BY BRIAN LIBBY
Someday when we look back on this era, as much as any new construction the architectural legacy of the early 2000s may be the renovation and reimagination of old industrial buildings and warehouses. There are prominent internationally known examples like Tate Modern museum in London emerging from the former Bankside power station, and countless local examples from the past decade such as the Olympic Mills Commerce Center in the Central Eastside, the Ford Building on Southeast Division, and the Leftbank building on Northeast Broadway. We can now add to Portland's collection a warehouse conversion at 2181 NW Nicolai Street.
Originally constructed in 1910, the four-story, red brick warehouse has a mammoth presence with more than 100,000 square feet of space. The building stored steel being produced at a rolling mill next door; it's ideally situated for industry along the railroad tracks and only a few blocks from riverfront port area. But today, it lies just outside the edge of the Pearl District with its condos, parks and restaurants, so it may be or become "the beacon of a new chapter in the development of the industrial area", as Lindsey O'Brien wrote in last week's Daily Journal of Commerce. After purchasing the vacant building last year, developer Brian Faherty signed on Schoolhouse Electric & Supply as and Ristretto Roasters as ground-floor tenants with creative companies like Egg Press nesting upstairs.
It's clear as one walks into the adjoining Schoolhouse/Ristretto spaces that the building intends to be of the Pearl and no longer of the industrial waterfront. Chic furniture and light fixtures fill from the tall-ceilinged, wood-festooned space, and the smell of espresso wafts through the air. Yet outside the building, the setting is still one seemingly for longshoremen more than baristas. Big trucks are the majority of the traffic, and surrounding businesses are also as yet-ungentrified.
Even so, Faherty is making a smart investment, if not financially than at least architecturally - but in the long run probably both. Maybe the riverfront here is still cordoned off with barbed wire fence and the only Subaru Outbacks are ones being unloaded as cargo rather than being driven to McMenamins brewpubs. Yet, with the Fremont Bridge towering nearby over the railroad tracks, it's not hard to imagine the longshoremen moving upstream before long.
And even aside from speculations about the future of the Northwest Portland industrial area, the building itself is worth celebrating and preserving. This isn't our parents' or grandparents' warehouses of thin aluminum and without reason for a second glance. This building, whatever it's called (I can only assume somewhere a marketing person is working on this), feels incredibly solid, with not only the beauty of its patina and age but the blend of spatial grandness and material warmth engendered inside and out. This is a structure made of enduring and fundamental materials: red brick and natural wood.
It's not easy to at once be monumental and modest architecture, wide open and cozy. Or to be flexible enough to endure amidst not only changing eras but purposes. The newer Pearl District condos nearby, for example, will someday be harder to convert because they lack the same inherent flexibility. I can't help but wonder if a century from now the early-21st century condo and office buidings will be gone and this early 20th century Nicolai Street warehouse will still be going strong.