It wouldn't be much of a stretch to call North Interstate Avenue Portland's version of Route 66, the classic mid-20th Century motorway that has inspired many a romantic ode and cable TV documentary. It's not to say this is the open road, which was part of Route 66's mystique. But the other half of Sixty-Sixiana is the style of its accompanying motor hotels.
Local filmmaker/artist Matt McCormick devoted half of his aclaimed show earlier this year at Elizabeth Leach Gallery to a slideshow of old motel signs in the southwest, and seeing the succession of them, with names conjuring the space age, tropical motifs, or cowboy mythology, they seemed like western America's own version of Easter Island statues.
I've rarely heard anyone in Portland speak specifically to the minor treasure of old motel and other business signs. In almost every case they aren't preserved. We saw it recently with the old Cornford's market sign (lots of big painted fruit) along Martin Luther King Boulevard near the Morrison Bridge terminus. But I think Interstate is really the strongest example of signs from a particular era, style, and building type (motels) being congregated in a particular area.
In today's Oregonian, Michael Bales reported that Reach Community Development, which is demolishing the former Crown Motel on Interstate to build an affordable housing complex--certainly an understandable and worthy endeavor in and of itself--also plans to demolish the iconic sign out front, with a neon crown reading "Crown" and a giant neon sword interlocking the word MOTEL. Bales quotes Riad Sahli, housing project manager from Reach, as saying the old sign doesn't fit the design of the new complex.
As architect Stuart Emmons of Emmons Architects (who authored a series of redevelopment planning options for the Portland Development Commission and the Bureau of Planning) put it in a tersely worded mass email that I and several other people in media and local goverment received today, if this wonderful kitschy old relic of the early post-World War II era doesn't fit, that's the fault of the new design, not the sign. Why not design an affordable housing complex that does everything it otherwise would in terms of fulfilling program and meeting functional needs, but also has a stylistic element recalling old motor hotels? It'd be a no brainer to name the new project Crown Condos, or Crown Apartments, or whatever. The MOTEL portion of the sign could perhaps be changed to fit the new owners, like the White Stag sign in old town was several years ago changed to Made In Oregon when the latter moved into the building.
Making it even worse is that Reach is a nonprofit. It'd be one thing if a private developer was dumb enough to discard a branding opportunity being handed over on a silver platter in favor of some other profit-motive-driven decision. But for goodness sake, Reach even has "Community Development" as part of its name. To me that includes not letting local pieces of our built history--which would not get in the way of the programmatic needs of their new, otherwise admirable affordable housing project--be trampled on their watch, and on their land.
TriMet chose Reach for the five-story project to help spur use of the Interstate MAX line. I can't help but think of the investment the agency made in public art along the line, and how these old motel signs are every bit as unique and pleasing to the public - arguably more. I mean, very very little contemporary public art seems to achieve widespread appeal. But people love these old motel signs. Midcentury modern is even super hot stylistically right now.
It's too early to start getting angry at Reach, because there's still lots of time for them to reverse their decision and come to their senses. Like I said, this is not just something they should feel compelled to do because of public pressure. This is a wonderful opportunity for them to preserve what's right in front of them in a way that scores big points with the public. Might some nice, glowing PR for this little nonprofit be nice? Hell, you could even replace MOTEL on the old sign with REACH. Even an egotistical move like that would be far better than destroying and/or removing it. Come on, Reach, please don't be stupid, and please don't turn an opportunity into a reason for people to advocate that you not get the next such development contract that comes around.
Meanwhile, I think this is more than enough reason to take more seriously the remaining Interstate motel signs and figure out how to preserve them, whether that's through private means, public, or a combination of both.
Actually driving down this one-time highway, Interstate Avenue, now that the MAX line is there can be very aggravating. I mean, one lane in each direction? I love the train, but sure wish the design could have been done to preserve a very much needed second lane in each direction on this major arterial local avenue. But at least we still have the chance to make something artful and historically preserved for future generations out of these signs.
Affordable housing along a light rail line is something we should all be cheering for. Let's keep it that way by preserving the Crown sign and all its remaining neon siblings. (Incidentally, my personal favorite is the Palms motel sign. I even have a silscreened artwork by Robert Mars of it hanging on my kitchen.) If not Easter Island monoliths, maybe you could say these are the man-made equivalents of old growth timbers. Either way, I think plenty of people in town would be just as happy to hug these hunks of rusty aluminum.
UPDATE 12/27/07: At a reader's suggestion, I am adding to this original post the comments of a couple different relevant government people as well as the architect involved. This is somewhat of an experiment, because I'm not completely sure about elevating their comments in this way over those of others participating in the dialog. We'll see...
"As the architect of the new affordble housing project, I love the Interstate signs and we could easily incorporate the sign into the design of the building and would be happy to do it if it made sense. However the project will house very low income families with children. REACH beleives that the existing crown motel sign with its large sword plus its association with the motel that has been a place of illicit activity and a nuisance to the neighbors for many years is an innappropriate label for poor children. REACH has been working very hard to find another business or group who wants to preserve the sign and is willing to help in any way, but so far have found no takers. They are still trying."
--Posted by: Kurt Schultz, SERA Architects
"I am TriMet's project manager for the Crown Motel demolition. We have specified in the demolition contract that the sign is to remain intact. This has always been the case, and there are no plans by TriMet to demolish this sign. I have been told that there is a neighborhood group working to find a new home for this sign."
--Posted by: Nick Stewart
"We do in fact have two areas in the City of Portland where we've identified signs as playing a particular role in linking to a signficant past. These areas - the Broadway area through downtown, and Chinatown - are replete with specific regulation which support retention of particular sign types, and encourage future signs to be similarly scaled and graphically adventurous."
"As the interstate area is undergoing a revisitation of some of its zoning and associated design guidelines, there's an intent and opportunity to do the same for the sign ensemble being discussed here."
--Posted by: Jeff Joslin , Land Use Manager, Bureau of Development Services
I would like to clarify that it has never been REACH’s intent to demolish the neon sign. We were selected by Tri Met to redevelop the existing Crown Motel property into a new mixed use affordable housing project. We worked very closely with the neighborhood on the design of the building, and have earned their approval for the project. Early on, we heard from a small group of neighbors expressing concern over the sign and a wish to see it preserved. Since then, we have worked trying to find a new home for the sign.
Our position has been and continues to be that we are happy and willing to work with any interested party to find an appropriate home for the sign. There are a number of legitimate reasons the sign cannot be reused on this site, including:
- The budget for the project does not allow for the sign to be reused on the current site. The economics of deal are already stressed and reusing the sign would likely result in loss of building space, meaning less affordable housing for low-income families (a high public policy priority), and less density (a requirement of the RFP).
- The sign is in bad condition and will require significant restoration budget which isn’t available to us.
- The motel and the sign are associated with crime. Our concern is not so much that the sword and crown symbolize violence, but contextually, that the sign is a ponderous reminder of the drug dealing, prostitution, and other criminal activity that has occurred on that site over the past several decades. By eliminating the sign from the project, the stigma of the motel is diminished.
I’m glad the recent press has helped get word out to a larger audience we weren’t previously reaching, including the Atomic Age Alliance. We look forward to working with you to salvage this piece of Portland’s history – please keep me apprised of any ideas your group generates and keep in mind that demolition of the motel is scheduled to begin towards the end of February or early March.
Housing Project Manager, REACH CDC