BY FRED LEESON
It would be entirely understandable if Art DeMuro, chairman of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, feels like he has a big red target on his chest. Make that a Target.
The mega-retailing firm based in Minneapolis, best known for its suburban big box stores, hopes to open a smaller, urban outlet in downtown Portland on the second floor of the Galleria Building at 921 SW Morrison. But to achieve that goal, it needs approval for exterior changes to the 101-year old landmark retail building.
DeMuro and other members of the landmarks commission can’t help but feel the pressure on this one. The downtown retail community badly wants Target, presumably for spillover business from shoppers Target might attract. It would be a coup for downtown, where vacant storefronts are common as a result of the poor economy.
And the landmarks commission is perceived by some – rightly or wrongly – as an obstacle to developers hoping to renovate in the urban core. The commission, now approximately 40 years old, is charged with approving exterior changes to designated landmarks and buildings in historic districts. Decisions of the commission can be appealed to the City Council. Earlier in June, Greg Goodman, an outspoken member of the prominent Goodman family of downtown property owners, criticized the commission in DeMuro’s presence at a meeting about the role of historic preservation in the evolving 2035 Central City Plan.
Goodman declared that developers see the landmarks commission as a costly obstacle in the way of progress. He said some developers won’t take on projects if the commission’s approval is necessary. He suggested, in essence, that the commission was too picky in trying to preserve the fabric of historic buildings, and that public hearings and design changes the commission sometimes recommends comprise unwelcome additional costs.
Then, surprisingly perhaps, Goodman said his own company had never had any problems in dealing with the landmarks commission.
Target representatives and their Portland design team at Fletcher Farr Ayotte accepted a suggestion that they meet with the landmarks commission for an advisory meeting on June 27. The key changes they seek are a new entrance at the west end of the Morrison Street frontage near S.W. 10th Avenue, and the removal of two window bays on the Alder Street frontage to create loading docks.
On the plus side, the design team plans to restore wood windows to some openings that were replaced with louvers over the years, and to recreate a canopy, long since removed, over the central entrance on SW 10th. The central entrance on 10th would be the main entrance for other tenants in the building, not the primary entrance to Target.
The loading bays appear to be the biggest hurdle. The original loading facilities were on the SW Ninth Avenue side of the full-block building, but modern trucks are too big to negotiate that narrow street. Even on the wider Alder Street, Target plans to use 28-foot vehicles to serve the proposed store, considerably smaller than the 53 and 60-foot rigs that haul goods to its big-box stores.
Roll-up doors would replace the two big display windows, but the designers said the doors could duplicate the bulkhead and transom dimensions of the adjacent bays. The doors would be opened only to allow entry and egress; they would be lowered while trucks are inside.
The building, completed in 1910 for the pioneer retail firm of Olds Wortman & King, was designed by Charles R. Aldrich, who designed some major commissions in Minneapolis before moving to Seattle in 1905. He worked for an investment firm that erected buildings in Seattle, Spokane, Portland and Los Angeles. The building was the first full-block retail structure built in downtown. Its steel frame with terra cotta exterior and wide bays is somewhat reminiscent of Louis Sullivan’s famed Carson Pirie Scott store finished in Chicago in 1899, which set the standard for new large-scale retail stores. (Coincidentally, Target is planning to open a store in the former Carson Pirie Scott building late next year.)
Although its full-block footprint has been unchanged, the building has been altered many times over the years. The interior was substantially remodeled in the 1940s, and again in the 1960s when the building bore the Rhodes nameplate. After Rhodes closed in 1973, the building was purchased by Bill and Sam Naito for $565,000, even then a “fire sale” price for what was considered a terra cotta white elephant. The innovative Naito team reopened the central transom and rebuilt a central stairway, making the first three floors into retail shops and the upper two stories into offices. They converted the basement to parking, with an entry off Alder Street.
The Galleria, as the Naitos renamed it, was a major retail success and helped re-establish downtown Portland as an interesting retail venue. But the opening of Pioneer Place in 1990 pulled the retail core westward, and the Galleria lost its retail charm. The central stairway was pulled out and Brooks Brothers leased approximately half of the first floor in 2007. Private cooking and medical training schools occupy the upper floors.
DeMuro, the landmarks chairman, is not an architect. But as the principal of Venerable Properties, a firm that concentrates on restoring old buildings, he has vast knowledge of historic building styles and details. It was no surprise, then, that when Target showed up for the advisory hearing DeMuro grilled the design team about details of original doors, windows, canopies and other elements. He already was aware that the four sides of the building show a “mish-mash” of original and often-changed parts.
“The more restoration of the façade, the better,” he said at one point. “That helps the case for other changes.”
And that will be the key to matter when Target submits its formal renovation application in coming weeks. As Judy VanAlstyne, a property manager for The Bill Naito Company said in opening remarks, the Olds building was a retail structure from the start. It still is a retail building and can continue to be a key retail asset in the future. It just needs a few accommodations. DeMuro and other restoration professionals on the commission don’t need to be told that adaptive re-use is the key to most restoration projects.
The commission’s goal will be to restore and preserve as much original fabric as possible, to minimize damage and to encourage sensitive design of new elements. In the end, that will be the best result for Target, for downtown Portland and for the landmark building.
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectrual Heritage Center.