BY JOHN CHILSON
In downtown Portland on SW Fourth Avenue between Washington and Stark sits the Witherspoon building. Built in 1890, it's almost camouflaged these days with what looks like a two dollar paintjob done with black spray paint. But changes, as they say, are afoot.
The building, which has a colorful past as a saloon, a dancehall and a brothel, is in the midst of a major retrofit by local creative agency Parliament. Once completed, the agency will occupy the top floor, and the two other floors will be open to, as Parliament's website explains, "a creative collective, a sidewalk-facing creative flex space and a below-ground workshop. We are actively seeking designers, writers, programmers, technologists, small start-ups, and other modern makers to help us build something great."
It's an ambitious project and isn't some quick remodel job. The agency's founder and creative director, Chris Erickson, has a clear vision of what he wants the building to be. He purchased the 15,000-square-foot space almost four years ago and is working closely with architect and friend Casey Wyckoff of LSW Architects. There were false starts and things stalled: they went through the complete design cycle, all the way through permitting, two Decembers ago. But the project came back 50 percent over budget. After starting from scratch, the project is now running at full steam, with noticeable construction in the front exterior and intensive structural work on the interior to get it functional.
"A lot of the challenges have come from the building's structure," said Erickson. "It's suffered from 123 years of bad remodels and bad decisions. We're trying to do it right."
Since the building is so old and has seen lots of bad remodels in its 123-year life, each move the team makes can trigger more expense. Many of the support beams are fastened to flooring, for example. At some point, someone added a faux mezzanine and in the process compromised the structural integrity.
In other spots, flooring doesn't actually tie into anything for support. Beams terminate into other beams with nothing to hold them. And in the back on the first floor, what was once an alley and the building's envelope, was bricked it into the neighboring building for support by previous owners. There are many seismic upgrades and the team has been working with the city for ADA compliance, which has been challenging.
The biggest part of the retrofit, so far, has been in the basement. Seventy-five percent of the work has occurred there as the space gets completely redone. Contractors have been counterbalancing years of neglect, digging holes and filling them in with concrete and steel to make the building structurally sound.
Structural and seismic retrofits aside, the building's interiors won't be recognizable when finished.
123-year-old studs will intersect with new glass and white walls, balancing modern thin lines with original artifacts like the wonderful, red velvet wallpaper uncovered during demolition. "The interiors will be modernist from the sense of heavy geometry and clean lines. A lot of the interior bones we won't touch," said Erickson.
Historically, the Witherspoon's past will live on and its personality will survive. On the third floor, original materials will be incorporated into the current design, mixing with glass and wood.
The brothel on the third floor, evidenced by different wallpapers where separate rooms once filled up with “customers,” is where part of Parliament's office will sit. A mixture of exposed brick, modern plaster and original stucco will respect the past.
The new design will be LEED-rated, have a completely new energy-efficient HVAC system, and will take advantage of natural light.
"We want the natural light from existing windows to leak out into the rest of the office. The goal is that someone arriving on the third floor will be able to see straight out to existing windows and get a view of the layout of the space. Not an open space, just a glimpse of it," said Erickson.
Near the front of the building, contractors have collected items found during construction, including old bricks, skeletal remains of various rodents, original parts from the 1890 boiler, and a 1902 pure gold coin in perfect condition that was tucked under a brick. A gaping hole (to be filled) in the brick wall on the street-level floor was once where coal was delivered by horse and carriage to the basement boiler. One can imagine the workers unloading coal on a cold, drizzly Portland day and stopping in for a snort of whiskey in the saloon. And there's an intriguing, mystery tunnel that goes under the street - now filled in.
Though the building has an interesting past, it's not one of Portland's well-known structures. That could change. Erickson is no stranger to cool office spaces. Parliament's previous digs in the Olympic Mills Commerce Center were featured as one of Inc. magazine's World's Coolest Offices. Erickson, an industrial designer by education, has also gutted three homes and rebuilt them.
The space is due to open in January 2014 and could potentially have an impact on the immediate neighborhood. It’s far enough from the Pearl to be unique, but close to downtown’s hub of public transport, bikes, and food cart pods. The space will fit right in with some of the older, well-kept buildings in the area.
"I'm a conflicted modernist, but at the same time I have a lot of respect for the structure itself. The facade in the front is hopefully going to look similar to how it should look. Passers-by will think it's a nice, kept-up building from the 1890s," said Erikson.
Get a sneak peak of the Witherspoon during Design Week Portland on October 10.
John Chilson writes about Oregon (but mostly Portland) history on his blog, lostoregon.org.