BY BRIAN LIBBY
A few weeks ago came the news that two historic Portland buildings, the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple and the Hotel Albion (housing the Lotus Cafe), would be demolished to make way for a 20-story hotel and a 10-story office building. Both properties were removed at the owners' request from the city's Historic Resource Inventory, usually the beginning of a slippery slope towards demolition. And within days, Restore Oregon began concurrent appeals to the City and to LUBA, arguing that the City erred in removing the Albion Hotel and Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple from the Historic Resource Inventory.
To learn more about what was happening and whether the two historic buildings' fates were really sealed, I first contacted Ankrom Moisan, the Portland firm associated with the hotel and office designs scheduled to replace them.
"We’ve been trying for about a year," said Ankrom Moisan's Michael Great about efforts to find a way to restore the buildings and add new construction around them, on the other two quarters of the block. But in investigating the costs, "it started painting a picture that we weren’t able to work through, unfortunately," Great added. "I think the entire development team is pretty disappointed. I know I am. We all talked internally a lot and wish there was more we could do. But it does sound like the Temple will come down."
As seen in Design Commission hearings and on the Next Portland blog, originally the idea was to keep the Romanesque Revival-style United Workman Temple and cantilever more floors over it from the adjacent building. "We were pretty excited about that potential," Great added. "We looked at punching structure down through it. We really dug into the realities of cantilevering it over the top, and the lateral impacts of sheer walls. It was becoming more and more difficult."
I asked why they couldn't just restore the temple and, instead of adding cantilevered floors above it, just build the adjacent building taller. "That’s also something we’ve looked at," Great said. "But there are a lot of significant setbacks unique to that district. It makes it impossible to do that. The floor plates of those types of buildings at the quarter block get too small considering the cores."
"With the reality of the block size," added Ankrom's Carolyn Forsyth, "once you get a core in there that has all the stuff a highrise core needs to have, the plate left over is not something a modern office tenant would be fit to use."
I feel sorry for architects and developers who get involved with a historic building project thinking they can restore it but then wind up as the people destroying it. That was a big part of the tenor of the ensuing conversation I had with one of the building's developers, Jeff Arthur of Arthur Mutal. I'd initially tried calling co-developer Jack Onder of Onder Development, but none of the calls were answered or returned. Arthur, however, was willing to be open about their journey from enthusiastic restorers to reluctant demolishers.
"I’m a native Portlander and have been doing a lot of adaptive reuse and some historical reuse for about 10 years," Arthur said, referencing projects like the Templeton Building renovation on East Burnside. "I’ve been involved in a lot of older buildings in a lot of capacities. I think I understand the capacities and challenges fairly well."
"It’s been a tough journey for us. We’ve spent a year and a significant amount of money looking for ways to save it, Arthur added. "Whenever possible I like to keep older buildings intact and bring out their character. When we looked at that block, that was the goal and intent." He talked enthusiastically of traveling to New York City, for example, to look at buildings by the likes of Sir Norman Foster that had successfully combined new and old architecture.
But at a time when Portland has been awakening to the very real threat of a catastrophic earthquake, the developers realized they had "one of the tallest unreinforced masonry buildings in the city. The word seismic wasn’t a word when they built this," the developer said. "It was built to a different standard than what we want to see in the city today. And unlike say a three story building…it presents its own set of challenges."
Despite the de-listing from the city inventory and the architects' admissions that demolition may be inevitable, Arthur went to great lengths to emphasize that nothing has been decided, and that the 120-day waiting period that Restore Oregon went to City Council asking to be informed is something they would have agreed to even without the legal obligation. "There’s been no demo permit that’s been filed," Arthur said. "We’re still evaluating our opportunities when it comes to the Temple building. But one of the possibilities is it may have to come down."
If demolition were to happen, Arthur says his team would be "trying to create a win win no matter what the outcome became. At the very least, if it can’t be salvaged, we’d certainly explore all avenues of incorporating elements into a new design, or donating some of the materials and components." This was the only part of the conversation I rolled my eyes at. Demolishing a historic building is somehow okay if some of the parts and materials are donated? I don't think so. No absolution comes for good behavior in jail after a crime is committed.
"We haven’t made any final decision about anything. We’re still exploring options," Arthur said again. "As we’ve gone through this we’ve realized the challenges are greater than we thought. But we’re still working through what those figures might be."
I asked Arthur how much it would cost to restore the Workmen Temple if his team had all the capital they needed, but he was reluctant to answer, saying his team will have such figures in a couple of weeks. On one hand, it seems like they lack the proper figures to make a definitive decision about whether the buildings will come down, but they seem to have enough information to indicate demolition is the only option.
Arthur also made another point that about one-third of me agrees with. He called this block "a forgotten area of town," citing how it is so centrally located but feels relatively devoid of foot traffic and energy, not only because of the Temple being empty but the low-rise structures and a parking lot on the blog. "It’s a really important part of town we’d like to see vibrant again," the developer added. Of course he's right that foot traffic could be higher here, and no one wants to see an old building or any building sit vacant, especially when it's just blocks from City Hall and right in the middle of the downtown core.
But the implication here was that tearing down the Workmen Temple and the Albion would be better than letting either building sit vacant, and I find that self-serving and a faulty bit of logic. It conveniently ignores that a vacant Temple building can always still be restored, whereas once you tear it down it's gone for good. It certainly is true that a new hotel and office building on this block would add energy, but it would create a bigger problem than it solves: the eradication of historic architecture in a city that is losing its historic architecture at an alarming rate.
One interesting portion of the conversation with Arthur involved the question of whether it was worthwhile to preserve the Workmen Temple's facade if the owners gutted the interior. Arthur told me some had suggested that if none of the original interior remained then it wasn't worth it to preserve the exterior. I strongly disagree. Of course we wouldn't want the majority of our old buildings to lack historic interiors. When you restore the exterior only it's not a true renovation. But that doesn't mean it's not valid or worthwhile. Some of the best architecture is a hybrid of old an new, like tree sapling growing out of an old stump. It would be ideal to not only restore these buildings but preserve their interiors, but especially in the case of the Workmen Temple, it could be possible to build a new building in the shell of this old one and do something special. It would take a particularly talented architecture firm, of course, to do it right.
Ultimately this emerging story of a possible United Workmen Temple and Hotel Albion demolition is not really one of good-guy preservationists against bad-guy demolishing developers. The people who may ultimately demolish these structures would not be laughing all the way to the bank if they tore down these buildings. This is a time when Portland is seeing more and more projects developed by out-of-town developers and real estate investment trusts, and often these projects' developers, from Texas or San Diego or even Seattle, do not completely appreciate Portland's culture, urban fabric and values. These guys are longtime locals with, at least in Arthur's case, experience with and a genuine affection for old buildings and restorations.
Yet when good guys do bad things, it's still bad even if they're not. I hope for the sake of these old buildings and even for the sake of the developers that a compromise can be found: that either they can find a way to restore the buildings without losing money, or walk away from the project. But it's easy for me or any other outside observer to say when we're not the ones who have already gone all in financially. Even so, it would be a black mark for the city and for these developers' careers if the buildings come down, and while Ankrom Moisan may be a capable firm, I don't think there's anything they could design to replace this architecture that would be better or would justify what is being considered.