BY FRED LEESON
No other residential neighborhood in Portland has the same ambience as Northwest Portland below 23rd Avenue, with its dense assortment of cheek-by-jowl 1920s apartment buildings. Though dozens were built in the same decade, interesting and sometimes amusing architectural tricks kept them from having a cookie-cutter feel.
For that we can thank one of the city’s busiest architectural designers of that roaring era, who is now largely forgotten. But the name of Elmer Feig surfaced again recently as SERA Architects completed designs for two new apartment buildings that will sit cater-corner in the Alphabet Historic District at the intersection of NW 19th Avenue and Johnson Street.
The design team headed by SERA’s Kurt Schultz examined several of Feig’s 25 Northwest Portland apartment structures built mostly from 1925 to 1931. If that sounds like a lot of buildings, it is it less than a third of the 81 attributed to Feig throughout the city in roughly that same time span.
Feig’s formula was simple enough: often three stories with daylight basements, finished in stucco or brick, recessed entry courtyards, double-loaded hallways, flat roofs and parapets. But then the fun begins. Schultz described some Feig buildings as having “jazzy Spanish” details, but that’s just for starters. Descriptors for others include Art Deco, Spanish Colonial, Mediterranean, Moorish, Tudor and even Egyptian.
For someone who apparently was never registered as an architect, Elmer Feig was a busy man with a crowded palette. The Great Depression cut his career short, however, and little of his work has surfaced with a date past 1931. His final listing in a city directory was 1937. He died in 1968 at age 71.
The SERA team looked to Feig’s work for some of its design cues in an attempt to satisfy the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission that its plans were an appropriate fit for the historic district. As the city planning report noted, “Inserting new development into historic district contexts is a process that must weigh many variables against one another. Perhaps the most difficult balance to strike is between economic viability, which tends to dictate maximizing size, and a mixed historic development pattern.”
The developers of the two new market-rate buildings, Mill Creek Residential Trust, compromised on that point. The original plans called for six-story buildings and the final versions came in at five. Yet that was too much for one landmarks commissioner, Harris Matarazzo. He described the designs as handsome, but believed they were still too large given their proximity to three nearby smaller buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. He cast the lone opposing vote in a 4 to 1 final tally.
Both SERA buildings will have similar rusticated first floors, but that is the only similarity. The larger “Building A” with 86 apartments, will have a stucco finish, parapets and circular decorative medallions, a playful touch of which Feig no doubt would have approved. Across the street, the smaller “Building B” with 48 units will have the second, third and fourth floors wrapped in brick with a fifth floor sheathed in stucco panels. Building B includes a flat projecting cornice, unlike its companion.
In Northwest Portland, where an aggressive neighborhood association watches land-use matters with hawk-like vigilance, the concern was more for the fate of four century-old elm trees on Johnson Street than the architecture. The neighbors felt the trees deserved as much protection by the Landmarks Commission as the built environment, since the national historic district description includes the significance of the trees. The city planning staff concluded that the commission’s jurisdiction did not include the public right-of-way on which the trees sit.
Schultz said the development team would try to protect and preserve the trees, but there is no guarantee as to the outcome. The protective steps will include hand demolition of a single-story building on the site of Building A, a reduction in underground parking to leave more room for the tree roots, and careful scheduling of construction equipment to minimize damage. Yet it may take five to seven years to determine whether the trees survive, Schultz said.
While Schultz likely will not match Feig’s output in total Northwest Portland apartment buildings, the SERA team has a accumulated a good feel for the neighborhood’s architecture and has been diligent in meeting with neighborhood representatives. They also met several times five years ago when SERA was designing a larger apartment complex that today sits comfortably at the eastern edge of Couch Park on N.W. 19th Avenue between Glisan and Hoyt Streets.