors a century ago, they need to conceive of attractive means of keeping intruders at bay.

 -----Fred Leeson

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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Reconfiguring the David Campbell Memorial


Potential renovation (David Campbell Memorial Association)

Occasionally, someone with no preservation expertise steps forward to make a huge difference is protecting an important piece of Portland’s built environment.

 For Don Porth, devoting countless hours to protecting and repairing the David P. Campbell Memorial at 18th Ave. and W. Burnside is a no-brainer.  “All I’m acting on is passion and duty.”

 A retired firefighter, Porth is president of the non-profit David P. Campbell Memorial Association, named in honor of the Portland fire chief who was killed while saving other firefighters from a terrible waterfront conflagration in 1911.  At his funeral, tens of thousands of Portlanders turned out to honor the well-known citizen and athlete.   

The memorial plaza was erected in 1928, based on the design by Paul Cret, a Pennsylvania architect who was a national master of Beaux-Arts design of that era.  Over time, the names of other fallen firefighters were added to the memorial, although many other names were not. 

 The memorial has taken a horrible beating from vandals and graffiti taggers in recent years.  Working with retired preservation architect William J. Hawkins, Porth has devised a plan to add a plaza that would include an interpretive description and honor all 76 firefighters killed in action to date.


A historic view before the triangle was enlarged in 1963

Given the attention and effort Porth has contributed, “It’s amazing what one person can do with the will and tenacity to do it,” Hawkins told the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission recently.  Porth is appreciative of Hawkins’ help, as well.  “I’m just a retired Portland firefighter,” he said.  “This is way above my pay grade, let me tell you.”

 The biggest design challenge at this point is how to protect two large bronze electrified lanterns that formerly graced each of the memorial’s two wings.  The elegant fixtures have been vandalized and their glass panels broken many times.  The lanterns have been removed and are currently being restored at a cost of $48,000.

 Porth’s idea is to raise them on three-foot pedestals to make them less accessible to harm.  Hawkins isn’t keen on altering Cret’s original design.  He said Cret was one of the nation’s most highly-regarded architects at the time, and that “Portland was lucky to get him.”  As for the lanterns, Hawkins said, “There is no easy solution,” he said.  “All of them are problematic.”

 Ultimately, the Landmarks Commission will be asked to approve a final design.  At an informal hearing, Commissioner Kimberly Moreland offered another potential solution for the lanterns.  She suggested that they should be retired to the Fire Bureau’s museum where they could be protected but still be available for public viewing.  “They are so beautiful it would be great to see them saved and preserved.”

Indeed, one solution might be to craft bronze lanterns similar to the originals, but without lights or glass panels, while the originals retire to a secure setting.    

After more than two years of work and planning, Porth will return with a final proposal sometime in the next few months. In the meantime, this devoted preservationist will be thinking….and thinking... about  lanterns.  The rest of us can ponder the famous quotation from C.E.S. Wood: "Good citizens are the riches of the city." 

 ----Fred Leeson

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Friday, April 5, 2024

A Life-Saving Design Challenge


In its latest annual chat with the City Council, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission urged the city to find suicide prevention devices that are more compatible with the elegant design of the historic Vista Avenue Bridge.

 Incredible views from 120 feet above Canyon Road attract many tourists to take pictures.  Alas, the height and beauty also attracted many people using it to end their lives -- sometimes as many as three a year -- giving it informal moniker of Suicide Bridge. The consequences were grotesque for nearby residents and for anyone else unfortunate enough to encounter them.

 The current “dropper stoppers,” added in 2013, were intended to be temporary while a permanent solution came into being.  Now, more than a decade later, the same heavy black chain-link fencing and poles that stand nine feet tall remain firmly bolted in place and no other solution is anywhere on the horizon.

After the Landmarks Commission’s presentation seeking a more attractive solution, Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who is in charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, said, “I’ll make sure my team works on it.” But that doesn’t mean anything will happen soon.

 First, a new city government takes control next January, and there is no guarantee that a prospective project will be carried over into the new administration.  Second, Mapps is currently wrestling with a major transportation budget shortfall ranging into tens of millions of dollars. As city streets continue to deteriorate – as many motorists already realize – Mapps faces a deficit that likely takes anything “new” off the table.

Design and construction of the Vista Avenue Viaduct, as it was originally called, was an impressive feat for Portland.  The arched concrete structure was designed by Fred T. Fowler, who graduated from the University of Oregon in 1912 and became Portland’s bridge engineer in 1921.  The city government paid half of the $197,000 construction costs, with Southwest residents taxing themselves for one fourth of the bill.  Portland Electric Power Co., which operated the Council Crest streetcar line, added the remaining fourth.

 The new bridge replaced the steel Ford Street Bridge had carried pedestrians and streetcars since 1903.  Rather than scrap it, the city moved it to Terwilliger Boulevard where it served for several decades before being replaced by a "modern" concrete overpass over Interstate 5.

Creating suicide barriers that would be compatible with the classical detailing on the Vista Avenue Bridge would be a challenging assignment, indeed.  Someday, perhaps motorists and pedestrians high above Canyon Lane (as it was first known) will be able to enjoy a more attractive solution created by bright minds.

 ----- Fred Leeson

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