BY FRED LEESON
The crippling recession did more than shut down construction of Tom Moyer’s Park Avenue West office tower in downtown. It also sent the tower’s primary retail tenant, Nike, in search of a new downtown home.
The new site: two floors of the five-story terra-cotta clad 1928 Kress Building at S.W. Fifth and Morrison Alder, currently occupied by the soon-to-depart Williams-Sonoma gourmet food and cookware outlet.
TVA Architects, the firm that designed Moyer’s so-far ill-fated tower, also is in charge of designing the new Nike store in the Kress Building. Partner John Heili is leading a TVA team that has done an extensive history of the Kress structure, although original building plans have never been found. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Kress dimestore chain operated the downtown building from its opening until 1975. It was occupied the following decade by a J.C. Penney outlet, which used the full ground-floor exposure of the original Kress building and a later annex that opens on to S.W. Fourth Ave. Nike will not be using the smaller annex building.
Working from historic photographs, the TVA team plans to close off double-door entries on the south and west facades of the larger Kress building and restore a covered, diagonal entrance that originally welcomed pedestrians at the prominent Fifth and Alder Corner.
The design also calls for new storefront system that comes closer in appearance to the original, sitting atop new dark granite blocks that descend to the sidewalk.
Heili’s team also has studied the exterior carefully in an attempt to do minimal damage to the original terra cotta exterior as they go about attaching an assortment of Nike signs. And therein lies the rub, to the extent there is one. Although the first plans are more modest than the signs slathered on a NASCAR stock car or on some professional soccer jerseys, the store as presented to the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission this month is rather filled with Nike signs, swooshes and historic logos.
Among them: Two unlit NIKE signs on the so-called belly band between the first and second floors; three lighted blade signs, one on the corner and two at the other extremities; one oversized storefront window pane on the south façade widened to allow an outward-facing interior sign; a series of several “historic” Nike logos engraved in steel and stacked five tall on pilasters; and two floor-to-ceiling panels of bright orange subway tiles with black tiles spelling “Nike” on either side of the recessed entry doors.
“It seems to me like a lot of signage added to the building,” said Art DeMuro, chairman of the landmarks commission, which held an informal design advisory session. “This doesn’t feel like a very sleek solution to me.”
DeMuro was most critical of the stacks of logos that would be attached to the pilasters, which he felt detracted from the architectural style of the building. Another commission member, Brian Emerick, questioned the two tall panels of orange subway tiles. He felt they were intended to look more like a part of the architecture than the signs they actually are.
Heili gently reminded the commission that it is intended to be a retail store. “This is pure Nike branding,” he said at one point. “This is what they do.” He said the “Nike orange” in the tile panels dates “to day one” in company history. He said his design team favored the subway tiles over orange metal panels because they spoke to the era of the building.
Emerick said he would be less concerned with the orange panels if they looked more like signs and less a part of the architecture. DeMuro’s take on the stacks of logos on the pilasters: eliminate them entirely or reduce the number. He also said he’d rather see them stand proud of the pilasters rather than be flush-mounted if they cannot be eliminated.
Heili’s response: “We can look at that.”
Whether the commission will get another look at the Nike plan, however, is not clear. David Skilton, a city planner, said the amount of money involved in the renovation project might fall into a category allowing for a staff review rather than formal review by the landmarks commission. If that’s the case, the commission wouldn’t see it again unless someone filed an appeal over a staff decision to approve the Nike plan.
And who would appeal? Probably not any nearby property owners, who no doubt will be thrilled to have Nike in the neighborhood. It is, as Heili said, all about retail.
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectrual Heritage Center..