Friday, May 3, 2024

Trying to 'Fix' Rosemont Commons


Despite its 107 year history, many Portlanders have never seen one of the city's most charming Georgian revival buildings that sits at 597 N. Dekum St. 

 Known at various times as Villa St. Rose, St. Rose Industrial School, Home of the Good Shepard and Rosemont School, the former convent and school for orphans and “troubled young women” became a preservation success story 20 years ago when it was converted to 100 housing units for low-income seniors called Rosemont Commons.

 Alas, trouble arose in 2021 when water in the building proved to be carrying Legionnaire’s disease and all residents eventually were forced out.  Since then, efforts to find enough money through some combination of city, state, regional or national funding have fallen short of the $6 million repair price.

 The latest grim wrinkle is a request by the building operator, Northwest Housing Alternatives, to ask the City of Portland to remove an affordable-housing covenant that would open the door to a potential sale.


The building itself probably is not in jeopardy.  One suspects that condominium developers would relish a chance to convert it to market-rate units.  Designed by one of Portland’s best-known architects of the era, Joseph Jacobberger, the building stands as “an excellent example of twentieth century Georgian style architecture,” according to a history compiled for the National Register of Historic Places.

 Jacobberger open his Portland office in 1910, and two years later added a partner, Alfred Smith.  The two designed numerous churches and other buildings for the Catholic Church, including St. Mary’s Cathedral.  Jacobberger also designed the North Portland Branch Library which bears many features architectural features of church of the era.

 During the Catholic Church’s tenure, an estimated 7,500 girls received a combination of housing, education and job training at the building.  The church moved out in 1979 when it no longer could provide a staff.  The building fell vacant in 1993 after another non-profit school departed.

The city’s development arm, then called the Portland Development Commission, acquired the site in 1998.  The PDC engaged in extensive talks with the Piedmont Neighborhood Association to devise plans for the 7.6 acre site.  The neighborhood pushed hard for senior housing, and the PDC complied.

 A large wing was added to the west end of the historic building and 65 market-rate housing units were constructed.  The planning process was considered a marvel at the time, and served as a model for subsequent redevelopment of New Columbia, the former World War II housing site called Columbia Villa.

 The neighborhood association would like to see the Rosemont apartments returned for housing by the seniors.  Needless to say, so would the seniors who were forced out.

 While some bureaucrats have not given up hope on finding a solution, it is a sad commentary for the public and for the former residents to think that their layers of government can’t figure it out.  The cost of repairs is chump change compared to the cost of funding 100 new units elsewhere. 

 ----Fred Leeson

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