I was just going through some photos I took this summer of the Downtown Self Storage building in the Pearl District across from the Wieden + Kennedy building and the Louisa apartments. I'd been meaning to write a post about the building, just because I like it but also because I think by nature of real estate alone it's destined to be renovated as something more.
Meanwhile, though, another thought occurred about the loading docks that buildings like both the Self-Storage and W+K buildings have. Although one's nicely renovated and the other's still got a little bit of its original grit, they are both smack-dab in the Pearl District, which has largely been the focus (along with downtown) of Portland's stellar reputation in urban planning circles for creating pedestrian-friendly and mass transit-oriented developments. But the irony is, the loading docks on those buildings, at least on the 13th Street side, make for a terrible pedestrian experience.
If merely passing through heading south past there, one either has to climb the stairs up onto the loading dock and back down, or walk around on the street where the cars pass. Having just been at a conference on universal design a few weeks ago, it seems like a place with difficult access, especially for the disabled or elderly. Part of me wonders if it ought to be a pedestrian only street, but that seems a bit too much. But I think if the city weren't already so behind on paving projects, they should consider repaving blocks like this with some kind of cobblestone or similar material that emphasizes the street being shared by pedestrians and autos.
Still, the loading docks are an indelible part of the architecture of these buildings and I definitely wouldn't want them to disappear. Their lack of practicality post-renovation nevertheless helps tell the story of architectural transformation.
In the comments section of my last post on the McMenamins company and its historic renovations, I recently wrote something (responding to another comment) about how they are smart to celebrate and evoke the spirit that already exists in these buildings. If one's at the Kennedy School, the fact that this pub and theater used to be a school remains ever-present in the mind, and that's part of the fun. With their latest renovation of a funeral home over in the Killingsworth area, the history of the building will be the kind of shtick that helps attract people there.
And of course it's the same story in the Pearl District when we climb these loading docks. As we indulge in art galleries, boutiques and restaurants in that neighborhood, there's a nobility to the blue-collar work that happened in these places. That's also, incidentally, why the newer buildings that stylistically mimic these old ones don't impress me. But then again, maybe in sixty or seventy-five years these circa early 21st century buildings will in old age have earned a dignity and integrity I don't necessarily see in them now. The heart of the matter in this case, I think, is time: how the passage of years may deteriorate old buildings and threaten them with demolition, but it also gives them a richness of meaning, a sense of having lived, even if they have only stood motionless. Or even if, for the time being at least, they're a beautiful old brick building used largely for mere storage.