BY FRED LEESON
Portland’s Old Town neighborhood will lose a piece of history soon with demolition of the three-story Hotel West, circa 1900, at 127 NW Sixth Avenue. In the past couple decades, it was better known as home of the Satyricon rock club, although until last December its upper two floors still provided single-room occupancy units for low-income tenants.
In its place will rise a seven-story, brick-faced building designed by LRS Architects that will contain 42 studio apartments for low-income residents and ground-floor community service space. It will be operated by the non-profit Macdonald Center, based in the adjacent building to the south, which has a mission of keeping low-income and elderly off the streets.
Greg Mitchell, an associate at LRS, said the Macdonald Center studied the old building carefully with an eye toward renovation rather than demolition. But he said the Macdonald’s needs and liabilities of the unbraced masonry structure made renovation impractical. “There was no way to adapt the building to the need,” he told the Portland Design Commission on April 7. “The need was greater. We knew we had to go vertical with the project.”
Babes In Toyland at Satyricon (photo by David Ackerman)
Still, Mitchell hoped to “echo” some of the features of the old hotel. His plan incorporated the arched entry with five keystones that was once the main entrance to the hotel. He also proposed saving keystones over the second and third floors of the old building and incorporating them into the new second and third-floor window frames.
Although the building does not fall within the boundaries of the neighborhood’s historic district, LRS clearly wants a building that feels appropriate in the neighborhood context. The design commission has jurisdiction to review the plans because the site falls in the boundaries of a city urban renewal area.
The plan with its historical touches was endorsed by the Old Town-Chinatown Neighborhood Association. Paul Verhoeven, its land-use chair (not to be confused with the director of the movie "Basic Instinct"), said the association disliked seeing old buildings come down, but he said the neighborhood needs more quality housing. He also said the number of unbraced buildings in Old Town is “downright scary.” Verhoeven added that the association liked the plan to keep the historical elements in the new façade.
Satyricon (photo courtesy Emillie & Lloyd, via Flickr)
Alas, the design commission did not. It urged LRS to come back with a new scheme that eliminates the arched entry and the keystones.
David Wark, one design commission member, said the ground floor design was “fractured” by trying to include the arched entrance as well as a traditional storefront system within the confines of a 50-foot frontage. He said the historic elements were “underscaled and out of proportion” with the taller building. He encouraged LRS to simplify the design by extending the storefront system.
David Keltner, another commissioner, agreed. He said new buildings in old neighborhoods can be compatible with, yet clearly differentiated from, their older neighbors. He, too, said recreating the historic fabric from the Hotel West was a detriment to the massing of the new structure and thus out of context.
1989 Nirvana performance at Satyricon (photo by David Ackerman)
When trying to add historical elements to new buildings, Keltner said, “You don’t have a clear understanding of what’s what, and what is historical.”
And speaking of historical, although it may be a grubby, grungy history, Satyricon had plenty of it. This is the club where Nirvana played numerous times in Portland, for example, and where Kurt Cobain met Courtney Love. Last year Marty Hughley of The Oregonian published this series of recollections about the club.
Mitchell said the ground-floor frontage poses difficult challenges. Its 50-foot width is the only entry/exit access for the community service space and for the apartments above. His first plan also included a niche for natural gas meters, shielded by a wrought-iron grill, since gas service equipment can no longer extend into the sidewalk right-of-way as it did at the old building. The design commission urged him to move the utility gear inside somewhere as another means of simplifying the streetscape.
LRS is scheduled to return to the design commission with revisions on May 5. Mitchell said the Macdonald Center is on a tight timeline to meet funding commitments for the project, so it hopes to avoid further delay. Assuming that it prevails on the ground-floor revisions, the design commission showed no signs of wanting to be a further obstacle.
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center.