BY BRIAN LIBBY
There were no werewolves (or "Blutbaden") spotted on our journey, no witches ("Hexenbiester") or wild boars ("Bauerschwein"). The closest we got were lots of people with beards and tattoos. But after an afternoon of driving to Portland sites from the NBC series Grimm, one is reminded that while the city is a constellation of both historic and modern places, it is often our aging architecture that stands out to location scouts and directors.
With two seasons in the can and a third on the way, Grimm has now filmed all over the Portland metro area - too many sites to visit in a few hours. But on my girlfriend's birthday recently, she (an enthusiasic fan of the show) chose a series of places to visit. As we did, even though the locations were diverse, they collectively painted a portrait of Portland as both newer and older than it really is, both smaller and bigger: a capitol of atmosphere where the old Craftsman bungalows protect us from creatures lurking behind abandoned industrial plants and under bridges, but with enough glassy condos to house the upper income brackets.
"Portland’s a great part of the show," says David Greenwalt, one of Grimm's executive producers, in a documentary included with the first-season DVD. "It’s almost like another character. When we wrote the script we wrote it for Portland, because it reminded us of the Black Forest in Germany. You have all these great trees and rivers and waterfalls, and yet you also have a nice downtown and kind of a modern thing. And so many of the homes in Portland look like they’re right out of a story book."
"The setting is so imperative to Grimm," adds David Giuntoli, the show's star. "It adds something that any other city in America can not do."
One of our first stops was The Fields Neighborhood Park, on the Pearl District's northern edge near the Fremont Bridge. It officially opened only a few weeks ago, in May, but has existed as a grassy open lot for considerably longer. Actually, though, the park was just a background to Centennial Mills, the cluster of 11 interconnected buildings on Naito Parkway between the Broadway and Fremont bridges.
When the complex's first four buildings opened in 1910 as Crown Mills, clipper ships would dock there, to have griain turned into flour. The complex thrived and even expanded into the 1940s and '50s, but emptied in the 1970s and when grain processing began shifting overseas. For many years, city leaders have sought to redevelop the site with some combination of retail, commercial and residential. But a city-sponsored 2008 development competition fell through before the winning developer, Lab Holding, could begin construction. Today local developer Harsch is spearheading a new effort, but has not yet committed to any actual renovation work. After all, besides the crumbling condition of many of the buildings, there's a Portland Police horse paddock next door that, unless it moves away, effectively hampers Centennial Mills from connecting to the existing urban fabric.
Randy Gragg, the former Oregonian architecture and Portland Monthly editor in chief, has even called for a less preservationist-minded approach. "With all due respect to those grand visions, I hereby cast an alternative vote: do as little as possible—at least for now," he wrote in a recent Editor's Letter. "Sure, save a building or two (or maybe even just a wall) as a nod to history and texture. Otherwise, clear the site and harvest the original construction’s bounteous old-growth lumber. Then, maybe put up some temporary structures for creative endeavors: tech incubators, flexible “makers” factories, artists studios, or all of the above, that can painlessly vanish in a decade or so." Gragg also argues that the most important aspect of Centennial Mills is how it extends over the water, giving Portland the potential for a unique new destination.
It may be true that there are significant practical barriers to keeping Centennial Mills and finding a way for it to thrive. There's probably something to Randy's argument that further development of the land around the site would help it, and that the development is big enough, including several later structures without much historical value, that some of it could be dismantled. A hybrid of old and new spaces could be particuarly strong.
Even so, I'd strongly favor keeping the overwhelming majority of Centennial Mills. This is some of the only remaining architecture of Portland's formerly working waterfront of the early 20th century. Centennial Mills also comprises virtually the only old architecture visible when you're standing at The Fields park, which makes it stand out all the more. Clearly that's what interested Grimm's producers and location scouts when they filmed at The Fields: not becuase some landscaping and seats have been added to the grassy land here, but becuase there was something mysterious and full of stories rising at the riverfront. Whatever difficulty is encountered restoring Centennial Mills will be worth it.
While in the Pearl, we also stopped at a vacant parcel of land just a few hundred yards west of the Fremont Bridge; on the show, this is the location of Aunt Marie's trailer. According to an extensive online map of Grimm locations, an exterior scene from another episode was shot here. Another scene was shot at Slabtown on 16th and Marshall. Not far to the west, the Bridgeport and Pinnacle condo buildings have figured on the show. Heading further west, there are three locations around another historic building, Montgomery Park.
And of course there are clusters downtown, such as around the west side of the Burnside Bridge, be it Ankeny Plaza just south of the bridge or several different scenes shot just around NW Second and Couch alone. Old Town, with its mythology of Shanghai tunnels and old storefront buildings amongst the vacant lots, is perfect for this show: both cramped and expansive. The show has also made use of the marina south of the Hawthorne Bridge at Riverplace, and I think in general movies and TV shows shot here have made marinas seem like more important standout places than perhaps locals might. Then again, most of us don't own boats.
When perusing the maps of Season 1 and Season 2 of Grimm locations, it becomes clearer that while the show has filmed all over town and beyond, there are certain areas that have been returned to numerous times. One such cluster is in St. Johns near its eponomous bridge. At least one scene has been filmed in Cathedral Park, but there is also the North Police Precinct, a former city hall for St. Johns before it was incorporated into Portland.
Built in 1907 in the Beaux Arts style, the building has a grand presence with Roman Columns out front. As Bart King writes in his Architectural Guidebook to Portland, it "would not look out of place on a Lilliputian Wall Street."
As handsome as the precinct building is on the outside, it's the interior that's used for Grimm shooting. On the show, the building used for exterior shots of police headquarters is the US Customs House in the Pearl District. Today the city's real police force operates from the Justice Center office building downtown, a relatively unremarkable circa-1983 modernist building. So why the older buildings on the show? It seems part of a collective effort, probably unwittingly so, to portray Portland as having a kind of old soul. We're a West Coast city, and therefore not in possession of as many old buildings as cities on the East Coast; but the show is about supernatural forces, ones dating back thousands of years. With its overcast skies and surrounding forests, Portland has the atmosphere the producers want, but the idea of the show, even though it's set here, seems to be one with further ties back into Western history and folklore.
Not every location in Grimm is utterly unique. Every city has its ubiquitous banal necessities: battery shops, gas stations, grocery stores. Yet it's fun to see other patterns or types of structures and places emerge. Besides the geographical clusters, the show returns time after time to an eclectic array of historic houses large and small, be they tiny bungalows or Tudor mansions or Victorians like the Gustav Freiwald House. And then there are industrial facilities. Ross Island Sand & Gravel's facility on the east bank of the Willamette has appeared on Grimm, for example, as has the Blue Heron Paper Mill to the South in Oregon City, and the Bull Run Power Station near Sandy (covered in a previous post).
Several years ago, one of my first published architecture stories was about two Portland-based location scout for Hollywood TV shows, movies and commercials. Between them, they'd scouted for films by David Fincher, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone and many others. "Things that are beautiful aren't necessarily filmable," one scout, Beth Milnick, told me. "There's an elegant simplicity in most great locations." At the same time, scout Sarah Burton added, directors asked her to be on the lookout for "architecture that stands out in strange ways."
That starts to get at what I find interesting about a show like Grimm, Portlandia or Leverage filming in the city for years at at time: the chance to see a sort of curated selection of Portland images, not only its esteemed and stately buildings but also its most interesting grittier sides: its places on the margins -- and how these buildings and landscapes tell a story of what the shows' makers from other places see as unique backdrops for its retold fairy tales. After all, I haven't seen any Grimm episodes take place at Applebees. Particularly Grimm and Portlandia in how they portray the city and mine it for locations seem to be arguments for keeping the city not just weird, as the bumper sticker says, but full of memorable places. Their very presence here could be seen as validation that above all, fighting sameness has not only cultural but economic value.