BY BRIAN LIBBY
In late March, word came (via The Business Journal) that St. Mary’s Academy, the Catholic girls’ high school downtown along SW Sixth Avenue, is acquiring the former University Station post office building for expansion of its campus.
Most people would not think twice about the architectural significance of the recently abandoned postal station, a drab two-story structure with an adjacent surface parking lot. Yet the building, in its original form dating to 1948, was once a little modernist gem. And while chances are good that St. Mary’s would demolish the post office building, a look into its past, both aesthetically and historically, might prompt the school to consider restoration over the wrecking ball – to resurrect instead of condemn, you might say.
Originally known as the Francis Auto Sales building, it was one of the first modernist buildings in town completed after World War II. Designed by Richard Sundeleaf, it was constructed within a year of Pietro Belluschi’s internationally renowned Commonwealth Building, the first skyscraper in the United States with a glass and aluminum curtain wall (often credited as “America’s first modern office building”). And looking at original photos of the auto dealership, one can see the same international style simply applied at a smaller scale.
Although Sundeleaf is probably best known today for a plethora of homes in Lake Oswego and Portland from the 1920s-40s drawing from English arts & crafts style, he had a kind of parallel career as the city’s foremost practitioner of streamline moderne industrial and commercial buildings. Particularly during the Great Depression, people wanted homes drawing from traditional architectural styles, providing a sense of continuity in times of uncertainty and upheaval. But whether it was the Oregon Portland Cement Company building in the Central Eastside, or the Bearing Service Company building in Northwest, or the Jantzen Building off Northeast Sandy Boulevard, Sundeleaf had a gift for commercial and industrial buildings that felt elegant even in their utilitarian, stripped-down style.
“Along with the Equitable Building [Pietro Belluschi], Sundeleaf’s car dealership was one of the city’s first glass boxes…[Sundeleaf’s] pièce de résistance,” write Gideon Bosker and Lena Lencek in Frozen Music: A History of Portland Architecture. Sundeleaf’s Francis and Hopkins Motors Showroom, they add, “brought Portlanders a touch of the glamorous ‘World of Tomorrow’ that the New York World’s Fair had promised them in 1939. It was Sundeleaf’s “pièce de résistance.” When the building was completed, a headline in The Oregonian called Francis and Hopkins Motors ‘The West’s Most Modern Automotive Establishment.’”
“Crossing the transparent angularity of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion with the functional honesty of Loewy’s International Harvester Servicenter, Sundeleaf produced a design that pushed the automobile display window into the third dimension,” Bosker and Lencek continue. “Except for his signature rounded columns at the street elevation and the metal railing along the roof, every line of Francis and Hopkins Motors had been slicked down, smoothed over and modernized.”
Chances are good that if St. Mary’s is going to purchase and redevelop a block-sized parcel of prime downtown real estate, they’re seeking more than just this two-story building that has been altered enough to make Sundeleaf’s elegant glass box something decidedly more banal. But restoring the Francis and Hopkins building to its original design would not only be a laudatory act of historic preservation; it would also give the school, as the building’s occupant, a prominent new face. The school’s current home, a brick fortress diagonally across Sixth Avenue from the post office/Francis Auto Sales building, is not the most inviting building. It’s been built onto numerous times and, though possessing an early 20th century modern style itself, it lacks much of any connection to the streetscape outside. Having a glassy, transparent architectural space, where passers by can get a sense of the classes and activities inside, could help promote St. Mary’s and make it feel part of downtown life rather than just a school that happens to be downtown. Most owners would tear this building down, but here’s hoping St. Mary’s answers to a higher authority.