Entrance to US Custom House, from north (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
For most of its history since opening in 1901, Portland's U.S. Custom House has been a kind of gilded monolith: a grand Italian Renaissance structure one walks past with admiration and quiet awe but never steps inside of. Even for an architecture writer like me, the building's interior has for too long remained a mystery, somewhere low-level federal bureaucrats toiled but where you never saw anyone actually coming in or out of unless it was part of a Grimm or Leverage TV episode.
Yesterday, though, I and a small group of architects were able to pass through the Custom House's normally closed courtyard gates and into this magnificent structure, which is being renovated by its new owner, Boston-based Eastern Real Estate, into offices, as overseen by GBD Architects and an assist from historian preservation expert and architect Peter Meijer.
"It's my favorite building in the city," Meier said yesterday while leading the AIA/Portland Historic Resources Committee tour. And this from an architect who has participated in some major architectural renovations like City Hall. By phone after the tour, I asked him to explain why. "It just strikes me as the height of a building style," Meijer explained. "It’s Italian Renaissance [style], and it’s so extremely well done and just very highly ornamented, both inside and outside. I’m always finding new stories about it."
Custom House entry (photo by Brian Libby)
On yesterday’s tour, Meijer noted as an example, tour visitors discovered that one of the terra cotta keystones on the front facade was upside-down. And that speaks to the duality of this building's charm. On one hand, it's exceptionally grand, the kind of building where nothing was done on the cheap, and this is a sharp contrast to today. There are door thresholds and bathroom dividers in the Custom House, for example, made of marble. But after 112 years, the building also has a wonderful patina.
That's why the renovation planned by Eastern, while perhaps troubling in that it includes no seismic protection, is pleasing in that it's a light restoration of the surfaces. Wood windows are sanded and polished, for instance, but not so much that you can't see the scratches and the wear of a century.
"It’s really cleaning it up, getting rid of everything that was added to, and restoring it back to its original ceiling heights, taking out extraneous material over the years. It’s preparing the shell and core for tenants to move in. I think they have an astute business approach: let's highlight the most attractive elements of this building and get people to come in and lease the space, and work with the tenants to bring it further."
Entering the building, one comes to its architectural centerpiece right away: a grand staircase clad in marble and carved wood. For the first three floors, the staircase is wide like you'd expect for a major public building, like that of Central Library only more open. Yet the most intriguing part of the stairway may be the portion leading to the fourth floor, when it narrows by about half and appears to be floating.
Throughout, the building has a charming array of architectural details. As Bart King explains in An Architectural Guidebook to Portland, "Columns, scrolls, quoins, arches, dentils and keystones abound. Find the terra-cotta lintel stones over the window arches showing interesting governmental symbols like the staff of Aesculapius, and the dreaded glove on a stick. Among the profusion, images of scales adorn the building. These reflect both the weighing of goods inspected for customs and the traditional scales of justice. Courthouses were originally intended for the top two floors of the Custom House, and revenue from customs duties was an important function of Portland's waterfront."
King's book also notes the two towers visible from the front of the building to the west, which are for ventilation - a nice example of what today would be called sustainable design. It's too bad the now-defunct Oregon Sustainability Center project (which GBD also co-designed) didn't try to re-use this wonderful old landmark instead of starting from scratch near PSU. But, curiously, the towers had an added function. In 1906, King explains, "a small metal tower was built near the north chimney that dropped a large 'time' ball each day. Sailors would sight it and set their ship clocks accordingly." Construction east of the Custom House eventually obstructed the tower, so it was removed in 1925.
The biggest previous renovation done to the Custom House happened in the 1970s, so in some ways the current work has been more about undoing that work than changing the original. The '70s restoration added drop ceilings, for example, that have now been removed to reveal what are up to 16-foot ones.
The fact that the Custom House is set to become merely an office building might feel like a slightly underwhelming fate given that some of the others interested in owning it over the past decade have had more ambitious, public-oriented plans.
A few years ago, a hotel chain won a bid to purchase the building from the General Services Administration. That deal fell through, but by then it was too late to let the losing bidder take over. That bidder had been a partnership between the late developer Art DeMuro (who restored numerous historic buildings in Portland) and the University of Oregon's Portland satellite. Instead, the UO moved into the historic White Stag Block, a cast-iron building on the waterfront. The latter project turned out wonderfully, but it might have been even more special to have UO in the Custom House (although it might have bothered PNCA given their plans for colonizing the North Park Bocks). More recently, local firm PREM Group had and then gave up its own plans to renovate the building.
But thinking of what might have been with a hotel or college in the Custom House is pointless, and it's not to say they wouldn't have had difficulties; for all we know, Eastern is maintaining more of the historic integrity than those other suitors could have. The important thing is that the uncertainty is ending, and somebody is finally moving forward with some kind of restoration and opening up of the building.
Eastern seems to be doing enough renovation to the Custom House to stop just short of triggering legally obligated seismic upgrades, but Meijer believes that, unless it's a particularly high-magnitude quake (the so-called "Big One"), evidence so far indicates that the building is strong and sound, maybe more than other large public buildings of similar vintage. The Custom House has lived through a century of small quakes, and it does not show any cracks or other damage, while the circa-1914 Multnomah County Courthouse, for example, does.
"We have been fortunate we haven’t had a major quake in the Portland area, but for me it’s a larger question too. There really has not been a significant body of research and performance study done on the redundancy of older buildings," Meijer says. "Yes, we know there are some weak points that have been demonstrated through other earthquakes, but there haven’t been any studies showing what the strengths are. A number of years ago PPS tested one of their school buildings. They surprised the structural engineers. The walls did not crack where they thought. They turned out to be 5x stronger than code. As far as I know, no one else has done that testing in Portland. That is the type of research that’s needed for all existing buildings."
Besides having wonderful architectural character in its own right, the Custom House is part of or perhaps slightly prefigures one of the eras in which Portland transformed itself with a wave of new architecture. The Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition, a major turning point in city history--when we transitioned from frontier town to major American city--came just four years after the Custom House was built. Within a decade would come landmarks like the Governor Hotel and Meier & Frank Building in 1909, and the Jackson Tower and Benson Hotel in 1912.
The Custom House, one comes to realize, is the connecting thread between those buildings and landmarks of the early 20th century by the likes of architect A.E. Doyle, and an earlier generation of Portland buildings from the late 19th century such as the aforementioned White Stag building from 1883, the Blagen Block from 1888, and Union Station from 1896.
Most symbolically of all in this turn of the 20th century, Peter Meijer notes, the US Custom House replaced the Pioneer Courthouse as the major federal government outpost. "The federal presence was growing along with the city growing," he says.
Both the Pioneer Courthouse and the Custom House were perceived as being too far from downtown when originally constructed. In 1869 when the Pioneer Courthouse was completed, the area around it (including what's now Pioneer Courthouse Square, the consensus epicenter of downtown Portland, right across the street) was a residential enclave and the true "downtown" was along the waterfront, mostly to the south.
"The Custom House too was even further north of downtown," Meijer explains. "It was really in the swampy land, the flood area of the city. All of a sudden the Park Blocks grew up around it. It was really part of the formation of what we know as Portland today."
That flood-plain topography is the reason the Custom House was built raised several feet above the sidewalk. This, as well as the stone archways fencing in the building's front courtyard and the ironwork covering the first-floor windows, have helped to make the building a bit standoffish from its surrounding neighborhood, as has the restricted nature of it being a federal building. Even though private companies likely won't love the idea of one wandering unchaperoned through their spaces, the building will still feel more open with it taking on life.
What's more, the real targets in terms of tenants leasing space in the Custom House should be creative industries, for whom the architecture is a calling card. It will be in tenants' self interest to show off their space, or otherwise they might as well move to an office park in the suburbs.
And after an exceptionally long-overdue peek inside the Custom House yesterday, I can't wait to think of a future in which both inside and out of this building feel like a familiar and cherished piece of Portland's urban fabric.
With the 511 Broadway building (1918) currently being restored by Allied Works for PNCA just a couple blocks down Broadway, and following the restoration of the Daisy Kingdom building into art galleries and the Museum of Contemporary Craft a few years ago (not to mention the new Lever Architecture-designed PNCA dorm under construction, or the sleeping giant of the Postal Service facility just north of 511, eventually set to be vacated), the North Park Blocks are undergoing massive change once again: a cultural flood instead of an aquatic one.
Perhaps this era of transformation on the North Park Blocks could also be the impetus for NW Broadway itself, a grand boulevard disguised as a lifeless thoroughfare for most of the past half-century, to finally transform as well. Still, much of this is hypothetical, as a Custom House restoration had been for so many years. Walking inside this dusty but magnificent old Italian Renaissance building, I was just glad that the doors were finally opening.