Portland Gasco Building (photo by Sheri Mason-Cruise)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
When the Portland Gas & Coke Building celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, the circa-1913 structure along the west bank of the Willamette River near the St. Johns Bridge also was deemed to be not long for this world, as its current owner, NW Natural, announced plans for demolition.
Since then, there has been an outpouring of community support, culminating in a grassroots effort to save the Gasco Building (as it's commonly known). Given the deteriorated nature of the architecture, which as been largely unused and abandoned for the past half-century, organizers of the Save the Portland Gasco Building group have asked not that NW Natural renovate the structure but leave it as is, as a ruin allowed to decay in place and as a reminder of the city's turn-of-the-20th Century industrial heritage.
"So many people love this building," says Scott Ray Becker, a local documentary filmmaker who has assumed the reins of the preservation effort.
Becker has a longer history with the Gasco than most. In 1891 his great grandfather, CF Adams, became one of the co-owners of the Portland Gas Light Company, which had been founded in 1859 (the year of Oregon's becoming a US state) as the first gas company in the Pacific Northwest. Adams and his partner, AE Mills, changed its name to Portland Gas and Coke, which later became known as NW Natural Gas and today simply NW Natural.
Earlier this year, Becker and his fellow Gasco Building preservationists met with leaders of NW Natural and were given an opportunity to see their vision realized, but with a catch. As reported by Allan Classen in the NW Examiner, NW Natural company would need to weatherproof and seal the building for long-term preservation. "This would not include electrical, plumbing or other improvements needed to occupy the building, nor would the public be able to enter," Classen explains.
NW Natural shared with the preservationists a third-party estimate of $1.9-2.4 million. "The [Gasco preservation] committee members then suggested some ways to reduce the cost of the estimate, which our third-party contractor reviewed and so we communicated to them in a letter dated August 18 the reduced estimate of $1.55-2.05 million," explained NW Natural spokesperson Melissa Moore in an email.
"To put this in context, there are legitimate reasons for the company's original decision to demolish the building," Moore continues. "These reasons continue today. The building currently poses both health and safety hazards; is seismically unstable; contaminated by lead, animal feces and asbestos; sits on contaminated property that we are required by law to clean up; and is adjacent to a Superfund site."
After hearing how much NW Natural was aking for, "The wind was pulled out of our sails," Becker says, acknowledging that their grassroots group's being able to raise that amount of money would be "a miracle." A number of people left the preservation effort thinking the task was impossible.
Nevertheless, Becker and his comrades have started a fundraising campaign on the website Changefunder called "Gasco: As Is!" Though $2 million is the long-term goal, they have set an initial amount of $50,000 to raise by November 2. So far, $1,575 has been pledged.
"Right now it’s more about getting the word out," Becker says. "The longer we do this, the more they respect us and want to put their name on it. Most people don’t think we can raise the money. I may be one of the only people who thinks we can get close. But we have some kick-ass people. " The preservation group is planning a December 6 fundraising concert, which may include renowned Portland band The Decemberists. Lead singer Colin Meloy's 2012 young-adult novel Under Wildwood, with illustrations by wife Carson Ellis, uses the Gasco Building as inspiration; a likeness of the building graces the cover, and in the book the villains establish their headquarters there.
Becker says there are limits to what could be done with the Gasco, but that an appropriate long-term goal may be to have the building anchor a public riverfront park after another decade or so.
"People say, ‘When can McMenamins move in?’ I tell them it’s adjacent to a Superfund site, and it’s explosive," Becker explains. "But in 2025, they may be closer. They have about 10 more years of cleanup. They’ve been working since 1993 and have spent $26 million. They’re serious about cleaning up the site. And then all bets are off. Maybe it can be like Gasworks Park in Seattle, or like Cathedral Park. It depends on what people want to do. It could be a park, or a museum to industry. But if they tear it down now, we’ll never have that chance."
To NW Natural's credit, the company seems to have listened to the preservationists and not demolished the Gasco building as quickly as originally intended. Moore says NW Natural "committed to an 18-month extension of our demolition permit -- which will now expire in July 2015 -- to give the committee time to further its efforts."
It's understandable if a publicly-traded company with shareholders to appease can't automatically commit millions of dollars to preserving an abandoned building on its site. And the company has some very legitimate reasons for viewing non-demolition skeptically. Conventional wisdom may indeed say the building has to come down. But I still wonder if some creative thinking could find a better solution or offer an opportunity to do something special down the road.
And if NW Natural really is spending some three decades repairing the environmental damage that the company and its forebears wreaked along the banks of the Willamette over the past century, wouldn't it be nice to reserve that land for public use some day, even if it's many years down the road? In the long-term after the cleanup, the ruins of the Gasco building could be a big draw. That stretch of highway is one long industrial enclave, but just as the east side of the river's industry gives way to Cathedral Park right across the river, so too could the Gasco building one day anchor a public greenspace along the water.
Speaking of cathedrals, the notion of the Gasco ruins anchoring a future park makes me think of visiting a park in London years ago that was made from the ruins of a Christopher Wren church, St. Dunstan's, bombed in World War II. A wall or two of the old church remained, but most of the area was benches and flowers amidst the ruin. The Gasco Building is no St. Dunstan's by any stretch, but it's a good example of how architectural ruins can become very compelling public outdoor space.
What's more, all over America and the world, this generation has been reclaiming formerly industrial waterfront space for public use. It's already been happening locally in places like South Waterfront and the Pearl District, and now in Oregon City there is an effort to reclaim the majestic Willamette Falls for public access. Even if it happens 10 to 20 years or more down the road, it would make sense to establish a goal of someday, after the remediation is completed, giving this stretch of the Willamette back to the public. And as Becker noted, regional examples like Gasworks Park in Seattle provide a great example of how maintaining industrial ruins in a greenspace can enliven the experience of being there, creating public space rooted in history.