BY BRIAN LIBBY
Twenty years ago this month, I was a couple years out of college and looking to make a fresh start in Portland. After growing up in nearby McMinnville but then spending seven combined years in New York City in Washington, DC, I saw Portland as a happy medium: a big city with walkability and culture, but closer to home and not quite as overwhelmingly large as NYC. I could get a good espresso or see a foreign film playing just down the street, but I could still see Mt. Hood in the distance or make a five-minute trek to Forest Park.
As I look back on 20 years in Portland, starting with this post, which will focus on downtown, my first thoughts go back to my first landing spot in Portland, an apartment building that still stands but has seen everything around it change.
After securing administrative work through a temp agency, I leased the second downtown apartment I looked at. Coming from New York, it was almost laughable how cheap the rent was here. My unit in the Empire Apartments at SW 11th and Jefferson not only had lots of space and a view of the downtown skyline over the old “Psycho Safeway,” as it was affectionately known (it’s now been replaced by the Eliot condominiums), but the $560 per month was also less than half the rent my girlfriend and I had paid in New York. (I didn’t realize until later that it also leaked like a colander.)
Ghosts of Gus
Best of all, without meaning to I’d rented an apartment on a block that was part of cinema history. Coming out of NYU, I was an aspiring movie critic, and quite excited to learn that only a few steps down 11th Avenue was a location from Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy.
In a way, that’s where my interest in Portland’s architecture began: with a run-down building at 11th and Main called the St. Francis Hotel. Just as it had been in the movie, where a character played by legendary Beat novelist William S. Burroughs lived, the St. Francis was a residence hotel for the down and out: recovering addicts, formerly homeless people, the elderly.
Four years later, I found myself writing about the St. Francis’s demolition for Willamette Week. “At one time the white brick building with its antique interior was a stately destination for out-of-town guests (the old Portland trolley proudly advertised having a stop there),” I said, describing the circa-’90s St. Francis as “what Tom Waits would call ‘a crumbling beauty,’ indicative of Portland's hallowed seediness, where swanky lofts and Starbucks franchises segue into back-alley flop houses and brick-house soup kitchens. If there's such a thing as the nobility of poverty, then there's also a quiet grandeur in the neglected buildings of better days, defiantly unencumbered by commercialization. This is a face of Portland that is, like the St. Francis, rapidly falling away.”
In retrospect, it wasn’t just great filmmaking that Gust Van Sant’s early “Portland trilogy” (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) represented for me, but a kind of time capsule: capturing for posterity a grittier side of pre-gentrification Portland.
Just a few blocks down 10th Avenue, for example, was the Governor Hotel, which, dating to 1909 and originally called the Seward Hotel, had been empty and boarded up when Van Sant filmed key scenes from Idaho there in 1990, but now, as of 1997, had been fully restored, showing off its blend of Viennese-influenced Early Modern and modified Arts and Crafts styles, and a first-in-Portland use of fully glazed terra cotta for the exterior. Seeing the Governor, it was hard to believe that it had been the same boarded-up flophouse I knew from My Own Private Idaho. Today it’s known as the Sentinel Hotel and regularly hosts City Club meetings.
Not everything in Portland had the seediness of an early Van Sant film. Just a few weeks after we moved to the city, the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse (designed by New York’s Kohn Pedersen Fox with an assist from Portland’s Bora) opened on SW Third Avenue, featuring what turned out to be a classically ‘90s look with its curved barrel roof.
Portland’s downtown buildings are quite short, on average, for a major American city, yet I excitedly attended the open house for the Hatfield courthouse, because it afforded something I’d scarcely yet found in Portland: an observation point to look out at the city. Nevermind that the courthouse’s glassy side looked west, turning its back from the riverfront. It still was a compelling view, looking out at City Hall and the Wells Fargo building. (I can’t say I love the Hatfield courthouse today, though. It’s not terrible but it’s not up to the usual standards of the GSA’s Design Excellence program that delivered a host of federal buildings by top American architects to many US cities.)
Speaking of towers, that tallest downtown building, the Wells Fargo Center, had been the lone building to capture my imagination as a child. Coming into Portland from McMinnville, northbound on Interstate 5, there was always a moment where the road curved around a bend and I could see the top of the tower come into view. As a kid in the 1970s I kept thinking, “When are they going to build some more tall skyscrapers like that one?” Of course what I didn’t realize was that the Wells Fargo, originally known as the First Interstate Tower, had prompted height-limit regulations to be passed by the city.
When I think of how the downtown has changed over the past 20 years, I think of relatively few tall buildings that have altered the skyline: the Fox Tower and Park Avenue West by TVA Architects; the ODS Tower, Eliot Condos and 12 West by ZGF Architects. I’m rather ambivalent about many of those projects (which in the ODS’s case is being kind), except maybe for ZGF’s 12 West, which was the first tall building in the US to be outfitted with wind turbines. I like the poetry that 2000s ZGF and partner Gene Sandoval brought to their glass curtain walls, both here and at the Eliot (although that building is very much a two-sided affair—while the east-facing front is gorgeous, the backside is just that).
My other favorite downtown tall building would probably be the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt federal courthouse, by James Cutler with an assist from Portland’s SERA Architects: a transformation of a 1970s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed office tower. One can’t help but notice the building, with its boldly sculptural exterior screening on the west façade to mitigate solar heat gain and its slanted array of solar panels on top—almost like a tilted graduation cap. Both moves are functional, and yet they are so eye-catching that they almost cross over into seeming like attention seekers. Still, I think Cutler gets the details right and that his work, like I said about Sandoval’s possesses a kind of visual poetry.
Really, though, my favorite downtown commercial building has always been the Standard Plaza, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1963. When Pietro Belluschi left Portland in the late '50s to become dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architecture school, he sold his firm to Chicago and New York-based SOM, which for about 20 years operated an office in Portland and made a significant impact. SOM Portland designed not only big spectator venues like Memorial Coliseum and Eugene's Autzen Stadium, but numerous downtown office buildings including the US Bancorp Tower ("Big Pink" - with Belluschi as consultant) and two different buildings called Standard: the Standard Insurance Center and Standard Plaza. Of the latter two, I prefer Standard Plaza for its tinted glass, which remains transparent despite the coloring, and the subtle sense of curve that enhances its rectilinear geometry between floors. It's a beautiful building.
Standard Plaza (Brian Libby)
Public spaces and shopping
When I think of how downtown has changed over the last 20 years, I also think of public spaces like Director Park (designed by Laurie Olin and ZGF). Initially when it was being constructed I feared that it would take energy away from Pioneer Courthouse Square: why did we need two public spaces within a block of each other when other areas of the city were crying out for it? Yet I was wrong, because Director Park plays a different role than Courthouse Square and has an entirely different feel. It’s a place to take your lunch at the noon hour or meet a friend for coffee, whereas PCS is a place to go for a traveling exhibit or a political rally. My favorite part is the glass canopy, which gives people a nice covered space to gather under during the rainy half of the year (or take their food-cart lunch); I just wish it had been built twice as big.
One of the biggest downtown building projects of the last two decades was the whole-block expansion of the Pioneer Place mall in 1999, connected via skybridge to its predecessor across the street. Honestly, I’ve hardly ever been inside. As malls go, both halves of Pioneer Place are fine for what they are, I suppose. They have a lot of natural light except for the basement portions. But it’s still a mall, and to me this thankfully is not how many of us shop anymore. I went to suburban malls like Washington Square and Clackamas Town Center quite a lot when I was a teenager living in McMinnville back in the 1980s, but as an adult I find malls antiseptic and claustrophobic.
However, one of my favorite downtown projects of the last 20 years is also a kind of shopping mall, but the opposite of Pioneer Place in both scale and the type of business you’ll find there: Union Way by Lever Architecture, which transformed a single-story, early-20th-century automobile garage by cutting a central spine down the middle with micro-retail shops lining either side and huge skylights bathing the space in natural light. Like Director Park, Union Way creates that winter garden feeling that I love and that Portland’s gray, wet climate calls out for.
More than any one project, I think of Portland State University over the last 20 years and its evolution both architecturally in a number of building projects but also as an institution. When I moved here there was no architecture school at PSU, and many of its key buildings were crumbling midcentury works. Yet whether it’s the excellent Urban Center by Hacker Architects or the more recent renovation to Lincoln Hall by Bora or a series of residence halls, PSU is well on its way to transforming itself.
When I think of how downtown Portland has changed over the last 20 years and continues to change, it’s not just the relative quality or lack thereof in the architecture. It’s also that we’re simply becoming more dense. For a lot of years, even during some economic boom times, I often found myself walking past surface parking lots and thinking they ought not to be there. After all, Portland and Oregon have long been bound by Senate Bill 100, which upon passage in the 1970s mandated every city and town have a growth management plan. Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary is a foundational aspect of how the city has been developed. And yet we still have retained a constellation of downtown blocks that are nothing but asphalt. Granted that asphalt is lucrative as by-the-hour parking, but I always wondered when they would finally start to go away. That time is more or less now, for the Goodman family, which owns a lot of those lots, is finally developing that land. The 12 West building is one example from a few years ago, but much more is in the works.
Looking back, I also think of the Rosefriend Apartments, a wonderful early 20th century courtyard apartment building that was located downtown on Broadway, across from The Oregonian, until its owners—First Christian Church—decided they’d like to cash in on the real estate boom by tearing down the Rosefriend’s affordable housing and selling to a developer. Admittedly downtown churches need parking, which the church got built underneath the ensuing Ladd Tower project. And thanks to another preservation effort, the church’s initial efforts to tear down the historic Ladd Carriage House next door were thwarted, so it wasn’t a total loss. Even so, I still lament the loss of the Rosefriend, as well as the disappointment of seeing a nonprofit religious institution contribute to the destruction of historic architecture.
Rosefriend Apartments (Brian Libby)
Yet the past two decades have also seen some restorations I’m thankful for: of the Telegram Building by Waterleaf Architecture, of A.E. Doyle’s Meier & Frank building for the Nines Hotel and Departure restaurant, of John Yeon’s Portland Oregon Visitors Center as a new home for the Rose Festival Foundation, Ann Beha’s restoration of a massive Masonic temple into the Portland Art Museum’s Mark Building, and Allied Works’ in-progress renovation of the Pietro Belluschi-designed Oregonian headquarters.
Most of all, though, I think of FFA Architecture’s wonderful restoration of A.E. Doyle’s Central Library. Doyle was the most important Portland architect before his pupil, Pietro Belluschi, and gave us many of our most important early 20th century buildings: the Benson Hotel, Civic Stadium, much of Reed College, Meier & Frank. But Central Library is his jewel, and ours. Perhaps the most-publicized architectural work in the Pacific Northwest over the last 20 years was the Seattle Central Library by Rem Koolhaas. I absolutely love that building, but I honestly wouldn’t trade it for Doyle’s elegant 1913 work of Georgian architecture with its grand staircase and wide-open reading rooms.
Preservation is only going to get more challenging as we brace for a massive earthquake and try to retrofit our large inventory of unreinforced masonry buildings. Just the threat of an earthquake or the notion of expensive seismic upgrades is already dooming the United Workmen Temple on SW Second Avenue.
Yet the evolution of a city, Portland or any other, is continuous and always includes a mix of new buildings, restorations and, inevitably, demolitions. I can’t imagine a future Rose City, post-earthquake, that could conceivably lack a huge swath of the buildings we today consider to be essential. Hopefully we’ll make a lot of progress before the big quake comes, and we’ll be ready. Yet the prospect that our city, like Dresden or Christchurch or others around the world, could be more or less leveled some day in the future also makes me appreciate what we do have all the more.
20 years ago I came to Portland in part because it happened to be the closest big city to the small town where I grew up. But the more I spent time here, the more I felt a hand-in-glove fit: a place increasingly dense and vibrant, a bastion of progressive values amidst the rural sea of pickup trucks and piety, and an urban anchor from which to explore the mountains, the sea, the rivers and the valleys of Oregon.
I've also loved Portland for its collaborative culture: there is a real design community here, not just a group of firms, which possess a kind of lift-every-boat mentality, sharing information and insight. And I like that architecture here, and the work of our most acclaimed architects, is deeply tied to the landscape. Our city doesn't have the most famous buildings or monuments, or even the most popular natural wonders. There is neither an Empire State Building nor a Grand Canyon here. Yet what we may have is the best balance of both: a progressive, cultured city that's within reach, and even within sight, of our beautiful mountains, rivers and forests.