The former fire station at Southeast 11th and Stark, originally built in 1927 as the home of Engine Company No. 7, has become the latest in a series of creative-services enclaves.
The project was developed by Venerable Properties, which has renovated countless old buildings around town such as White Stag Block in Old Town for the University of Oregon, and designed by Emerick Architects, whose portfolio includes renovations like the Ford Building, also an historic Southeast Portland industrial building turned into a home for creative industries (designers, yoga and martial arts instructors, an art gallery, a photographer's studio).
Fire Station No. 7, designed by the same architect as the historic Belmont Firehouse about 20 blocks away that has become a fire bureau museum, has been added to and changed numerous times over the years. In the 1930s, a handball court of all things became the first addition. "I guess handball was pretty big then," laughed Emerick Architects' Brian Emerick in a recent phone interview. "It had a lit up scoreboard and everything." In the 1970s the structure was expanded and turned into a repair center/garage serving the entire Fire Bureau staff. In the 1980’s the City sold the building and it was subsequently used as an automotive garage until abandoned a few years ago. As a result, the current renovation involved not just the original 1927 structures, but the adjacent automotive shop dating to the Nixon era.
The adjacent shop addition was completely revamped to become the new headquarters for Bremik Construction, while the original Fire Station has become home to a variety of companies, including a salon, a research and development group, a marketing company, and a designer of smart phones apps.
Although both the original building and the garage addition were already listed on the National Register, the addition "non contributing" to the historic architecture so the architects had more liberties in this portion.
"The original was more about adaptive reuse," Emerick added. "The Bremik building was trying to find some cool factor in the fabric and being more radical about how we changed it. If you can imagine a '70s auto garage, that's really where the opportunity was to re-appropriate. There were some timber elements in the ceiling we were able to highlight, and the way the handball court was captured was an interesting story. It was all wall to wall Douglas fir in that part of the building, so we were able to sandblast the paint off and leave it as just a big volume and add the inset boxes – the offices that sit inside. We also felt like it was important to revisit the [garage's] façade because it was poorly done with t-111 siding. We wanted it to be more compatible with the original fire station and more engaging as a storefront."
As a result, the fire station seems like merely a cleaned up version of its same self from the outside, while a wall of storefront glass makes the garage a more attractive and inviting building than it ever was in the first place. And inside the Bremik headquarters (the company served as contractor for this and the fire station), there is a rich palette of wood and a sense of fun that comes from the remnants of the handball court.
Over the years, character defining elements such as 12’ tall carriage doors and cast iron lighting had been lost and original steel sash windows replaced. The design approach was to rebuild these and restore the building’s iconic neighborhood status, while creatively dividing the interior into viable suites that respected the original layout. Downstairs, this was accomplished using the new massive operable carriage doors as an engaging storefront system for retail.
Upstairs, the original building used to contain highly segregated firefighters' quarters: not as in segregation between black and white or Duck and Beaver fans, but fire captains from the rank-and-file firefighters. There were even two separate stairways side by side separated by a wall. Here the architects mostly just opened things up, including a skylight that hadn't been in use but now floods the space with natural illumination.
If we're talking about a fire house being renovated, it begs the question: what about the fire pole? Are there Apple R&D people or phone-app designers sliding down the pole on their way to finding a cappuccino or a yoga class?
The good news is that at least one of the fire poles remains, but the bad news is that it had to be enclosed at the top and bottom with glass to prevent people from actually sliding down the old thing.
Rigid insulation beyond code values over the maintenance garage roof allowed the building to maintain its old growth timber framing, which doubles as a spectacular finished ceiling in the space. Single pane aluminum windows and garage doors were replaced with insulated double glazed wood units. High efficiency gas fired units replaced an old oil boiler, and a shared central chilled water system, made a leap in heating and cooling performance efficiency. Operable casement windows were maintained in the original building to allow for natural ventilation. Because the site primarily faces north and east, it is protected from the southern solar exposure and winter winds.
The architect also credits his developer for the vision to see historic projects renovated the right way, often spending the extra dollar to build quality even if it takes longer to recover the costs - not out of some selfless altruism on the part of Venerable head Art DeMuro (who also is a member of the city's Historic Landmarks Commission) but because ultimately it's better for business.
"We've been working with them for a decade and I can say Venerable’s very unique as a developer," Emerick explains. "They’re long-term owners in every project they do. So sometimes they’re willing to spend more to get things right when it pencils out in the long term. It can lead to a higher level of quality and authenticity in the product, and that adds value. The projects lease up even in tough times. With the fire station, they actually had a tough time getting a loan for that. And they even had Bremik on board as an anchor tenant taking up have the real estate space. But now that the project’s finished, the building’s pretty much leased out."
This is just the latest case of an old Portland industrial building becoming home to a cluster of creative industries, following examples like the aforementioned Ford Building as well as the Olympic Mills Commerce Center in the Central Eastside and the Leftbank Building on Northeast Broadway.
"There’s an authenticity of the history that’s also been reinvented too," Emerick said. "I think that’s an appealing combination. And southeast is a hotbed of creativity. It seems a lot of the artists and the providers for the building trades have moved over. It’s funny: people look to places like South Waterfront for growth, but the Central Eastside is what’s interesting to me. Part of the transformation is being driven by the changes in the industry itself. It’s still an industrial sanctuary, but most heavy industry isn’t able to use that kind of property effectively. Many of them have moved out to the ‘burbs. The B&O warehouse was full of artists working there without heat even before they renovated it."