BY BRIAN LIBBY
It's a building that pretty much no one in Portland has even entered for more than a half century, yet as soon as I mentioned its planned demolition on social media today there was a flurry of responses, laments and expressions of affection. People quietly love this building.
First constructed in 1913, the Portland Gas & Coke building looks, even in its decayed current form, too stately to have been a gas production and oil-tar distillation plant. After all, with its clock tower, sashes and gables it looks more like a Victorian train station (a bit like King's Cross in London) or an old city hall.
Which is why the news that owner NW Natural plans to demolish the building, possibly as early as next year, makes for sad news. A spokesperson confirmed the plans yesterday to me by phone.
Indeed, despite its grandness this building was purpose-built as a gasification plant, turning coal and oil into gasoline. (Offices also occupied part of the buiding.) As an extensive blog post from last year explains, for its first 12 years all the building's waste was dumped directly into the Willamette River. After 1925, the plant added tar refining operations; tars were removed from wastewater and placed in a series of ponds surrounding the buiding. By the time Portland GasCo (now NW Natural) shut down the plant in 1957, an estimated 30,000 cubic yards of coal tar had accumulated in the ponds, which were buried 10 feet underground in 1973. And even after that the site was additionally contaminated by another company that leased eight acres adjacent to the building.
The land that this building sits on is a textbook definition of a Superfund site. In fact, a 2001 report called this the second-most contaminated site in Portland. The building itself is not contaminated, and being made of concrete you'd think it would be fairly robust structurally, but NW Natural's representative told me the building is "structurally unsafe" and "not stable." If NW Natural or another entity had the impetus to clean up the site itself (which admittedly would be no easy or cheap task), I'd guess the structure could be repaired. But that seems exceptionally unlikely in this case.
Often a building's 100th birthday gives it an unofficial seal of approval as something historic, and therefore worth keeping. NW Natural has for decades allowed the building to keep standing as a kind of half-ruin. As Portland Mercury reporter Sarah Mirk's 2011 story and photos indicate, the inside is in pretty deteriorated shape. Nothing within 100 yards of the structure shows any sign of life. And it's not as if it stands amidst a neighborhood that might be attractive to, say, the McMenamin's franchise that has renovated numerous old buildings around town into satellites in their chain of brewpubs and hotels. Yet be it McMenamin's or someone else, one could imagine the Portland Gas & Coke building, given its location along the river and in the shadow of Portland's most beautiful bridge (the St. Johns), renovated into some kind of hotel with extended grounds.
Superfund sites aren't easy to turn around, but there are countless examples all over the country of these toxic places being transformed. Why can't NW Natural summon some sense of community responsibility here? Certainly it's not the responsibility of a utility company to act as stewards of a city or region's most historic architecture. Yet the fact remains that a rich local company, one with a partial monopoly, is set to willfully demolish one of the most historic and beautiful works of architeture in the city. Maybe demolishing this building seems like the only plausible scenario given the contaminated nature of the site, yet I can't help but suspect that NW Natural hasn't really tried very hard to come up with a solution that would save the building. And if that's the case, it means the company is not a very good corporate citizen. What they're planning to destroy may be a contaminated building that's sat empty for a half-century, but behind the dust is an irreplaceable part of Portland's history and culture. In others' hands, it might have become a renovated destination.
Elevation renderings of the Portland Gas & Coke building (courtesy Gnarly Architecture)
At the same time, if this building does get demolished, we Portlanders should also blame ourselves. Once a building owner has committed to demolition, it means the time for deliberation has probably all but passed. There were literally decades that we preservationists could have been lobbying NW Natural or the city to clean up the site and the building, yet neither I nor anyone else took the time to do so. Shame on NW Natural, but shame on all of us as well. After all, how many of us have driven past the building and then continued on our way? It's unfortunate that the right developer or dreamer didn't come along and find the will to wrest the building from its disinterested owner years ago.
What makes the building's demise sadder is that if could have survived a few years longer the building's fortunes might have been changed. Portland, like cities around the world, is in a multi-generational process of reclaiming for public use riverfront land that used to be the fenced-off realm of heavy industry. Just upriver in nearby Linnton, for example, there have been efforts to create high-density housing and mixed-use neighborhood living. Given the natural beauty of the Portland Gas & Coke site, one could easily envision some future generation reclaiming this land as part of the working, open city. I can practically hear Portlanders two generations down the road trying to call back in time to us. But they're not current customers of NW Natural, or charged with Superfund cleanup, so their vote doesn't count.
Portland Gas & Coke (photo by Jody Miller)
That said, if any of you do want to contact NW Natural and express your displeasure, the email contact form is here. Chances are you'll get a boilerplate response and have little opportunity to affect the company's decision making, but perhaps if enough people in the community weigh in then NW Natural might have second thoughts.
If nothing else, though, the next time you're driving on St. Helens Road, pull over and have a look through the chain-link fence at this lovely old building. And if you feel angst about the demolition of this century-old gem, consider directing that energy toward saving one of the other historic and irreplaceable Portland structures that are similarly under threat, such as Memorial Coliseum and Centennial Mills. Preservationists know you can't save every building, or even a fraction of them. But if Portland is turning its back on one of its most compelling works of historic architecture, we can at least pledge that other great local buildings won't suffer from the same tone-deaf, bottom-line thinking.