BY FRED LEESON
After 12 years of searching and planning, the biggest free food kitchen in Oregon won approval this week to build a new, four-story Blanchet House at 439 N.W. Third Ave., a half block east from its existing location.
Members of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and Blanchet House board members exchanged polite smiles and words of thanks after the 6-0 approving vote, but the smiles were passive-aggressive reminders of hard feelings on both sides of the table during the final months of design.
The new building, designed by SERA Architects, needed landmarks commission approval because it sits within the New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District. Hard feelings between the commission and Blanchet no doubt started much earlier when the commission declined to approve demolition of an existing one-story building on the site, forcing Blanchet to win an appeal to City Council to allow destruction of the Kiernan Building.
It took several trips by the SERA design team and Blanchet to satisfy the landmarks commission with plans for the new building, which is expected to cost approximately $10 million. Blanchet directors thought the process was taking too long and costing them too much money to achieve design changes suggested by the landmarks commission.
“We can’t be too fancy for our benefactors,” Blanchet’s president, Rich Ulring, told the commission earlier this month when he expressed frustration over the delays. “The city needs us. I need to have some common sense. You need to think about costs.”
The building grew from three stories to four since the first public discussion before the commission last year. As a result of commission discussions, SERA designers eliminated a glass corner that was deemed too modern for the historic district, strengthened the cornice, standardized window shapes, swapped casement windows in favor of double-hung, muted the hue of exterior brick, switched from an aluminum to a wood store-front system on the ground floor and added gentle decoration to metal balconies on upper floors.
Perhaps motivated by a spirit of compromise, the commission gave in a couple cost-saving measures. It allowed the street frontages to be clad in so-called Norman brick, which is about half again as long as a standard brick. The commission also allowed the rear walls that face on a parking lot to be surfaced with a less-expensive stucco-like, painted concrete finish.
If Blanchet board members thought the process was too slow and costly, landmarks commission members were privately surprised that the Blanchet members cared so little for the fabric of the neighborhood and the appearance of a building that likely will stand for a century or more.
In a sense, it was a battle of white hats versus white hats. Blanchet: We’re here to feed and house the largest number of needy people we can at no government expense. Landmarks: We’re here to preserve and enhance the special characteristics of the historic district.
After the final vote, Landmarks Chairman Art DeMuro, a man noted for diplomatic skills as well as his background as a developer sitting on the other side of the table, offered a brief speech that must have still sounded foreign to Blanchet ears. He said the commission’s job is not to review the mission of a building or its owner’s non-profit status. “We have a mission to protect the historic resources of the community,” he said. “We need to be blind to the applicant and the mission.”
Blanchet House hopes to demolish the Kiernan and complete its new building by summer of 2012. When it opens, hungry people awaiting meals will be able to wait inside instead of on the sidewalk outside. The Blanchet House will be the last soup kitchen in the Old Town vicinity to provide inside waiting space, thus ending the sidewalk lines that have dotted what used to be called Skid Road since World War II.
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectrual Heritage Center.