South Park Blocks from Portland Art Museum (photo by Brian Libby)
BY FRED LEESON
Sometimes it takes the eyes of a stranger to see things that local eyes don’t appreciate.
Wendy Rahm isn’t exactly a stranger. She has lived in the elegant Eliot tower in Portland since 2007, and her knowledge of architecture is largely self-taught. But in the unlikely event that a West End Historic District shows up some day on the National Register of Historic Places, Rahm may be the one to whom Portland says, “Thank you.”
Rahm is a retired U.S. State Department employee who lived in places such as Paris, London, Berne, Madrid and Algeria during her career. After she landed at the Eliot, her eyes became attracted to a variety of early-to-mid 20th Century buildings in a parcel that extends roughly from S.W. Park Avenue to the Interstate-405 freeway between Market Street and Burnside. She started cataloging the buildings and researching to find their architects.
“I just love to look around the area I live in,” she says. “I love architecture. The sense of place matters to me.”
Rahm met recently with the AIA’s Historic Resources Committee to probe its members’ knowledge of her list of buildings and to see if she could pin down a unifying theme that might establish a persuasive case for proposing a historic district. Though peppered with numerous surface parking lots, Rahm’s general boundaries contain numerous significant buildings, mostly brick, ranging from two to eight stories.
Central Library (photo by Brian Libby)
A couple years ago, Portland planners had included much of the West End within a proposed new downtown urban renewal area. But faced with concerns about urban renewal’s drain on future general fund tax revenue, the city eliminated the West End and aimed its focus instead on the Portland State University vicinity.
“The city has kind of forgotten the district,” said Paul Falsetto, an architect with Carleton Hart Architecture who is chairman of the informal historic resources committee. “But they won’t for long when development pressure arises again.”
The “district” Rahm conceives has a fascinating range of building ages and designs. The oldest date to the neighborhood’s 19th Century roots of wooden Italianate and Carpenter Gothic buildings represented by Warren Williams’ endangered – but still standing – first Morris Marks House and the thankfully-preserved Old Church. The “bookend” to the era time-wise likely would be Glen Stanton’s sleek and cubist YWCA building (now up for sale) of 1957.
The district also contains works by some of the city’s best architects of their eras. A.E. Doyle’s office conceived the Multnomah County Library and the Pittock Block; Joseph Jacobberger is represented by the Mark Spencer (originally the Nortonia Hotel) and what may be one of Portland’s earliest auto-related buildings at SW 10th Avenue and Salmon Street; Pietro Belluschi is well-represented with his Portland Art Museum.
Several apartment buildings erected in the 1910s, 20s and 30s sit in the district along with numerous churches and fraternal buildings. Fraternal organizations such as the Elks, International Order of Odd Fellows, Masons and Knights of Pythias have moved on, but their lodges and temples have been adapted to other uses. Notable churches in the district include First Presbyterian with its remarkable timber-frame interior, the picture-book First Unitarian in Georgian Revival style, and the heavy, intricately-bricked mass of the Sixth Church of Christ Science, among others.
Telegram Building (photo by Brian Libby)
Another significant building with religious roots is the former Beth Israel School, which also served as the Portland home of Albany College before it moved to Palatine Hill and became Lewis & Clark College.
Henry Kunowski, an architectural historian who also teaches at the University of Oregon School of Architecture, described the district as a street-car, mixed-use neighborhood, and the last intact downtown residential neighborhood.
“Does this start to feel like a district?” Falsetto asked rhetorically. “You might be surprised by the quality of it.”
The city’s high-rise zoning and vacant lots in the area could prove to be major threats. Falsetto said he is less concerned about high-rise new buildings than he is about preventing demolition of the remaining historic fabric.
Rahm, for her part, dreads the prospect of new high-rises. “I don’t want more glass towers,” she said. “They all look the same. Glass towers are the homogenization of architecture.”
Given those views, why does Rahm live in the Eliot tower? “There is a serious disconnect,” she admits. But she likes the layout of her condo. She likes the public spaces in the building. She likes the neighborhood. In short, “It’s fabulous.”