BY BRIAN LIBBY
The Culver building at SW 12th and Alder has long kept a discrete profile, its ground-floor dry cleaning business one of the only visible retailers and an adjacent surface parking lot sucking away most any pedestrian vitality. But as the West End has grown in recent years as a kind of extension of the Pearl District just across Burnside, gaining restaurants, offices and condos, the case improved for remaking and expanding the Culver. Which is what the team of GBD Architects and contractor/client Lease Crutcher Lewis has done, adding a new third floor for LCL's offices and giving the overall historic structure fresh life.
Built in 1920, the Culver and the land underneath it are owned by the Goodman family, which also owns a host of properties around the central city, mostly surface parking lots, but has slowly been going about developing them into buildings such as 12 West, the massive office and apartment tower just across 12th Avenue from the Culver. This project had Lease Crutcher Lewis agreeing to a long-term lease to make the Culver its headquarters, and GBD overseeing a renovation that blended historic preservation and sustainability goals. Designed to meet LEED Silver specifications, its interior was reconstructed using a host of reclaimed materials as well as modern windows and insulation to make it as efficient as possible.
Although in its new incarnation the Culver is a kind of hybrid, its glassy penthouse paired with the historic two-story structure, the Culver exemplifies what architects commonly call a "fabric" building, a square in the overall quilt of buildings comprising the downtown core. When we lose one of these fabric buildings, maybe it isn't as big a tragedy as losing a major landmark, but the overall downtown fabric is important to the character, history and aesthetics of the city. Without them, Portland becomes a place without much of a discernable past, like Dresden or Las Vegas.
"The intersection of SW 12th and SW Alder, for me, is now a really interesting architectural intersection of Portland," explains Agustin Enriquez of GBD. "We talked a lot during the design phase about approaches to repurposing old buildings. That intersection has three very different--and equally valid--solutions. The First Presbyterian Church is a beautiful old building. It is maintained well and is a great example of a very traditional approach to historic preservation. The building directly across the street to the west is of a similar vintage as the Culver Building, but was radically transformed by Skylab in 2007. It's an old building that a completely fresh breath was infused into. Since those two design strategies existed quite literally across the street--make an old building new by keeping it old and making an old building new by making it completely new, we thought it could make for an interesting dialogue to combine those approaches into a third option, making an old building old and new simultaneously."
"What makes the renovation and addition work at the Culver Building was it retained just enough detailing from its original construction that as architects we just don’t do a lot of anymore - details like the medallions at the top of the building and the brick trim work. You just can’t design history. A building is either old and lived a life with the patina of a century of use or it isn’t," Enriquez continued. "I suppose it could kind of be faked, but it would be a parody of itself and, frankly, I wouldn’t know how to do that. The team’s effort was to retain as much of that history as possible: the funky quality of the exposed wood timbers for example, and be very clear about when we were doing something new to the building. I think we all felt like the finished building was special precisely because we let the old be old, made the new new, and allow everyone to see that relationship.
While standing on the Culver's third-floor penthouse deck a few days ago, the view down 12th Avenue was one of a street emerging from decades of slumber with a succession of retail and a growing sense architectural diversity. The Goodman family and their development company, Downtown Development Group, seem to grasp how the mix of new and old buildings, small and large ones, give an urban setting its vitality - making for places people want to congregate.
But amidst the success of this renovation, I also thought of another old building just a few blocks down Alder Street that seems to be facing a much darker fate. Recently it was reported that the Cornelius Hotel building at SW Alder and Park may be demolished by its owner, TMT Development.
Completed in 1908 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, the Cornelius boasts an elegant French Renaissance style and is one of the last remaining downtown buildings with a mansard-style roof. It was designed by Bennes, Hendricks, and Tobey, and principal John Bennes designed much of the Oregon State University campus as well as numerous Portland buildings and homes, including Portland's now historic Hollywood Theatre.
"While certainly never as large or as grand as the Portland Hotel, Benson Hotel, or the Multnomah Hotel, the Cornelius has stood for more than 100 years as a testament to Portland’s aspirations as a growing city after the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition," writes the Architectural Heritage Center's Val Ballestrem on the Portland Preservation blog.
As recently as 2008, TMT Development had eyes the Cornelius for a boutique hotel conversion, and it's easy to see why. The Cornelius is ideally situated for taking advantage of downtown Portland as a tourist; it's less than half a block from the city's biggest cart pod area, with attractions like Powell's Books, the Portland Art Museum, and Pioneer Courthouse Square all within just a few minutes' stroll. But the hotel plan fell through during the Great Recession, and more recently TMT has unsuccessfully sought to partner with the city to make the building a haven for homeless veterans.
"We've been working with (the city) for the last several years so we can maintain the building until we can get a tenant that's a good user," TMT President Vanessa Sturgeon told The Oregonian's Elliot Njus, but "a lot of smart developers haven't been able to find a way to make this project pencil."
TMT is the company behind the disastrous Park Avenue West project, an intended mixed-use tower that has instead languished for years as a hole in the ground, its construction halted in the early stages of the first Obama administration. Although TMT's founder, Tom Moyer, has been responsible for a host of Portland buildings including the Fox Tower, its reputation has already been substantially decimated by the inability to climb out of its Park Avenue West hole.
But while the Cornelius admittedly has its troubles, with fire and water damage helping to deliver a dreaded "U" sign in its windows marking it as unsafe amidst numerous code violations, demolishing it would be a further blight on this developer's record.
Moyer once was part of an effort to connect the North and South Park Blocks, which would have created one long strip of downtown green space, comparable to Barcelona's Las Ramblas, but also would have knocked down several historic buildings in its path. It's as if TMT is trying to rekindle that defeated effort by single-handedly demolishing the historic architecture of Park Avenue.
One can't make a direct comparison between the Culver building's successful renovation and the Cornelius Hotel's unsuccessful one, for the two buildings had different sets of conditions - different levels of disrepair. It's probably more expensive to restore the Cornelius with its bigger scale and bigger structural problems. Even so, TMT bought the Cornelius for just $2.4 million back in 2002. Even if restoring the building requires capital the company itself doesn't have or can't borrow, wouldn't the seven stories of units provide more than that investment in continuing revenue once it's restored?
That said, there may still be hope for the homeless veterans' housing. Central City Concern and Guardian Development, the organizations partnering on that plan, saw their efforts fizzle after losing out on funds from the Portland Housing Bureau. But according to Njus's story, there are other funds available: $2.4 million in federal historic tax credits; $850,000 in contributions from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and $7.8 million from the sale of federal low income housing tax credits.
All of which is plenty of reason for the City Council to deny TMT Development's demolition request; the National Register listing means Council has a chance to decide its fate. Those interested in seeing the building saved would be advised to contact Council members including Steve Novick, Nick Fish, Dan Saltzman, Amanda Fritz, and Mayor Charlie Hales.
Nearly every time I write a post about threats to a historic building, some exasperated reader leaves a comment reminding me/us that we can't expect the city to retain every old structure. It's naive and pointless, the argument goes, to expect aging architecture to always pencil out as a worthwhile contemporary investment. Maybe that's true as an abstract idea - we can't treat architecture as charity, or every old design as a masterpiece or signifier of history. And indeed, Portland will go on just fine if the Cornelius meets the wrecking ball. Yet conversely, TMT Development can't expect one to look upon their latest downtown development disaster and encourage more decimation. Nor can one look out from the deck of the Culver building a few short blocks away without seeing the value in our fabric of old buildings: a value in the cultural vitality they bring and, in turn, the economics that follow.