BY BRIAN LIBBY
Maybe it will seem like a stretch, but I have found over the past few weeks an even greater sense of commitment to preserving historic architecture and great places in light of the darkness setting in nationally and politically. As I quoted novelist John Dos Passos in the column, "In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men's reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present."
Gray and Wong Laundry Buildings
The two Portland buildings on Restore Oregon's list couldn't seem more unremarkable if you didn't know their history. Some building we preserve because they're beautiful, and others because of the stories and histories they tell.
The Gray Building, completed in 1900, is a false-front building that looks almost like a Hollywood set: a storefront facade affixed to a smaller, pitched-roof building behind it. But it has a more than century-long history as an outpost of Portland's African American community. As early as 1906 an African American family, Henry and Katherine Gray, occupied the building. Mrs. Gray was a founding member of African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and founder of the Harriet Tubman Club. In the 1960s the building was a key location in the civil rights movement, including as a location for Black Panther party gatherings. The Gray Building was also part of what is known as the Opossum Incident in 1981, in which the ouster of a local pro-segregation school superintendent led to marches, protests, and the eventual firing of officers who left possum remains on the steps of black businesses. The building's exterior has been altered over the years, but its value as a lasting symbol of the black community's struggle in Portland it has tremendous value.
The Wong Laundry Building in the Old Town/Chinatown district is also not exactly a looker, nor is its facade the same as when it was built. The building has been mostly vacant since 1970, when a fire caused significant water damage. Before that, the building had been purchased by the Wong family in the early 1950s and occupied for a decade before that, as a hand laundry business and an outpost for Chinese medicine expert, Kai Young Wong and as well as a residence for Ms. Wong and her six children.
An interesting type of preservation crisis puts the Wong Laundry building in jeopardy. As Jules Rogers reported in a December 8 Portland Tribune article, a new owner of the building seeks to "honor heritage" in Chinatown through demolition. The Wong Laundry building is unreinforced masonry, meaning it would be among the first to topple in a major earthquake, and even if seismic improvements were made, the new owner argues, it would still not survive but rather simply not collapse as quickly.
The new owners, led by Hongcheng Zhao, got the Wong family to agree to a sale after other queries were turned down (the family wanted the neighborhood's Chinese heritage to be honored) in part with a promise to build something new that would help re-establish Old Town/Chinatown as a real Chinese-American community again despite many people and businesses having moved east to near 82nd Avenue. But if there any tangible examples of how the new building would honor that heritage better than the historical building, I didn't come across them in Rogers's article. Zhao does seem to have a point: why restore a building that won't survive an earthquake? Yet if that argument were carried to every unreinforced masonry building in the city, we'd lose a huge amount of our historic architectural fabric. It's possible that the Wong Laundry building will indeed be demolished, and if so, life will go on. Yet I'm not sure if it's an unassailable fact that an earthquake threat automatically equals a license to demolish.
Restore Oregon's Endangered Places list also included a beloved piece of history that is not really architectural: the Jantzen Beach Carousel, which was preserved after the closure of the Jantzen Beach amusement park and for years was part of the Jantzen Beach Center mall. But over the past decade, as America's love of shopping malls has dissipated substantially and developers have struggled to make them relevant again, Jantzen Beach Center's owner, South Carolina-based developer Edens, removed the circa-1921 carousel as it remade the complex as a constellation of big-box retail stores like Best Buy and Target. The carousel was reportedly carefully boxed up, but no one has heard anything about its whereabouts for years now. You could level just about everything at Jantzen Beach and less history would be lost than if you destroyed the carousel.
Endangered Civic Treasures
Besides the Endangered Places listed by Restore Oregon, I also wrote in the column about a triumvirate of central city projects—all much more prominent than the ones on the list—with unsettled futures: the Multnomah County Courthouse, Centennial Mills, and Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Thankfully, there is reason to be optimistic in all three cases.
For Centennial Mills, that optimism is of course tempered by the fact that much of this historic riverfront complex has already been demolished. The Portland Development Commission simply has not been a successful caretaker of these mill and feed buildings, which were once Ground Zero for the city's economic explosion; Portland was once the third-richest city in America because of the wheat that passed through Centennial Mills on its way down the Columbia and to ports around the world. But the signature Flour Mill building (with the water-tower on top) and the land around it are intended to be preserved. "We are continuing to pursue feasibility investigations, and will likely put forth an updated redevelopment plan in the spring," PDC's Shawn Uhlman told me by email last week.
The Multnomah County Courthouse, being vacated once the new one along the waterfront is complete, is also facing an uncertain future, but one likely to end as a preservation win. According to the County's website FAQ, "No decisions have been scheduled for the existing 100-year-old courthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We know the future of the existing courthouse is an important public conversation that will take into account all stakeholders. A planning process is scheduled to begin before the new courthouse opens. The building could be re-purposed by the county or sold and renovated by a new owner." Multnomah County spokesperson Mike Pullen told me by email that the process will likely begin late in 2018. The new courthouse is slated to open in 2020.
Ironically, this courthouse once played the opposite role: the new one causing demolition of the old one. When Multnomah County completed this courthouse in 1914, the circa-1886 courthouse on the same site was demolished. As Bart King notes in his Architectural Guidebook To Portland, the 19th century building's foundation was incorporated into the new building's basement. When the 1914 courthouse was opened, it was the largest courthouse on the West Coast and the largest single structure in the city. King notes its Ionic columns on the east and west sides as the building's most significant feature, "which gave the building the gravitas befitting a Multnomah County courthouse."
Inside, King writes, "one notices the accumulation of neglect and wrongheaded remodels (dropped ceilings at every turn!) that mar this building. But there is beauty as well. At the carved, scroll-bracketed entrances on the east, there is marble, marble, marble. Bronze lanterns greet one in the foyer, and the stairway has beautiful Italian newel posts." He also makes note of how the building was originally constructed around a central courtyard that was later filled in "with a horrible pillbox structure that houses offices and a jury room." What if a renovation, be it for private-sector offices or some other compatible use, reclaimed that courtyard? The building would be teeming with natural light, be it at the perimeter or deep into the interior. A building with that much beautiful Beaux Arts ornament and luxurious materials like marble and that much natural light? It's what caused Pacific Northwest College of Art, for example, to restore and call home the 511 Broadway building in a wonderful renovation by Allied Works. The Multnomah County Courthouse is a similarly golden opportunity to make great architecture.
And then there's Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which I've been actively involved in trying to save and restore as part of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum. In June the building was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It's a designation only about 70 buildings in the United States have, and it's also a commitment by the Trust to stay involved as an advocate and partner until the building is restored. And that restoration seems encouragingly possible.
A 2015 study commissioned by the City of Portland found that the Coliseum has an important niche role in the local venue market, at a size in between the downtown auditoriums and the larger Moda Center next door. And no matter what level of restoration was pursued—ranging from about $35 to $120 million—the study found that the building would turn an operational profit. The National Trust and the Friends of Memorial Coliseum are working with the City of Portland to craft a recommended plan that honors the historic architecture by making it much more accessible. For decades the Coliseum has not been able to regularly open its curtains, which enable a one-of-a-kind, 360-degree view from the seating bowl to the outside. I have watched the sun set over the entire downtown Portland skyline from my seats during a Blazer exhibition game and a Winterhawks regular-season match alike, and it's glorious. And unique architectural experiences have economic value, as evidenced by developer Capstone Partners' expressed interest in renovating the building as a renewed performance venue. There is also a pledge by the Winterhawks to donate $10 million or more, and the possibility of a federal historic tax credit, all of which could add up to the city getting something like a $60 or $80 million dollar restoration for something like $20 in public investment. The city's study found that would reap as much as $2 billion in economic impact, which in turn would more than pay back that restoration cost in increased property tax revenue.
The challenge with the Coliseum is that you can't think about the arena by itself. In the near future, the City of Portland as Coliseum owner will face the decision of whether to let the Trail Blazers manage both arenas or whether to let the Coliseum operate on its own. And even more importantly, it's time to re-consider the Rose Quarter as an urban place. It's an unequivocal disaster today, with virtually no people present when there isn't a big event at one of the arenas. That's because the arenas are surrounded by parking garages, and it doesn't take an urban planner to tell you that parking garages are disastrous to a sense of place. However, if you built on top of the garages, or knocked them down and built new garages underground and mixed-use buildings above, the place would come alive, especially considering it's adjacent to a new streetcar line along its northern border and has one of the city's biggest transit nodes (for MAX and buses) on its southern edge. Which is to say nothing of the Rose Quarter's proximity to the Lloyd District, the Oregon Convention Center, the to-be-vacated Portland Public Schools parcel to the immediate north, and the Williams/Vancouver Avenue corridor beyond that. The Rose Quarter is destined to be a high-density, pedestrian-oriented urban district, anchored by the Coliseum and, for a time, the Moda Center (until it's replaced). We're talking about a second downtown of 2050. And those kids of high-density, high-energy places need cultural centerpieces, which the Coliseum is poised to be for generations once it's restored.
Whether it's historically-significant but modest neighborhood structures or large civic treasures, no city can protect all its old buildings. As I wrote in the column, "Historic architecture reminds us we're merely the latest caretakers of this place, that every generation faces hardships as well as the opportunity to make a mark. And paying it forward, handing off our landmarks to the next generation, is a chance to re-affirm our values. Look where there's an absence of old buildings, be it in outer suburbs or new urban districts, and they feel a bit alien. That lifeline to the past is more than sentiment. It's something we feel in our bones. And the more uncertain the future feels, the more our enduring places can give us a sense of perspective and optimism."
And in this day and age, when our values on a national level have been made a mockery, we need some optimism at the local level. Portland can be a kind of progressive island amidst the darkening storm stretching beyond or borders over the next four-plus years. But the way to do that is to double down on what we value most.